AGR's High Press: How a new-look midfield setup allowed Halifax Wanderers to nab first win of 2023
It was a weekend of firsts in this 2023 CPL season.
A first win for the Halifax Wanderers, a first weekend without a draw, a first brace (of which there were ironically two) - a few quirky milestones were hit this weekend in CPL play.
Along with a tectonic top-of-the-table clash that lived up to its billing, and a continued surge from a couple of teams that are starting to heat up, that all made for an entertaining week of action across the board.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as a few teams continued downward slides, while a third team lost a battle to maintain consistency, but overall it was an entertaining matchday from a neutral perspective given some of the movement that the standings saw off the back of it.
All of a sudden, with the 10-game mark approaching for most teams, we’re getting a clear idea of what teams are at this stage of their lifecycle. Of course, they’re far from done, with there still being a lot of soccer to be played, but it certainly gives an idea of who’s on the right track, and who might need a bit of a reset.
Speaking of, here’s a look back at the weekend that was in the CPL from a tactical perspective, in the latest edition of the high press.
How Halifax claimed their first win of 2023:
It was a question that the Halifax Wanderers just couldn’t escape - when would they claim that first win of 2023?
In their first season under new head coach Patrice Gheisar, they’d played well through eight games, but despite that, weren’t able to turn any of that into some wins.
They were hardly losing, to be fair, sitting with six draws and two losses, but there was a feeling that they’d definitely left some points on the table, especially after squandering four leads in their first five games.
Yet, as they showed in away draws to Forge, Cavalry, Valour and Pacific, who are four of the toughest teams to play on the road in the CPL, this Wanderers team had certainly shown that they were close to making something happen.
A young side, perhaps this team’s lack of professional experience was playing a role early on in those games, as between Gheisar and several of his players, many of them were undertaking their first experiences as professionals.
Especially as they faced a brutal schedule to start the season, playing six of their first eight games away from home, which only accelerated that learning process, as they quickly got exposed to the tough travel that the CPL can offer.
But despite that, Gheisar and his charges stayed resolute. Known as a coach who develops talent, given that he’d seen the likes of Alistair Johnston, Ryan Raposo, Dayne St.Clair, Kamal Miller and more in his time as an assistant and head coach of Vaughan Azzurri from 2014 to 2022, he felt that his team was responding to their learnings.
And turns out, he’d be rewarded for his patience, as they finally returned home this past weekend to face Valour. There, a tough match awaited them, as Valour had only lost one game all season, which came against Forge, and had proven to be a frustrating team to play against.
At the same time, they were also a team that was winless in seven, and felt like they’d been trending in the wrong direction, which was a key benefit for the Wanderers.
Therefore, as Halifax took the field at Wanderers Grounds on Saturday, they looked like a team that was ready to take care of business, finally giving something to their always-loyal and loud faithful to cheer about.
Which, to their credit, they’d get to do a lot of on the day, as the Wanderers stormed out to a nearly flawless performance across the board.
They had an early scare, as Valour struck the post within two minutes, but from that point on, it was all one-way traffic from the Wanderers.
On the ball, they were patient and precise, eager to knock the ball around and make Valour work, completing 87.7% of their passes and holding 56.1% of possession. Despite the grass being a little slicker than usual at Wanderers Grounds, something that Valour struggled with, the Wanderers did well to build from back to front, controlling the tempo of the game.
From there, they did well to find pockets of space in the final third, something in which Aidan Daniels thrived, in particular. After not starting the last two games, Daniels was a man possessed on the ball, finishing with six dribbles, 10 passes into the final third, and two chances created (including one big chance).
Then, from there, they got something they hadn’t had enough of all season, and that was offensive involvement from their midfielders, as Callum Watson was very aggressive in making late runs into the final third.
Usually set up in 3-5-1-1 in possession, the Wanderers have preferred to use their midfielders as orchestrators, with their wing backs being tasked with providing width. From there, the front two usually play off each other, with the deeper attacker (often Daniels or Thomas Giraldo) tasked with playing between the lines, while the other (usually Théo Collomb, Kosi Nwanfarso, Tiago Coimbra or Massimo Ferrin) plays as more of a striker.
This time, however, they kept a similar set-up, but made it more of a 3-1-4-2, as they had Mo Omar sitting a little deeper in midfield as a #6, sending Watson and Callegari forward as #8s.
(Halifax's average positions on the ball from this game via OPTA)
There, that allowed Watson to make those dangerous late runs, which pushed Valour back, freeing up space for Daniels to play between the lines. Along with the ability to get Callegari on the ball higher up the field, a move that also paid off given that he nabbed an assist, his second of the season, those tweaks paid off on multiple fronts.
GOAL 🌊🌊@HFXWanderersFC double their lead against @ValourFootball and it's Callum Watson scoring his second of the match!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 10, 2023
He is the first player to score a brace this season and the Wanderers now lead 2-0!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/d9wjtdw6pn
Through all of that, it gave them far more penetration into dangerous areas, too, reflected in the fact that they finished with 33 touches in Valour’s box, eight shots inside the box, seven shots on target and three big chances.
Then, off the ball, they were arguably even better, as well.
By having Watson and Callegari in those #8 roles, they did a great job of helping the Wanderers find their shape off the ball, either dropping back in transition moments, or activating aggressive midfield pressure when Valour decided to play around the back.
Because of that, they completely dominated the midfield off the ball, as they managed to shut down nearly everything that Valour tried to do in that area.
Given how good Valour has been in midfield this season, that’s no small feat, yet shows the roles that Omar, Callegari and Watson played off the ball.
Along with the commitment to getting behind the ball from everyone else, it allowed them to completely keep Valour quiet, as they only generated 0.12 xG on four shots, and had just 12 touches in Halifax’s box.
Safe to say, that’s a pretty dominant performance at both ends of the field, allowing the Wanderers to grab that first victory.
(The xG map from this game via OPTA, with Halifax in black, showcasing their dominance in both boxes)
Now, it’ll be interesting to see how they build off that.
As reflected in the stats, they were due a breakthrough, given that they were underperforming their xG by over four goals heading into this game, but it also felt they weren’t getting as much going in the attack as they should.
But by potentially playing with that 3-4-1-2 with Callegari higher up the pitch, however, paired with any one of Watson, Daniels, or Thomas Giraldo at the #8, that should help them immensely on the ball going forward.
From there, the idea of playing Omar or Andre Rampersad as the #6 is key, as Omar was excellent on both sides of the ball in this game. In particular, that could be a move to revive Rampersad’s season, as the longtime Wanderers veteran and captain has been playing as more of an #8 in front of Callegari as a #6, a role that hasn’t fully suited him.
Always best as a #6, Rampersad would slot in perfectly where Omar was for this game, allowing him to focus on what he does best - to destroy and progress from deeper positions. Especially if Callegari is comfortable higher up the field, anyways, given his immense skill on the ball, it makes sense to make that tweak (and given Callegari’s defensive skills you don’t lose much in midfield off the ball either by making that swap).
From there, it feels like those tweaks should put everything into place, as the defenders had been doing well in everything except transition moments, while the attackers had just needed a bit more support.
With these tweaks, both of those problems can be fixed, making it something that Gheisar will be sure to ponder going forward.
Now, at least, he can do that with a win in his back pocket, too.
Along with a home-heavy schedule over the next little while, these Wanderers could be set to make a steady climb up the table over the next month if they build off this, so keep an eye on them going forward.
Pacific edges Forge in tactical heavyweight clash:
My game to watch this week, Forge and Pacific certainly lived up to that billing, in what ended up being a fascinating tactical battle.
In particular, there was one big thing that stood out from this game, as head coaches Bobby Smyrniotis and James Merriman decided to go for duelling back threes in possession.
Something that Smyrniotis always does with Forge, it’s been something we don’t often see from Pacific, except in moments.
Yet, due to a strong performance from 19-year-old centre back Eric Lajuensse at left back against Vancouver FC the week prior, Merriman decided to keep him in that position, with a bit of a modified role on the ball.
Instead of playing as more of a cautious left back in a back four, he ended up tucking inside with centre backs Amer Đidić and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère to form a back three on the ball, as full back Kunle Dada-Luke shifted up to right wing back while winger Josh Heard tucked into a left wing back position.
From there, that allowed Easton Ongaro and Adonijah Reid to play up front in a strike partnership, with Ongaro playing as more of the traditional #9, allowing Reid to roam around underneath as he does so well.
(Pacific's average positions on the ball from this game via OPTA)
That tweak was key for Pacific, as that allowed them to be a lot more press-resistant on the ball, but also direct if need be, as Ongaro’s height allowed him to contest a lot of Pacific aerials. He won a few of them, too, sitting three for three in that category, but even did well to force Forge to head several uncontested balls into midfield, in which Pacific won a lot of second balls thanks to Manny Aparicio and Steffan Yeates playing as more of an advanced #8s.
Those shifts had an impact, too, as they seemed to catch Forge by surprise, especially in the second half.
Forge had come out strong in the first half, controlling a lot of possession, but had struggled to break down Pacific. They weren’t threatened by Pacific (the first half xG was 0.18-0.12 for Forge), but that put them in a good position as the second half neared.
There, however, it’d be all Pacific. Having grown into the game with their changes, they really then started to take over once they brought in Sean Young and Ayman Sellouf as subs in the 60th minute, as well.
With Sellouf playing far more aggressively offensively in Heard’s position, and Young slotting in as a bit more of a creator on the ball, Pacific really started to ping the ball around, with Young, Aparicio, Yeates, Sellouf and Reid combining for some nice sequences.
From there, they then brought in Djenairo Daniels for Easton Ongaro, and they took a further step forward, really starting to push Forge back.
Because of that, while their goal eventually came off a big mix-up from Forge veterans Dominic Samuel and Triston Henry that they’ll want back, Forge can’t say Pacific wasn’t pushing the play towards their end. Given that Pacific’s second-half xG was 1.51 to 0.27, as they outshot Forge 14-5, they were dominant, with their goal just being a reward for that.
GOAL 🔱@Pacificfccpl open the scoring against @ForgeFCHamilton after a disaster at the back leads to a tap in for Djenairo Daniels!— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 11, 2023
The Tridents take a late 1-0 lead in Hamilton!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/iyeMMxiSyV
Yet, that has just been what this Pacific team has been doing this season. They hardly give up much cheaply defensively, they generate chances by the boatload, and they can destabilize games with the sheer number of quality substitutes that they can bring into a game.
Then, as they showed in this game, they can also be flexible tactically, too, allowing them to catch teams by surprise.
That’s why they now lead the league, sitting with 5W-3D-1L on the year, undefeated in their last six games (4W-2D), and don’t look like they’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
As for Forge, it was another quietly worrying performance, especially at home, where they’ve only won once in five games there this season.
Given that they’ve only claimed five points in their last five games, including one in their last three, it’s been a tough patch for this side, which will make it interesting to see how they respond to that going forward.
Vancouver’s growing pains continue against Cavalry:
After a bright start to the season, Vancouver FC has been slowly coming down to earth the last few weeks.
Doing well to pick up a win in just their second-ever CPL game, and sitting with five points through their first four games, it had felt like they were working on an accelerated timeline.
Their defence was doing its job (four goals against in four games), the offence was slowly picking up steam (four goals in four games), and they were overall a tough and annoying team to play against.
Since then, however, it’s been tough sledding for the league’s newest team. A 5-0 loss at home to Atlético Ottawa came the week after, and while they followed it up with 0-0 draws away to Forge and at home to Valour, a 6-3 home loss to Pacific erased the impact of those results.
Now, their misery was further compounded this past weekend, as they fell 3-1 to Cavalry, in what was a dominant performance from the hosts.
Plus, more frustratingly, was that they started the match so well, too, as Shaan Hundal scored his fifth goal (tied for the CPL lead) in the fourth minute after a Cavalry turnover. Given that the only time they’d scored first all season was their win against York, that was a positive sign for Vancouver, if they could hold on.
Unfortunately, that would not be the case, as Myer Bevan claimed a brace for Cavalry with goals in the 10th and 21st minute, before Sergio Camargo scored in the 28th minute after Bevan’s hat trick attempt hit the crossbar and fell to Cavalry’s #10 for an easy header.
GOAL🐎🐎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 11, 2023
Myer Bevan scores his second of the match finishing off a well worked team goal to give @CPLCavalryFC a 2-1 lead over @vanfootballclub
Bevan is now tied with Hundal as the #CanPL top scorer with 5 goals!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/3SjecXcPC0
GOAL🐎🐎🐎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 11, 2023
Just like that the Cavs are flying!! Sergio Camargo scores a simple header to give @CPLCavalryFC a 3-1 lead over @vanfootballclub
Could we see a repeat of last week?🤔
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/xnMK45GRqB
From there, Cavalry was in cruise control the rest of the way, allowing them to grab the victory, further compounding Vancouver’s misery.
Yet, it was another glaring example of what has been clear over the last few weeks - this team needs midfield help, as it’s no coincidence that these struggles started when Kadin Chung got injured against Ottawa.
Having done well to hit the ground quickly as he adjusted to going from a full back to a midfielder, his absence has created a big hole for Vancouver, one that they’ve struggled to fill since his injury.
From trying to play a 4-2-3-1 with an extra attacking player, to slotting centre backs Ibrahim Bakare and Rocco Romeo in as #6’s, nothing seems to be working for Vancouver in the middle right now, on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, when they’re organized, they’re tough to beat, but as seen in those pair of 0-0 draws, that can come at the sacrifice of their attack. Then, if they open things up, they can score, as shown in their 6-3 loss to Pacific, but that came at the expense of their defence.
What they need is a midfielder who can tie that all together, and through the four-and-a-half games that he’s missed, it’s been clear to see how important Chung was in that regard, making it frustrating for Vancouver that he’s still going to be out for a while after injuring his collarbone.
Because of that, figuring out that midfield balance has to be a priority. Between Callum Irving in goal, and the likes of Romeo and Bakare at the back, they’ve got a solid defensive unit when organized.
Then, in the attack, they’ve actually got a pretty good formula going on, as Hundal is proving to be an excellent pick-up given that he’s tied for the league lead in goals despite playing on the lowest-scoring offence, while Gael Sandoval and Gabriel Bitar continue to show great creativity and are only building their chemistry.
GOAL 🦅@vanfootballclub with the early lead!👀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 11, 2023
Shaan Hundal takes the #CanPL scoring lead once again with his 5th goal of the season. It ended up being a simple finish beating @CPLCavalryFC's Marco Carducci. pic.twitter.com/vjvmrYYXvu
Along with 16-year-old TJ Tahid, who has adjusted nicely to the CPL, becoming a starter recently, there are pieces there, as well.
Now, they’ll need to tie it together in midfield, or if not games like this Cavalry one where they struggled on both sides of the ball (especially defensively) will become far too common.
When you allow 3.03 non-penalty xG on just 14 shots, including a whopping four big chances, you won’t win many games, but it shows the importance of a midfield that keeps opposing attackers from breaking through and getting high-quality looks as Cavalry did in this game.
Alex’s notepad: Quick thoughts around the CPL
- It was another weekend, another win for York United, who are on fire at the moment, sitting with 13 points in their last five games. It wasn’t their greatest performance against Ottawa, who had several chances to pull away and win it, but York held on, and in the end got the win, even despite playing shorthanded (as they left out several of their players who chose not to wear the club’s special kit for the club’s Pride night, something that York deserves immense credit for how they handled, doing well to amplify the importance and awareness on why Pride Night’s can be so important in sport).
- Plus, it’s huge news to see that the scorer of York’s winner was none other than Osaze De Rosario, who in the 10th game of the season, finally scored (and ripped out his dad’s iconic “Shake N Bake” celebration). Given that York had been winning while he wasn’t scoring, watch out if he gets hot.
- Despite allowing more than one goal in a game just once this season, that was only Pacific’s second clean sheet of the CPL season, and a first for Kieran Baskett in CPL play, who has taken over the goal for them as of late. Given how good he’s been for them, bringing a calming presence to their already-solid defensive unit, one would expect it to be the first of many for him, too.
- Usually one to not get too high or too low after performances, it was telling to hear Valour’s head coach, Phil Dos Santos, call out his team for their play in Halifax, saying that not enough players showed up. Given how they usually play at their best when they’re committed as a team, it was always going to be tough to win with players struggling to put in the effort required on both sides of the ball as was the case in this Halifax clash. As a result, they now remain winless in eight after winning their opening game, and will need to shape up quickly with Forge coming to town this week.
- Cavalry’s Myer Bevan had a strong performance on the weekend, as he shot up into a tie with Shaan Hundal atop the golden boot race. He isn’t the flashiest, fastest or biggest striker, but he just scores goals, and credit has to be given to him for that. There was a lot to like about his team’s overall performance, too - they were able to win despite a rare quieter game from Ali Musse, came from behind for only the second time this season to grab points, and looked good in a back three once again. As a result, they’ve continued their quiet climb up the table.
- Atlético Ottawa’s battle for consistency raged on, as they fell to York in a game they probably should’ve won, but finishing let them down on the day. Zach Verhoven looked good in a rare start, however, scoring a great goal, although he probably could’ve had another one and an assist or two given some of the chances he got. As a result, Ottawa allowed York to hang around, and that’s how they ended up getting zero points out of a game they easily could’ve won.
Player of the Matchday: Callum Watson
Watson was one for firsts this weekend, as he scored the CPL’s first brace of 2023 to help the Wanderers get their first win of the season.
Along with a solid performance defensively, it was a good showing from the Wanderers midfielder, making him an easy choice for Player of the Week.
Goal of the Week: Zach Verhoven
In terms of strikes, it doesn’t get much better than this from Verhoven, who did well to cut inside and absolutely whack the ball into the top corner with venom.
It’s not easy to hit a knuckleball on the run from that distance, and he executed the technique perfectly, scoring a pretty memorable goal even if it didn’t help his team claim the win in the end.
GOAL 🏡— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 9, 2023
ANOTHER #CanPL BANGER!! @atletiOttawa open the scoring vs. @yorkutdfc and it's Zach Verhoven who scores a beauty!🔥
Ottleti take the early 1-0 lead!
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/xPDSEQWZTo
You gotta see this: Gael Sandoval’s free-kick wall
Quickly, Vancouver FC’s Gael Sandoval is becoming one to watch for many reasons.
On the ball, he has a knack for making things happen, sitting with one goal and two assists, and probably has another gear still to hit there as he works up to full fitness.
Off the ball, he’s also incredibly animated when he plays, and has this nonchalant way of toeing the line. Just look at how he got an Atlético Ottawa coach sent off a few weeks prior in an incident that led to a melee, one that Sandoval quietly watched from a seat atop the scorers' table, as an example.
And he continued that against Cavalry, as he somehow managed to gain a couple of feet of distance between him and an Ali Musse free kick thanks to an interesting wall technique.
Nearly paid off for him, too, showing how well he can toe that line.
What I’m watching this week: Valour vs Forge
A tough one to pick this week, given that first-place Pacific hosts second-place York (imagine writing that down after week three), while Wanderers vs Cavalry and Ottawa vs Vancouver have intrigue given past matchups, Valour vs Forge is my pick for week 9.
An entertaining battle the first time these teams met, as Forge beat Valour 3-2 in a wide-open affair, it’ll be interesting to see what this rematch has in store.
Especially given that both teams are struggling right now in league play, this could be a good chance for either side to hit the reset button in that regard.
Therefore, look for Valour to be organized and disciplined in this game, as they try to pull a page out of their book from last year, when they beat Forge 1-0 twice at home.
As for Forge, they’ll look to return to what works for them, especially offensively, as they try to put this rough patch behind them with a big road victory (where they’ve got three wins and one draw this season).