Pacific FC 2 – 2 York9 FC: Brennan switches to a back four to deal with Pacific’s press

An interesting match ended even after York9 FC fought back from a two goal deficit thanks to a formation change and set pieces.

Both teams press high

Each side had a game plan of pressing their opposition high up the pitch and they both did it effectively. Pacific FC, in particular, used their wingers to target York9’s outside centre backs. The purpose of this press wasn’t simply to force York9 into long balls, but to win the ball very high up the pitch in dangerous areas, which the hosts managed to do a few times in the first half.

Pacific vs York, 20190518
Fisk and Hernandez pressed Gogarty and Springer when York had the ball. Both sets of wide players swapped through out the first half.

Jim Brennan’s side also pressed high and they found much success, as well. Pacific FC tried to play through the middle at times, but that area was often bypassed in favour of long clearances in order to avoid losing the ball, although some of the clearances from Pacific’s centre backs were poor and led to good chances for York9.

This led to an odd first half where both teams were more dangerous without the ball, and where the midfield areas was continually bypassed. There were rare times where the press was avoided which led to good chances for either side. For York9 it was when Dan Gogarty moved forward into space after an over zealous attempt to win the ball to play a one-two, while for Pacific FC it was when Mark Village found Jose Hernandez in a pocket between centre back and full back. The latter opportunity led to the Ben Fisk goal and was remarkably simple: one pass from a winger to another after receiving it from his keeper.

Centre backs for either side unable to break through

A big problem for both teams was the fact that none of their centre backs were comfortable moving the ball forward. While credit must be given to the way both teams pressed, none of the five centre backs on the pitch are of the ball playing variety. For Pacific FC this is a problem because a strength of theirs appears to be their technical midfield, especially with Noah Verhoeven forward as the attacking midfielder. For York9 this is such an issue because they play with three centre backs, and if none of them can pass effectively or step forward when in possession, they are effectively playing down a man (or three) when they have the ball.

Both sides had big target men which may have been expected to relieve the pressure, and while both had their moments resetting play, the truth is that the pressing was so intense in the first half and the passing so poor, that neither striker was able to get near the ball much of the time.

York9 switch to a back four at half time

Midfielder Emilio Estevez came on for central defender Justin Springer at half time, and York9 immediately dealt with Pacific’s press much better. Brennan changed the shape from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, and Pacific’s wingers now no longer had an obvious man to press.

York 2nd Half, 20190518.jpg
How York lined up in the second half. Abzi came on for Porter part way through to give a more natural left winger.

Often times managers will decide on a back three or a back four based on the number of attackers the opposition uses, with the idea being that you want a spare man at the back. If the opposition plays with two strikers then you may play with a back three, while if they play with one striker and two high wingers, then you play with a back four. This spare man can also be used in possession, as York9 showed in this match. Whereas in the first half both Fisk and Hernandez essentially man marked Springer and Gogarty while Marcus Haber lined up against Luca Gasparotto, in the second half the Pacific wingers had to pick up the opposition’s full backs, which left one of the centre backs free against Haber.

This shape also had other benefits for York9. Wataru Murofushi was able to drop deeper to pick up the ball while putting him closer to Verhoeven when defending, and it allowed Manny Aparicio to also come deeper where he didn’t have to move outside the team’s shape to get on the ball. Probably the biggest ancillary benefit for the visitors was that it moved Rodrigo Gattas to a wider position on the right where he was appeared much more comfortable.

Conclusion

The match was a bit of a weird one in the first half where not a lot of traditional soccer was played due to each side pressing so effectively. What it did mean was that when a team did break the press of the other side then they often had a dangerous opportunity. It also meant that set pieces were going to be the best source of offensive chances for either team.

York9 FC played much better in the second half when they moved to a back four to deal with Pacific FC’s high press. This is encouraging because targeting York9’s centre backs when they have the ball seems like an easy plan against Brennan’s side. The fact that he has a plan B bodes well for his team going forward, and based on how the rest of the team functioned it is fair to wonder if it should be their plan A.

Pacific FC played with Noah Verhoeven as their attacking midfielder and he looked fairly dangerous near the opposition’s goal. The key will be getting him the ball in those areas as they often looked poor building from the back. Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, and even Mark Village (beyond the one pass to Hernandez that led to the second goal, admittedly) appear completely ineffective at moving the ball forward and splitting the lines. If Michael Silberbauer insists on playing this shape and style, and it certainly seems he does based on his decision making so far, he needs to find a better way to build from the back, else York9’s blue print of a high press will frustrate the islanders.

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Valour FC 0 – 2 Forge FC: Valour can’t deal with Forge’s pressing and counter-pressing

Forge FC thoroughly dominated another match, this time getting the result they deserved as they defeated Valour FC by two goals.

Forge FC press, Valour FC no obvious out ball

Valour vs Forge, 051719

Captain Kyle Bekker returned to the side and Forge FC continued to rotate players as Marcel Zajac and Daniel Kreutzen received starts on the left side for the visitors.

Rob Gale played with a back four, perhaps to counter Forge’s dynamic attack, but they were simply unable to deal with Forge’s pressing when in possession. The problem with this shape was that it made it even easier for Forge to press the hosts. While theoretically this should have left a centre back for Valour free, there was no obvious forward pass.  The 4-2-3-1 formation put Louis Beland-Goyette further away from the back line and didn’t allow him, or Dylan Sarcamento, to easily offer an outlet.

When Valour win the ball in their end, Forge immediately try to win the ball back

While Forge’s pressing was effective to prevent Valour’s attacks, the best source of Forge’s own attack was their counter pressing. Many times when losing the ball deep in their opponents’ half, the Hamilton outfit would immediately press the hosts and win the ball in advantageous positions. They did not do this all match, however, and were also happy to retreat into a rigid 4-1-4-1 when it was deemed necessary.

Skylar Thomas’ inability to pass forward compounds Valour’s problems

We have discussed Thomas’ strengths and limitations defensively when defending in space versus defending the box, but another big limitation was exposed in this match: his distribution. While Thomas actually strode forward impressively a couple of times to solve problems when being pressed effectively, he misplaced multiple forward passes, sometimes with little pressure on him. This was most apparent in the 33rd minute when he misplaced two passes in a row deep in his own half which led to a dangerous chance. Eventually he was punished in the second half when a poor pass was intercepted by the impressive Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and played to Tristan Borges, who scored Forge’s second goal.

While Thomas had a poor game with the ball, he wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Valour FC played an expansive shape and didn’t give Thomas, or Jordan Murrell, obvious out balls when they had the ball deep in their half. The shape was one culprit, but so was the individual play of Beland-Goyette and Sacramento, who did not show enough desire to drop deep and help in the first phase of build up.

Conclusion

Forge FC have probably played the best soccer of any team this spring, even beyond the undefeated Cavalry FC. However, the results have not been kind to them, in part due to poor individual defending and bad finishing. Against Valour they were able to shelter the former by starting their defending high up the pitch. They have a glut of gifted attackers, including the most dynamic player in the league so far in Borges, so if they can synthesize their pressing as a defending and attacking tactic they can push themselves to the next level.

One of the most interesting, and effective, aspects of Valour’s game so far this season was their ability to get a number of players in the active playing area. Their compact shape helped get multiple men around the ball which allowed for intricate interplay in offense while providing a compact shape defensively. Against Forge, however, their inability to connect the different lines offensively was their biggest problem. The addition of Marcos Bustos has given them their best play maker, but they need to figure out how to get him the ball in dangerous places with other players around him.

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Super Saturday Tidbits and Team of the Weeks (Weeks 1 and 2)

Six of the seven CPL clubs played on Super Saturday to close out the first two weeks of the season. Every club has now played at least one match, and every club has at least one point. Here are three interesting tidbits from each match, followed by my Team of the Weeks.

HFX Wanderers FC 2 – 1 Forge FC

1. Kodai Iida starts and Wanderers start to press

Stephen Hart was understandably upset after their week one loss to Pacific FC. His side didn’t press or counter at pace. Against Forge FC, he deployed Iida from the start in a 4-2-3-1 and the hosts were much more aggressive. Iida was the lone bright spot in the opener for HFX and he continued his sharp play against Forge. He won, and took, the free kick that led to the goal and his constant motor allowed him not only to find spots to pick up the ball but also to press effectively. He and Luis Perea injected much needed life into the Wanderers attack, and Hart must now decide if he can effectively utilize Iida, Perea, and Juan Gutierrez in the same line up.

2. Giuliano Frano once again takes up midfield spot in possession

Frano started as a centre back against York9 FC in week one, but an early injury to Jonathan Grant pushed him to right back. In that position, he moved inside when his team had to ball to create an extra man in midfield, allowing Kyle Bekker to stay higher up the pitch. While it was effective against York9, against HFX the lane to Frano was often blocked by either Iida or Perea. This often led to congestion in the middle and Forge lost an obvious out ball. It will be interesting to see if Frano continues at right back when Grant returns, and what Bobby Smyrniotis does with his full backs going forward.

3. Triston Henry looks uncomfortable, unless he has the ball at his feet

Modern goalkeepers are asked to be comfortable on the ball, and Henry certainly has been through the first two weeks. Smyrniotis asks his team to keep the ball and the play out from the back, and Henry has been very good at doing so. However, he hasn’t appeared confident when defending his box, particularly on crosses. The Hamilton based side have a more than capable back up in Quillan Roberts, so it will be interesting to see what happens to that competition as the season progresses.

Cavalry FC 2 – 1 York9 FC

1. Both sides line up in a 3-4-3, but the similarities end there

The first half of this match was completely one sided, with the home team simply doing everything better than their visitors. Their centre backs were progressive in possession, their wing backs pinned York’s backwards, their midfielders won the ball and recycled possession, and their front three effectively pressed York’s back line while running the channels and providing an outlet. On the other side, York9 were poor in many aspects of the game, most notably with their three forwards refusing the pick up either the centre backs of the Cavs or their wing backs when the Calgary team had the ball. Caught in that no man’s land between the outside centre backs and the wing backs, Cavalry FC easily dominated the first period.

2. Jim Brennan must decide what his best central midfield grouping is

Due to a number of reasons, Brennan changed his entire central midfield grouping from week one to week two. The pairing of Ryan Telfer and Emilio Estevez was, to put it bluntly, a failure. Wataru Murofushi came on at half time and York9 looked much better as Telfer was pushed into a wide position. Manny Aparicio is Brennan’s captain and will almost certainly start every time he is available, but the rest of the grouping is up in the air. Telfer has never played as a central midfielder as a professional and doesn’t possess any of the obvious attributes required for the position. Estevez grew into the game as it wore on and York9 were able to press and possess the ball, and he provided a fine assist for their only goal. A Jekyll & Hyde performance from York9 FC leaves Brennan with questions on who he wants to play in the middle of the park, and with that what style he wants his team to play.

3. Nathan Ingham looks comfortable, except with the ball at his feet

Ingham once again made numerous saves to keep his team in the game, and looks especially confident coming out and closing down attackers. But for all his shot stopping virtues, Ingham constantly puts his side under pressure by either mis-kicking balls into touch or making ill-advised throws to defenders who have an opposition player nearby. Compounding this problem is the fact that none of the York9 centre backs are comfortable on the ball, so Brennan’s side are at a constant disadvantage. This was especially obvious against Cavalry FC whose defenders were confident not only in passing the ball forwards, but also in stepping to midfield when needed.

Valour FC 1 – 2 FC Edmonton

1. Rob Gale continues with his 3-5-2/lopsided 4-4-2, but switches Skylar Thomas and Jordan Murrell

Gale continued his interesting shape and made one personnel change, bring Dylan Carreiro in for Nicolas Galvis, which pushed Dylan Sacramento wide left. However, his most interesting change was playing captain Murrell in the middle of the back three and Thomas on the right. The most obvious reason for this change was to match up a certain player against the opposition’s lone striker. Pacific FC started Marcus Haber up front, whose tall and immobile physical profile matches up ideally with that of Thomas’. FC Edmonton started the small and quick Randy Edwini-Bonsu who is a better match up for the more agile Murrell. It will be interesting to keep tabs on how Gale matches up against certain lone strikers, and who becomes the spare man against Cavalry FC in their next match.

2. Valour’s shape allows them to pack numbers around the ball

Gale’s line up has a lot of moving parts, and one thing it does is that it always keeps a number of players around the ball. Numerous players end up playing multiple positions, and there always seems to be an extra Valour player in the active playing area. Moving forward, it will be interesting to keep an eye on whether they can continue to play this physically demanding system, especially in a league where depth appears to be at a premium.

3. FC Edmonton solid, if unspectacular

While Valour play a complicated system with many moving parts, the Eddies played a rigid 4-2-3-1 and relied on set pieces for both their goals. This isn’t to say they were poor, though they were outplayed for the first half of the game. Edmonton have many good, archetypal pieces: tall and strong centre backs, athletic full backs, pacy attackers, and a central midfield pairing that complements each other well with a destroyer and a passer. Every CPL manager seems to be preaching playing a proactive style, but solidity and cohesion can win a lot of matches, and Edmonton seem to have the personnel to sit a bit deeper and hit teams on the break.

Team of the Weeks

TotW, 1-2

Goalkeeper: Connor James (FC Edmonton)

Made a number of saves in the first half against Valour FC, and was confident in all aspects. Rushed out well, was fine with crosses, and was comfortable in possession. Only beaten by a penalty kick. One of a number of U Sports players to play well.

Right back: Diego Gutierrez (Valour FC)  *PLAYER OF THE WEEKS*

Extremely clever player who did well in both attack and defence. The only one tasked to provide genuine width for Valour FC, but he didn’t simply provide aimless cross after cross. Combined well with Josip Golubar and made dangerous runs of his own. Provided an assist in the opener and won the penalty in the second match.

Centre back: Hendrik Starostzik (Pacific FC)

The proverbial calming influence at the back. Deal well with the attacks of HFX, but to be fair the Haligonians did not seem in the mood to attack. Adept at defending the box and even popped up with a goal from a corner.

Honourable mention: Amer Didic (FC Edmonton)

Centre back: Joel Waterman (Cavalry FC)

Defended solidly with no obvious mistakes, but most impressive with the ball at his feet. Passed forward well, and confidently stepped forward with the ball and into midfield to give his team another dimension in possession. Both he and Dominick Zator will be key for Cavalry in their outside centre back positions.

Left back: Jose Escalante (Cavalry FC)

Athletic and clever going forward. Pinned back his opposite number on the wing and basically locked down the entire side for the first half. Had a number of crosses into the box, some of them dangerous. Provided a good delivery from a corner kick to set up the second goal.

Honourable mention: Blake Smith (Pacific FC)

Centre midfield: Noah Verhoeven (Pacfic FC)

Constantly demanding the ball with his movement in deep positions. Extremely confident on the ball, although he needs to be more pragmatic in specific situations. He always provided an outlet for his back line and solved numerous problems when in possession. Set up the only goal in their win from a corner kick.

Centre midfield: Josip Golubar (Valour FC)

Combined really well with Gutierrez and constantly moved his team forward. Always in and around the box, trying to be progressive with his variety. Adept at dribbling, passing, or shooting. Unlucky not to have more end product from his first two matches.

Honourable mention: Ramon Soria (FC Edmonton)

Right wing: Tristan Borges (Forge FC)

His performance against York9 FC was the most dynamic performance of the first two weeks. Extremely unlucky not to score in either match. Constantly moved to find space and even when his ideas didn’t come off he caused many problems with his movement and ambition. The best attacker of the first two weeks.

Attacking midfield: Kodai Iida (HFX Wanderers FC)

Mobile and clever in his two matches. The lone threat in their opener, and their best player in the second match. Not only the spark plug in attack with his lateral movement and confidence to drive forward, but the first line of defence with effective pressing.

Left wing: Kadell Thomas (Forge FC)

Two goals put him in the Team of the Weeks, although there wasn’t much competition for this position. Did ok overall, finding good positions to get into for his finishes. Forge FC desperately need a penalty box player to finish their intricate moves and he fit the profile in their first two matches.

Striker: Luis Perea (HFX Wanderers FC)

A good focal point for the Atlantic side who was obviously desperately missed in their visit to the Pacific coast. Decent movement and link up with Iida, and a calm finish put him in the Team of the Weeks. His physicality was also an asset in keeping the ball and when pressing

Honourable mention: Michael Petrasso (Valour FC)

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Pacific FC 1 – 2 Valour FC: Hosts try to isolate Thomas, but visitors’ interesting shape hangs on

Valour FC stopped Pacific FC from going five points clear as Rob Gale’s interesting hybrid shape did just enough to give the Winnipeg side their first ever victory.

VFC play a hybrid 5-3-2/4-4-2 shape and press effectively

In their first match, both Noah Verhoeven and Matthew Baldisimo enjoyed time on the ball in deep positions as HFX Wanderers FC showed no signs of pressing the British Columbian outfit. However, Gale’s men were much more proactive in their pressing and did not allow the two young midfielders to dictate the tempo of the game. Verhoeven coughed the ball up under little pressure early on in the first half which VFC were unlucky not to capitalize on.

The other difference in this match was Valour’s shape. While HFX played a traditional 4-3-3, the visiting side this time played a sort of 5-3-2 without the ball, which turned into a lopsided 4-4-2 when they had possession.

Pacific FC vs Valour FC, 050119
Aguinarena moved to left back with the ball, but tucked in to become an extra centre back without it

Diego Gutierrez was the main outlet when Valour built up in the first half. Gutierrez had a high starting position on the right side and also had Josip Golubar inside of him, who he combined well with. On the other side, Martin Aguinarena split wide when his team mates had the ball but didn’t venture too far forward. Nicolas Galvis was ahead of him and played a quasi-wing back role. Much of Valour’s possession in the first half took place on their right hand side with Gutierrez who attempted almost as many passes as Arguinarena and Galvis combined in the first 45.

Many Valour players asked to play hybrid positions

Because of the two shapes that Gale instructed his team to play, a number of players were asked to fulfill hybrid roles. Gutierrez played a full back/wing back role on the right, while Aguinarena played a centre back/full back role on the left. Louis Beland-Goyette stepped into midfield when his team had the ball and into a defensive midfield position without, and the aforementioned Galvis oscillated between being a wing back and a wide midfielder. Golubar and Dylan Sacramento were effectively shuttlers in this formation, and the two strikers took turns coming to get the ball with Stephen Hoyle being an outlet on throw ins and free kicks. Valour FC always seemed to have a number of options around the ball to pass to when in possession, and then to immediately win the ball back if they lost it. Eventually, VFC opened the scoring when they again caught Verhoeven in possession, this time with Gutierrez winning the ball in a high position.

This changing of shapes wasn’t perfect, however, and Pacific FC began finding the gaps between the Valour players. In truth, the match was choppy for large stretches, with both sides finding their most dangerous opportunities off of restarts and turnovers. Since VFC pressed much more effectively than HFX, Pacific FC had to rely on quick transitions more often which allowed them to catch Valour out at times. Their equalizer came off of a quick throw in where Marcus Haber and Ben Fisk combined to cut through the dead space in Valour’s left hand channel.

Second half meta game all about Skylar Thomas

While much of the macro evaluation of Valour’s shape focuses on the wide players and midfielders and how they interact, the fact is that in much of the second half the game revolved around their giant centre back, Skylar Thomas. On paper, Thomas is a perfect match up against Haber, and he at times impressively handled the PFC captain in the air. When in the centre of a back three, he was able to effectively defend his area and secure the penalty box. The problem was when he was asked to defend space or anyone other than Haber.

In the first part of the second half, Thomas conceded a couple of fouls when asked to defend players in space, especially substitute Victor Blasco. As the match wore on, Haber began drifting wider in order to go up against Valour’s smaller centre backs, while Blasco and Ben Fisk cut inside to run off the shoulder or at Thomas. Aside from the two dangerous free kicks that Thomas conceded, Pacfic FC’s best chance came when Fisk came round the back of Thomas and tried to chip Tyson Farago.

Pacific FC grew into the game as it wore on, finding better and better pockets to attack and isolating Thomas more and more, but Valour were still threatening at times with their pressing and with the number of people they were able to get involved in the active playing area. They took the lead when Gutierrez again popped up into an advanced position. His pass fell to Dylan Carreiro who scored with the help of a deflection, but it was the organized chaos that the Manitobans relied on throughout the match that helped them score the winner.

Valour defend deep to close out match

After the goal, Valour FC were able to defend deep which allowed Thomas to do what he does best and defend the penalty box. The home side did have some chances off of crosses and long balls, but they were unable (or unwilling) to play through the Valour FC midfield. Noah Verhoeven moved higher up the pitch and looked fairly effective, but his side was unable to find the equalizer.

Looking ahead

Valour FC, along with Forge FC, have offered the most interesting shapes thus far. It will be interesting to see if Gale insists on playing the hybrid shape as a proactive tactic, or whether he will change from match to match. Often times managers will decide to use a back three or a back four in order to maintain a spare centre back, but Valour FC switched based on which team had the ball. The good news is that it appears he has the personnel to switch systems mid match without making any substitutions. The other key for Gale is to find the best way to deploy the unique profile of Skylar Thomas, who can be either his most effective defender or his biggest liability.

Pacific FC played the same shape as their opener, but were unable to play the same style. Valour did a better job of pressing Michael Silberbauer’s men and they struggled at times to cope. A potential solution is to move to a 4-3-3 shape. Terran Campbell had another average match as the attacking midfielder, and playing with a dedicated defensive midfielder would allow that player to drag an opposing midfielder out of the middle and give Noah Verhoeven the opportunity to pick the ball up in higher positions where his passes are more meaningful and his mistakes less dangerous. Such a shape may necessitate dropping club captain Marcus Haber. Although the striker did well at times to drift into wide places to avoid Thomas, he forces his team to play a certain way. Against a team that utilizes large but slow centre backs to counter him, Silberbauer may wish to go with a quicker and more technical front man.

 

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Pacific FC 1 – 0 HFX Wanderers FC: Silberbauer’s multidimensional squad holds on for victory over impotent Wanderers

Pacific FC earned the first ever victory in the Canadian Premier League and go top of the table thanks to a fantastic display from their midfield and a lack of ambition from HFX Wanderers FC.

Mirroring formations cancel each other, but host’s midfield more industrious

Michael Silberbauer started his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while Stephen Hart played a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape which meant each player had a natural geographic opponent.

Pacific vs HFX, 042819

Most of the intrigue came when Pacific FC had possession. Noah Verhoeven and Matthew Baldisimo took turns coming deep and sometimes wide to get the ball. Verhoeven, the game’s standout player, was the one coming deep more often of the two central midfielders, and he did a good job of keeping possession and keeping the home side ticking. HFX seemed content to let Pacific FC have the ball deep, and this made it difficult for Terran Campbell to get into the match.

However, Pacific FC had multiple outlets. Their full backs got forward at will, their wingers got on the ball, and when forced into a long ball they could knock it into wide areas for them or into captain Marcus Haber to reset possession. Haber had a few flick ons but didn’t impact the game as much as many would have assumed, although his presence as a plan B gives Pacific FC another option.

HFX, meanwhile, had no obvious outball. Their full backs were much more conservative, and their wingers failed to impact the game. Their two central midfielders, Juan Gutierrez and Andre Rampersad, failed to get beyond Verhoeven and Baldisimo, while Campbell’s positioning meant Elton John usually had a man on him in deep positions and could not play incisive balls forward.

The meta game of the first half often boiled down to Verhoeven versus Gutierrez, with the Canadian youth international coming out on top more often than not.

Big moments do little to change the of the match

The game had two big moments: the goal by Pacific FC and the second half red card. Neither one changed much. While HFX pressed briefly after conceding, they quickly reverted to their conservative shell. Pacific FC were content to keep the ball and probe when they wanted. Ben Fisk was pushed into central midfield when Baldisimo came off, but immediately Pacific FC were a man down. The Wanderers’ most dangerous player, substitute Kodai Iida, earned the foul that led to the sending off, but no one seemed on his wave length. Iida attempted to push forward and link up with quick combination play, but his teammates showed a perplexing lack of urgency.

Pacific FC fell into a 4-4-1 shape after the red card and were troubled by a few set pieces, but managed to hang on for the victory.

Looking ahead

Pacific FC got a relatively early goal and were never asked any questions by their visitors, so they were content to ride out the win. Verhoeven was the best player on the park, and his ability to dictate from deep with Baldisimo seems like it will be the key for a successful season. However, there are reasons for concern despite the positive performance. The hosts did not create many chances despite their variety in attack, and Haber has historically never scored in volume. It is fair to ask where the goals are going to come from. They also looked suspect on set pieces, and probably need a better center back partner beside Hendrik Starostzik.

Still, it is HFK Wanderers FC who have more questions to answer. They pressed sporadically and often dropped into a 4-1-4-1 shape, however they lacked incisiveness on the counter. Their central midfield three was outplayed for the entire match, and they had no idea how to take advantage when they were a man up. Stephen Hart needs to figure out how he wants his team to play; are they a team with a deep line who burns you on the counter, or a high pressing team that dominates space? Right now, they are neither.

Forge FC 1 – 1 York9 FC: Ambitious hosts unfortunate to share the spoils in CanPL opener

Forward thinking Forge FC had to settle for a draw against a defensive York9 side that sees two teams top the table after the first ever Canadian Premier League match.

York9 start brightly, but fade quickly

Jim Brennan lined up his side in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with captain Manny Aparicio playing behind two athletic forwards. Meanwhile, Bobby Smyrniotis set out his home team in a fluid 4-3-3 formation that controlled most of the match.

Forge vs York, 042719

 

However, it was the visitors who got the first goal in the history of the CanPL. In truth, York9 did start the brighter side, causing many problems for Forge FC with their high press. Forge FC clearly want to build from the back, with their goalkeeper Triston Henry distributing the ball to his defenders whenever he had the chance, but it was in possession where York9 struck. Aparicio picked the ball up in midfield from a forward pass from the back, turned his man, and played a dangerous ball in behind. Telfer popped up in a central position and calmly finished to give York9 the lead.

Initially, it looked like Forge FC would not be able to handle the athleticism of Brennan’s side, but as the match wore on and the adrenaline wore off, Smyrniotis’ side gradually took over.

Frano provides extra man in midfield

While the midfield was very fluid for Forge FC, it was right back Giulio Frano who took up the most interesting positions. While his full back partner on the left side, Kwame Awuah, often bombed forward to link up with Chris Nanco, Frano tucked inside to provide an extra man in midfield. This had the knock on effect of allowing Forge’s creative midfielders, namely Kyle Bekker and Tristan Borges, free roles to link up and get into dangerous areas. A clever link up between the two forced Nathan Ingham into a decent save midway through the first half.

Bekker, Forge FC’s captain and one of the league’s marquee players, popped up all over the pitch and created overloads in wide areas. He delivered five crosses despite ostensibly playing centrally, more than anyone on the pitch except Borges. Both he and Nanco constantly troubled York9’s centre backs and it was a combination of Bekker and Nanco’s profligacy, good indivudual defending from York9’s centre backs, and solid goalkeeping that kept the hosts off the score sheet.

York9 pinned back, no plan B

While York9 started brightly, it quickly became apparent that they were second best and as the match wore on they were unable to threaten Forge’s back line. Danger man Aparicio got on the ball early, but his influence on the game waned over time. Like Bekker, he drifted into wide areas, but it was more in an effort to simply get on the ball rather than create overloads in dangerous areas.

York9’s wing backs were unable to join the attack frequently enough, and while their centre backs defended well individually, they failed to move the ball forward effectively. Perhaps the most negative part of York9’s day was their inability to control the middle of the pitch. While Wataru Murofushi covered a decent amount of ground and tried to push the ball forward, Joseph Di Chiara failed to get on the ball, and when he did he was caught in possession a couple of times that directly led to dangerous chances. The commentators may have praised Di Chiara’s defensive work and last ditch tackling, but the truth is that he was a passenger for most of the game and was slow when he did get on the ball. It is telling that he attempted four less passes than Murofushi despite being on the pitch for 20 more minutes.

Both managers make changes, but Smyrniotis makes the correct decision

Brennan made the first change of the second half, subbing out Murofushi on 67 minutes and bringing on Austin Ricci. This pushed back Aparicio, who was on a yellow card, into a deeper role. Perhaps the thinking was to get Aparicio on the ball more as he was getting increasingly isolated, but what it really did was force Aparicio into more defensive duties. Eventually, Aparicio got sent off for a second yellow card after getting beat by Borges.

Ten minutes after Brennan’s change, Smyrniotis made a fairly obvious switch, but still a brave one. He removed holding midfielder Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and brought on striker Marcel Zajac. This moved Emery Welshman to right wing and allowed Borges to come inside to a more central area. With Frano providing the extra midfielder while in possession, and York9 dropping deeper and deeper as the game wore on, Forge FC didn’t need an extra man in the middle to keep hold of the ball. This also allowed Borges to get closer to goal scoring areas and got the home side a genuine wide threat on the right.

The change worked almost immediately as Welshman got to the byline and delivered a cross that found Kadell Thomas for the equalizer. Two Forge players created havoc in the box, finally allowing them to have a free man to finish one of the many chances they created.

Looking ahead

While Forge FC were the better side, they didn’t look invincible. Hooper was good with his feet, but shaky overall. Their back line looked vulnerable to pressure and athleticism at times, but dealt better with the latter when Bertrand Owundi came on. Still, their performance as a whole was encouraging and they are likely to be one of the more attractive sides in the league. Their interplay in the final third was intricate and led to many dangerous opportunities. The fact that many of their players played together at Sigma FC under Smyrniotis may give them an advantage early on as the rest of the teams figure out their identities.

Meanwhile, York9 have a lot of questions to answer. Their keeper and back three played well individually, but were wasteful in possession. Di Chiara and Murofushi were functional at best, and their most creative player in Aparicio was eventually marked out of the game. Their two strikers attempted a total of 26 passes; that is only five more than Forge FC’s lone striker. There is an idea that Simon Adjei’s height and Cyrus Rollocks’ pace can be used to hit teams on the counter, but the two attackers looked impotent after the first ten minutes had elapsed. Toronto FC loanee Ryan Telfer flashed at times, and Brennan will likely need to figure out a way to get him more involved if York9 want to succeed.

Nelsen’s shape and the need to drop a striker

As any Toronto FC fan will tell you, the team has a lack of quality strikers. Robert Earnshaw scored a few goals to start, went on a cold streak, then finally scored yesterday before (after?) injuring himself. That leaves the newly acquired and unproven Bright Dike and the consistently underwhelming duo of Andrew Wiedeman and Justin Braun as the only fit strikers at the club following the departures of Jeremy Brockie and Maxi Urruti and the injury to Danny Koevermans. With that in mind we need to ask ourselves, why does Ryan Nelsen insist on playing with two strikers?

Dropping one of the two strikers for a midfielder is an obvious solution on so many levels, starting with the lack of talent. TFC currently don’t have a single fit MLS quality striker, let alone two. Even Earnshaw when he was healthy showed he doesn’t have the ability to be an every week starter on a competitive team. The other problem with these strikers is their lack of versatility. Brockie may not have had a good scoring record, but of all the strikers contracted by Toronto this year he is arguably the only one who could competently link up with midfielders and his other strike partner. The rest are mainly poachers. This is the big criticism with two striker systems these days. Teams are packing the midfield so much that playing with three central midfielders has almost become a necessity to compete in that area. Playing two strikers is a luxury stronger teams or teams with extremely versatile forwards can do; TFC is neither.

One could argue that Ryan Nelsen and the Toronto brass have made it clear that they want to spend big DP money on a class striker (or two), so why change the shape now if in the future the 4-4-2 is what they’ll be running? If this site has taught you anything it’s that you cannot look at players and shapes in a vacuum. The answer to this lies not in the new striker(s) coming in but in Toronto’s two young players who have been the brightest spots in an otherwise dull season: Jonathan Osorio and Matias Laba.

Osorio was initially played in a wide role before being shifted inside to partner Laba before the Argentinian injured his ankle. The idea was that Toronto needed more creativity centrally as the duo of Laba and Jeremy Hall were too negative to add any thrust. While it did give Toronto an extra creator it’s not necessarily true there was any net gain in attack. It gave Osorio an added defensive responsibility as he and Laba were the sole holders, and if he did go forward to join the attack it left Laba alone in the middle, and as good as the young DP is and has been his biggest weakness is probably his mobility — a key attribute for the more defensive midfielder in a midfield two.

On paper the pairing of Laba and Osorio makes a lot of sense: a forward thrusting creator and a positionally sound destroyer who both can and like to keep the ball, but the more one plays to his personal style the more he exposes the other. That’s why a third midfielder would help maximize their abilities. Playing Osorio ahead of the two holders in a 4-2-3-1 allows him less defensive responsibility. He is also a better attacker closer to goal. Although he’s probably Toronto’s best passer from deeper positions that’s more an indictment on the rest of the squad. He’s at his best when he can arrive in the box from deep positions and combine with the forward. Defensively he’d now either be pressing a center back if the opposition were in a 4-4-2 or their deepest midfielder if they played a midfield three, which is ideal since Osorio is better as a presser than as a tackler.

It also helps Laba, too. His aforementioned (relative) lack of mobility would be less of an issue with him having to cover less lateral space. He would be free to anticipate passes higher up the pitch or to go win the ball with the knowledge that he had another sitter beside him.

Since one of my points is that TFC should drop a striker due to lack of able personnel in that position it is a fair question to ask: Do they have the right personnel to play a system with three central midfielders? I have already outlined why I think Osorio’s and Laba’s  talents are maximized in a 4-2-3-1 shape but the question is who is appropriate for that other midfield spot, and do Toronto have him? Frankly, the answer is probably not, but I still think they’d be better off switching to such a shape. So who does fill in? Again, vacuums. It depends on the style Nelsen would want to play. Want to use that extra man to sit back in a deep line before hitting on the counter? Might be a good idea to play the defensive minded Hall and free up Laba a bit to play ambitious forward passes. You’d leave Osorio high up with little defensive responsiblity and so would need two dedicated holders to form two narrow banks of four. If you want to use that extra man to dominate possession and press high up the pitch then the underused Kyle Bekker may be a better choice. He values the ball and is not afraid to pick up the ball deep as a first function midfielder and play forward passes in central zones, leaving Laba to be the more patient possession keeper.

Looking at Toronto’s squad it’s probably best if they went with the former strategy. Although I think a midfield trio of Osorio-Bekker-Laba could actually do a good job of keeping the ball, especially when you add Bobby Convey into the mix, the problem lies in the back line. Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry have grown in recent weeks but they’re both adept at defending a deep line while full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan are relatively poor passers in their positions. This is not even mentioning Joe Bendik whose two biggest flaws — agility and distribution — are the two most important attributes for a keeper in a press-and-possess system.

While Toronto don’t necessarily have the current players to play a certain system perfectly, the truth is the current squad probably doesn’t have the ability to play any system very well. But Nelsen can build around his current core of players and help maximize their abilities which is not being done in his current 4-4-2 system. The other criticism of Nelsen is his lack of creativity, he remains stubborn in his shape and style and reluctant to make substitutions until late in matches. He needs to get more creative and now is the perfect time of the season to do it. Play Bekker in a midfield three, push Osorio up behind the striker, heck maybe even try Convey behind the lone striker as a central winger to help overload the flanks. All these ideas have the potential to improve TFC and maximize the potential of their best players. And really, at this point Nelsen has nothing to lose.

Is the Future Centerbackless?

When I told my friend about the title of my blog he said to me “So is the future centerbackless?” Seems silly to say but it follows my assertion. I suppose if I had to answer then I would say yes, it is; but in the same way that the future is strikerless which is a statement I should expand upon.

When I say that in the future there won’t be strikers I don’t mean that no one will nominally fill that position. Really what I’m getting at is the idea that there won’t be room for luxury players, and those types of players are usually the most further forward player (or right behind the the strikers). My view of who is a luxury player probably differs from most others’ view. If I asked people to name one a popular name might be Dimitar Berbatov. He fits the classic archetype: languid, brilliant on the ball, seemingly apathetic, slow, not big on tracking back etc. The idea is if you have a player like that in your squad you need to insulate him. Many people look at the opposite type, someone who works supremely hard without the ball, as the antithesis of a luxury player. But do you have to play this hard worker with the lazy talent, or do you have to play the supreme talent with the untalented dynamo? It’s a matter of perception. You can’t create consistent chances through hard work alone, so since you have to insulate your hard workers with skill can’t they be viewed as luxury players?

This brings me back to the future being strikerless. It all inevitably comes back to the idea of universality. I define a luxury player as someone who is so one dimensional that they need someone on the other end of the spectrum to make the team work (and that person often ends up being deficient at other things). It’s the specialist versus universal debate all over again.

To bring the discussion back to Barcelona, their team certainly has some players who are naturally great at some things (Xavi’s vision, Alves’ stamina/pressing, Busquets’ positioning, Messi’s everything) but they are trained to be all great at the same thing: pressing, passing, offering. From Victor Valdes at one end to Leo Messi at the other, every single player is fantastic at these parts of the game. This means that if you have one player who lacks first touch or one who lacks the ability to press they already have you beat in that sense. The other thing that Barcelona beat you at is having numbers in the active playing area. This means that they almost always have an open option for the possessor of the ball to pass to. They do this with constant off the ball movement and by stretching the defense. It also helps that every single player is confident on the ball so anyone can move anywhere to offer a legitimate option.

So when I say the future is strikerless I mean that optimally you can’t have luxury players. And I define a luxury player as someone who is deficient in any area that has to be compensated by another player who is deficient in a converse area. That seems a harsh statement considering every team, including Barcelona a lot of the time, have luxury players. I think the future is about minimizing this which is what Barcelona are the best in the world at currently, and possibly ever. Theoretically if a team is so much more universal than another that no player is wasted in any facet of the game they will win nine times out of ten, and the only way to consistently match them is to get just as good. Sure, you could shut up shop and rely on counters and set pieces, but that won’t work over half the time.

So what does this all have to do with centerbacks? Well, they’re going to have to be good on the ball in this world, too. And strong. And quick. Basically they’ll have to be more than great in the air and strong defensively, those types are too one dimensional. So when I assert that the future is strikerless I mean it is also centerbackless (and wingerless, and fullbackless). I don’t mean the positions will be gone, just the one dimensionality of it.

Of course there will always be room somewhere for a speed demon with less than adequate ball skills, just as there will be room for a plodding but powerful defender or a slight but skilled midfielder. Humans aren’t all magically going to become the same size overnight. But at the highest levels, where you can groom players as pre-teens and spend as much money as the owner wants, you could very well put together a successful and totally universal squad. I mean in the future, at some point

On the analysis of defensive corner kick strategies in football

When Canada lost to Panama two-nil in a September World Cup qualifier, many fans and journalists bemoaned how the first goal went in. It came off a Panama corner kick as Rolando Blackburn headed the cross in just inside the far post. People could not understand why Canada did not station a man to mark the far post – in that situation it would surely have saved the goal.

There is, of course, a massive problem with this line of reasoning. It is the king of the small sample size error in logic. That was literally one event to help support the idea that you should have a man on the far post. There is a reason why such a point gets brought up, however, and that’s because it is a very salient event. It is obvious what could have prevented a goal on that corner – a man on the far post. Not only that, but putting a man on the far post is common place, so people are quick to criticize when going against tradition so obviously leads to the undesired event.

The question then becomes, why not have a man on the far post? Perhaps the answer is, why stop there? Why not have a man on both posts, and one in the middle of the net who can go across and guard the net behind the keeper? Say the opposition sends five guys forward to attack a corner, why not man mark everyone the opposition sends forward then use the other five to guard the line?

Clearly the final scenario is ridiculous and no one does it. Why they don’t do it gives the possible answer as to why not have a man on the far post. When you think about it, guarding the posts is pretty arbitrary. The idea is surely that those are the areas where a keeper is least likely to get to so you try and protect them, but do you really need a guy on each post each time? What if the other team has a guy unmarked and you have both posts marked? What’s more dangerous, leaving him open or leaving the post free?

I play keeper, albeit at a pretty recreational level, but I have a set up I always use for corners. I put a man on each post and a man in the space ahead of the near post, about five metres closer to the corner and three metres out from the line. If they have an open man I will tell the far post marker to take him, and if there’s still another one I’ll peel off the near post man. I never move the zonal marker beyond the near post. Is it successful? I have no idea, I don’t have the data. The reason I do it is from facing hundreds of corner kicks and realizing what gives me the most trouble, how most of the deliveries come in, and how chances are created and goals are scored from corners. But I’m just a rec league player, I’m not expected to have the data. You would think that corner kicks, one of the few discrete events in football, would be rife with data and analysis on defensive corner kick strategies.

Suprisingly, there isn’t that much out there when it comes to meaningful analysis of raw data, possibly because the data isn’t really that great. In 2005 there was a study published in Science and Football V titled ‘Notational analysis of corner kicks in English Premier League soccer.’ The researchers collected and defined their own data of 217 corner kicks over the course of a Premier League season. It is a fairly short paper and probably the most key finding was that the type of ball that had the most success was an in-swinger across the front of the six yard box.

This helps explain why many teams line up four or so defenders marking zonally across the six yard box (in fact it’s what Canada did on the goal conceded to Panama). Does it mean that it’s smart? Well, the intuition seems sound: if most goals scored in area x then defend area x. That’s not enough though, as researchers understand logic yields to practice. We need real world data to show that such a system is better, not just the inductions. Of course, there are a litany of research method issues to take into consideration, the biggest one I think being a type of selection bias that doesn’t allow us for a proper control group. We could do a between groups comparison between teams that mark zonally and teams that mark man to man. Controlling for number of corners faced would be pretty straight forward, and as long as we operationalize what zonal marking on a corner is (we could even have multiple groups) then what set up goes in what group should be easy. We just need the grunt work done. But what teams practice zonal marking on corners? Is it possible it is the teams that have players with less aerial ability than other teams are more inclined to such a system? Do managers view it as something that is advantageous with a short side, and had they a bigger team they’d do strict man to man marking?

Imagine this scenario. In a twenty team league ten teams mark zonally and the other ten mark man to man. At the end of the season we find that these two groups (zonal vs. marking) concede corners at the exact same rate. We can conclude that the type of marking system has zero effect, right? Well, what if the ten teams that mark zonally do so because they are shorter and think it gives them an advantage? If the ten teams that mark zonally are also the ten shortest teams, would it be fair to say that zonal marking is a better strategy than man marking? You could imagine a bunch of scenarios where the system and aerial ability interaction could present a headache for statistical analysis. That’s without even mentioning how leaving players up the pitch effects the game. Do you leave one guy up to corral a clearance? Does that save you more goals in the long run? What about two guys? How much does it depend on how the other team sets up? There are too many variables to consider, just like all statistics, so we’ll never get the perfect model, but we can at least start controlling for some.

The point here is that analysis of defensive corner strategies as practiced by fans and (often) journalists is naïve and lazy. We rely on salient events that conform to our traditional views of defensive strategies – not at all unlike why humans make errors in reasoning in every walk of life. Sadly, even controlling for obvious factors like number of corner kicks faced seems to not be part of much of the popular discussion, let alone other possible variables. The tape is there, it is up to clubs and researchers to analyse, define, and interpret the data in a meaningful way for us to have any sort of definitive answer on what system is the best for each team. But would that time, money, and effort even be worth the advantage gained? Would a team save enough goals to justify putting those resources into that aspect of research? That’s the other big question for the analysis of corner kicks.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 12th, 2013: In this article I didn’t mention the idea that attacking teams would devise certain types of corner kick strategies depending on the system the defending team is using. Certainly if I was managing I would give my team different instructions depending on the defending teams set up, and if teams did do this it would make for a muddier picture of the stats involved in analyzing success rates of defensive strategies and corner kick behaviour. This could potentially be another fruitful avenue for research on the subject.

 

More Defenders Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better Defense

Against Liverpool, Roberto Mancini decided to use three central defenders and two wing backs as opposed to a flat back four. It was a curious decision considering Manchester City were going up against a team playing a 4-3-3 and that City have rarely played with a three man back line. One supposes that if Mancini wants to make this formation a viable option he will have to use it sooner or later, and perhaps he chose to use it against Liverpool because they were are a stronger side compared to Southampton. After all, since he is playing five defenders his defense must be more solid, right?

When Rinus Michels was talking about his concept of Total Football he wasn’t just talking about players being able to interchange positions. While that is the main take away people have from his system it was about much more than one player staying back if another bombed forward. Total Football was about how one aspect of a team’s tactics effected the rest of the team. It was erroneous to alter one part of the squad and assume that nothing else was effected.

In Manchester City’s case the switch to three centre backs and two wing backs didn’t necessarily mean that their defense was now more solid. What one needs to consider is how this change in formation effects the other players — the ones higher up the pitch. James Milner and Alexander Kolarov were the two wide players for City. It stands to reason that since there is an extra centre back covering for them that they have more license to go forward than if they were playing as full backs in a back four. While this was true, neither wing back had anyone naturally ahead of them to provide support. Milner and Kolarov were expected to patrol their wings against Liverpool’s 4-3-3. This meant Liverpool had a full back and a winger coming up against City’s wing back and they were outnumbered in that zone. Raheem Sterling, for example, did well tracking Milner. In the end he didn’t always have to since Glen Johnson was there in support. This meant the youngster could at times stay high up the pitch and run at Kolo Toure.

The key areas on the pitch: Liverpool were 2v1 in these zones while having their wingers going directly at City’s centre backs.

This was another downside of Mancini’s back three against Liverpool’s front three. When the home team’s wingers stayed high up they were 1v1 City’s central defenders, and wingers generally have the advantage in individual battles with lots of space, especially against central defenders compared to full backs. Sterling’s direct runs caused Toure no end of problems and it’s a wonder that Mancini didn’t ask him to switch with Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine utility man was playing as the left sided centre back and was up against either Luis Suarez or Fabio Borini, two more natural forwards. It would have made sense to stick Zabaleta, a more natural full back, on the side of the winger while putting the centre back on the side of the striker. It is but another example of how a decision on one part of the pitch can effect another, unexpected area.

Of course we would remiss not to talk about the other side of the field. Mancini effectively traded two wingers for one central defender in this formation. That leaves him with a surplus player. Where did he go? In this case he became an extra forward. Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli started up front with Samir Nasri in behind them. Theoretically this meant that both Liverpool centre backs were occupied and that the Reds had no spare man at the back to cover. But we must go back to the mantra of this article — no tactical area of the pitch can be looked at in a vacuum. Yes, both Skrtel and Coates had a man to mark in his immediate area, but Liverpool had a numerical advantage on the flanks. Thus, if a Liverpool winger tracked back to mark a Man City wing back that left one of Liverpool’s full backs free. It also meant that Liverpool had more joy in those areas in general meaning less meaningful attacks from City in those zones; it was harder for the visitors to supply Tevez and Balotelli in the first place. And it’s not as if Zabaleta could step up and provide an extra man to dominate the midfield for Manchester City, he had to contend with one of Liverpool’s front three exploiting the space in behind him.

In the end City got a point at Anfield, not a bad result especially considering how the game played out. Mancini’s side relied on two errors from Liverpool’s defense to draw level and the Italian manager can be accused of over managing in this match. However, his flaw was not necessarily trying something new. It was not recognizing that his new tactic’s theoretical advantages in one part were overshadowed by it’s deficiencies in other areas. Perhaps he wants a more pragmatic formation, thus the extra defender, but simply throwing an extra defender into your side doesn’t necessarily mean you now have a better defense. Conceding as few goals as possible isn’t simply achieved by stacking your back line with players although that is a natural thought. It is about dominating possession, territory, and different zones on the pitch. Of course, it is entirely possible Mancini simply chose this match to experiment. He could have known that a change to a back four was ideal (and he did just that, after the introduction of David Silva for Milner). However, even if it was an experiment for introducing a new tactic for tougher matches it definitely needs some work.

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