While they won’t be overly pleased with the result, Forge FC continue to showcase just how far soccer has come in Canada, going toe to toe with Cruz Azul in their first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League this season. Cruz may have dominated the match, but Forge put up a valiant fight to the end, and could have easily secured an important result on a different day. Here is our tactical analysis of Forge’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Mexican giants Cruz Azul, and how the Hammers should progress into the second-leg.
FORGE FC – 4-1-4-1
Forge FC set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation, operating more like a 4-1-4-1 through most phases of the game. With 42% of the possession, Bobby Smyrniotis’ side spent much of the match defending in their 4-1-4-1 mid-block, with Achinioti-Jönsson screening Cruz’s striker Santiago Gimenez. At the front of the defensive line, Terran Campbell occasionally applied pressure to Cruz’s back-line as they passed the ball around, particularly on back passes and hesitations.
In my pre-match analysis of Azul for the club, I noted the necessity for Forge to track the movement of Cruz’s fullbacks forward, particularly down the right. Their normal right-back – Juan Escobar, started on the bench, but 34-year-old Joaquin Martinez performed the exact same role in his stead. Martinez frequently ventured forward to overlap or underlap around his right wing, or invert in central areas. Forge excellently tracked these movements…almost at times overdoing it. Kwasi Poku collapsed on Ashtone Morgan on several occasions when he didn’t need to, as Cruz struggled to switch play over to the right and utilize their right-back’s high position. Forge could have taken advantage of this by winning the ball on Cruz’s left, and immediately targeting quick attacking transitions via long diagonals into the space vacated by Martinez, with Poku holding a higher starting position.
There were massive amounts of space in between Martinez (RB) and Dominguez (RCB) throughout the first half in particular, and Forge’s left winger could have gambled more in venturing forward and exploiting that space. Had he done so, it might have also pushed Martinez back a peg, which would have also made the necessity for him to collapse so deep redundant.
Down the other side, less space was available to exploit, due to Mayorga’s lower position as the left-back. But even when Mayorga overlapped down the left, one of either Ignacio Rivero or Erik Lira were quick to cover. Nevertheless, when winning the ball in the middle third, space again was available in between the gaps of left back and left-centre-back.
Forge FC were able to target this area on one particular transitional moment, where David Choinière received in space and drove forward. Time and time again Smyrniotis‘ team had the opportunity to continue this exact same strategy, but failed with the execution. Many passes ended up going lateral when they needed to be threaded through, while the willing runs of the wingers ended up coming on the outside of the fullback, rather than in between those gaps we identified. Further, the Hammers completed just 3 dribbles in the match according to FotMob, failing to get any of their mavericks on the ball to make magic happen and adequately break the lines. Instead of Forge breaking lines, Cruz broke up play with 27 tackles won to Forge’s 12, and a 73% success rate in those tough tackles. Smyrniotis made a clear attempt to change this too, making Poku his first substitution. Unfortunately, that was matched by Cruz’s introduction of Escobar, with Martinez and his high-flying running switching to the left.
With a combination of Forge’s execution failing to deliver, Cruz’s incessant tactical fouling, and their organized wall of four players compacting central areas and making transitions nearly impossible, the Hammers had a difficult time getting any sort of rhythm. They spent next to no time in the creation stage, and 4 of their 5 shots missed the target.
Forge will be disappointed with the quality they showed in attack, but it must be said that Cruz have had several games under their belt at the start of the 2022 Liga MX season. Encouragingly, Smyrniotis’ side were rigid and well drilled defensively, and overcame transitional moments excellently well. Had it not been for a single step to the right on a free kick, the Hammers easily could have found their way to a 0-0 draw.
KEY MAN – Achinioti-Jönsson
With neither team venturing into creation phases for long, the match was mostly played in the middle third, and midfield battles became crucial to the success of both teams. Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson stood out for his positioning in front of the back-four, quickness in supporting his defensive line during defensive transitions, and his influence in Forge’s possession. The Swede completed 2 of Forge’s 3 dribbles, and 40/45 of his passes (85%). He also positioned himself well to make 10 recoveries, 6 interceptions, and dominated Cruz’s strikers in the air (75% aerial duels won). Interestingly, Achinioti-Jonsson also excellently carried out his tasks of dropping into Forge’s back-line during their high-block, where Aboubacar Sissoko stepped up into right midfield, Choiniere pushed forward, and Garven Metusala shifted to the right-back role. He matched up excellently well against Cruz’s striker to win Roca’s back-spinning goal-kicks, and made a crucial last-man-tackle in the second half. As Forge chased the game in the closing stages, he even seemed to drop in between the centre-backs as part of a back-three, where Bekker and Welshman pushed higher and inside respectively, looking to attach themselves to the centre-forward. His adaptability in all of these different moments allowed Forge to have some level of a foothold in the match, and keep pushing for a goal.
CRUZ AZUL – 4-2-3-1
Cruz Azul dominated possession, playing with poise and class alongside their occasional long-ball pursuits. With the wind on their side, Cruz’s long passing attempts frequently found their way beyond Forge’s back-four in the second half, and the Hammers had to consistently rely on the individual willpower of the likes of Samuel and Jonsson to make last ditch efforts. While Cruz’s possession and short passing combinations were beautiful in specific moments, it’s a bit of a mystery why they did not target these types of passes more often. They always looked dangerous when doing so, and won themselves several corners from these types of balls over the top for strikers to chase.
Beyond these long passes, Cruz also troubled Forge from set-pieces throughout the fixture, and that’s even how they scored their goal. Had Forge been quicker to press and transition into their defensive shape, they might have been able to avoid the goal altogether. But when Romulo Otero struck the subsequent in-swinging free kick, Forge keeper Triston Henry stepped to his right when the ball was headed left, and the rest was history. From that moment on, Cruz targeted the six-yard-box with their in-swinging deliveries from either side, putting it right on the goalkeeper and using the wind to their benefit.
With Forge pressing them high and stopping them from playing out from the back, Cruz also had their own moments of wind woefulness. Roca’s goal kicks frequently spun backwards, helping Forge to dominate the duels in the air from Cruz’s initial long passes. They targeted the wide areas around the halfway line when they could, but the wind made it very difficult. While Forge themselves chose to play out from the back in the second half to mitigate this concern, Cruz Azul were then able to use the wind to their benefit later on in continuing to float passes in behind Forge’s back four.
Defensively, Cruz defended like a team of gnats, constantly getting stuck into challenges and breaking up play. They preferred to throw themselves into tackles to mitigate Forge’s quick, direct play, with one Forge turnover usually quickly followed by another. Reynoso’s team won just 4 interceptions through holding their rigid and compact shapes, with Achinioti-Jönsson winning 2 interceptions more than the entire Cruz Azul team. For one, this highlights just how little rhythm Forge themselves were able to find in the match. La Máquina rarely had to set up in any sort of 4-4-1-1 mid-block, with their fluid midfield three completely dominating over Borges and Bekker, and the pairing’s attempts to receive in between the lines and influence the game. But for another, it showcases a clear identity to Cruz Azul to play over the edge, and utilize aggression to put Forge off their game.
Cruz Azul can walk away with the victory happy, knowing they rested several of their regular starters for the match and still came out on top. A second leg on February 24th leaves plenty to play for, as Forge aim for redemption in Mexico.
KEY MAN – IGNACIO RIVERO
Ignacio Rivero has enjoyed a fantastic start to the 2022 season, playing in a variety of different roles. Normally a right-back, Rivero’s featured primarily for Cruz Azul as a left winger this season, utilizing his excellence in possession to deliver whipped balls into the penalty area. But on this occasion, the 29-year-old dropped into central midfield alongside Erik Lira, where Romulo Otero then floated in and around the ball to work magic of his own as the number ten. For someone not overly familiar with central midfield, Rivero’s positioning throughout was extraordinary. He excellently covered for Mayorga (and later Martinez as he switched to the left) on their overlapping or inverted runs, and was arguably the key man in Cruz’s circulation of the ball. A bit adventurous with his passing, the 29-year-old completed 8 of his 12 long passes in the match, constantly looking to spray balls over the top for Gimenez or Angulo to chase. He also won 7 of his 8 tackles (88%), making himself an utter nuisance during Forge’s attacking transitions. For all of his dominance throughout the match, Kyle Bekker eventually became frustrated with him and picked up a yellow card, one of 3 fouls the Uruguayan midfielder won during the match. Again, given that he’s traditionally a fullback, who’s been converted into a winger, Rivero’s role in partnering Erik Lira so excellently well seems even more impressive.
Forge will walk away from the first leg with many feelings that they should have done better, but with much hope for how things could go in the second leg. Targeting the gaps in between centre-back and fullback are a must for the Hammers in the second leg, while they will need to continue to stop Cruz’s attempts to play long passes over the top. It’s still all to play for in the second leg, and there is no reason why Smyrniotis’ side can’t come out on top with a surprise victory.
So there it is! Our match analysis of the first CONCACAF Champions League game between Forge FC and Cruz Azul. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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