Four tactical discussion points from Matchday 6 in the CANPL

Due to time restrictions, I’ve been unable to get my usual tactical review of the weekend that was in the Canadian Premier League up and running. But the league still delivered in its sixth round of fixtures, with plenty of intriguing tactical adaptations taking form. So with that, here is what you need to know about the sixth round of fixtures, ahead of Matchday 7.

FORGE 1-1 ATLETICO OTTAWA

Atletico Ottawa have battered and bruised their way through their opening fixtures in this CANPL season, with one of the sturdiest defensive structures in the league. Gonzalez has created several important defensive implications and ideologies for his side, one of which has been the narrowness of his opposite side wide man out of possession in a defensively minded 4-4-2.

On Friday, Ottleti responded brilliantly to Forge’s wide overloads, and the team’s desire to get Aboubacar Sissoko into advanced positions as an ‘overlapping centre-back’ of sorts (more or less the same inverted full-back position he’s been playing).

They did so through shifting in and out of a 5-3-2 defensive shape, where Zach Verhoven would join the defensive line in tracking wide men into advanced areas. This is undeniably a very natural progression for a defensive team to make against an extraordinarily sound possession-based team. But the other interesting tactical relish to this ideology was in Carl Haworth’s inverted position on the other side. In possession, Atletico’s right-wing-back typically holds the width, as Drew Beckie tucks in to form a back-three. Out of possession, that wing-back becomes more of an orthodox winger, defending in front of Beckie. But as Forge progressed down the right and used Choiniere, Sissoko and Borges to triangulate moves against Ottleti, Haworth inverted on Hojabrpour in central areas, rather than tracking Kwasi Poku – Forge’s left-wing-back.

In specific moments, this could have opened avenues for Poku to work greater magic on a switch of play. Had someone like Kyle Bekker been given the nod from the start, we may have seen these kind of switches take prominence. Instead, Forge continued progressing down the right, where to be fair, Sissoko was having an excellent evening in finding avenues to thread the ball through.

The entire team had a solid understanding of this tactic, as we can see Drew Beckie (the team’s captain) in this moment urging for Haworth to get back up to Hojabrpour rather than relinquishing toward Poku as he had momentarily done.

Nevertheless, Forge should have put this game to bed and very well may have done had it not been for some stellar defending from Ottleti to throw their bodies in the way at all costs, and Nathan Ingham’s superb shot stopping ability once again.

pacific 2-1 edmonton

Making several changes for this match, FC Edmonton looked a level below Pacific FC all ends up, and were lucky to walk away with only a 2-1 defeat. Deploying a back-four, including two centre-backs that had never played together before, proved to be costly for the Eddies. In fact, it’s the second time they’ve changed shape away from their defensively resolute 5-4-1, only to come away in complete shambles (the other was a 3-0 defeat to Forge).

Pacific FC meanwhile changed shapes themselves, throwing so many numbers forward that Edmonton simply couldn’t keep up. Out of possession, Pacific generally deployed a 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-1-1, which is nothing out of the ordinary for Merriman’s team. Dada-Luke operated ahead of Abdoulaye Samake as a right winger, as Marco Bustos operated as a true ‘number ten’ in this match.

But in possession, the shape noticeably changed. Joshua Heard operated as an inverted winger alongside Bustos, with Heard clearly and distinctly more on the left of Diaz, and Bustos linking up with Dada-Luke on the right.

This allowed both Aparicio and Nathan Mavila to venture forward in the left spaces available – where Mavila played high up the pitch as a left-wing-back. Reminiscent of Atletico Ottawa’s fluctuating shapes under Carlos Gonzalez this season, Pacific FC certainly had some unique tricks up their sleeves in stretching the width and pulling Edmonton apart.

Acting almost like a deep-lying-playmaker in this one, Jamar Dixon completed 8/9 of his long passes in the match, often finding Mavila in space to advance down the left, or using Diaz’s hold-up play to bring others into the match.

Dixon’s successful passes vs. Edmonton, including 8/9 long passes (credit to CANPL.CA)

With Jamar Dixon anchoring the back-line and Abdou Samake also sitting, Mavila had the freedom to roam forward as he pleased, which in turn allowed Heard to constantly operate closer to Diaz and Bustos. Given that both are excellent in tight spaces and in feeding runners in behind, this move worked to the benefit of Heard’s fervid off-the-ball movement. As a result of these changes, Edmonton looked out of sorts against the league’s deadliest attack, and completely failed to adapt (quite reasonably) without 4/5 of their starting defenders.

VALOUR FC 1-0 YORK UNITED

For long spells of time in this match, you couldn’t help but wait for a moment of magic to win the game. Both teams were defending well, with York pressing from the front against Valour’s steady build-up and patient progression, and Valour stunting York’s vertical progression through a solid midfield two sitting in front of an already robust back-four.

Overarchingly, York attacked through the middle, attempting to feed De Rosario quickly, or use the on-the-ball presence of players like Isaiah Johnston to advance the team up the pitch. They had nice moments where Abzi would still overlap around Eduardo Jesus, but with Jesus being a more natural full-back (thus holding an actual wide role), many of Abzi’s crosses came from deeper. Some of their better attacking moments actually came when Chrisnovic N’Sa ventured forward up the other side, where Alessandro Riggi and Federico Pena struggled to contend with his link up with Isaiah Johnston. In particular, York easily broke Valour’s 4-2-3-1 press time and time again, without N’Sa even having to be involved on the ball.

Valour’s wingers were caught in between tracking a long pass into the York full-backs, or a short pass to the centre-backs. As Dyer pressed the first pass, the left wing in particular often looked confused about whether to double up on the player in possession, or double down on the player in behind. The hesitation and natural gaps created (as pictured above and below) allowed the likes of Wilson and Zator easier routes at progressing the ball into the half-spaces.

Had they deployed a 4-4-2 defensive press instead, they could have still screened passes into York’s lowest midfielder, whilst better defending the wide areas. In that case, the wide men could have defended routes into N’Sa and the half-spaces, without worrying about the centre-backs having time to pick out a pass.

Our suggested Valour 4-4-2 press more naturally blocks off wide avenues.

Fortunately for Valour, Gutierrez and Fordyce excellently anchored in front of their defensive unit, and the defensive four held a remarkably organized line, constantly catching York off-side in their attempts to play quickly through the thirds. So even if Valour’s press could be easily broken, the rest of the defense held a tightly compact structure that completely stunted York further up the pitch. Martin Nash’s team missed Noah Verhoeven’s natural play-making abilities from deep, instead opting for more of a ‘Tempo Setter‘ in Cedric Toussaint to accommodate Wilson’s move to centre-back, and then a more progressive dribbler in Isaiah Johnston alongside him. With that Valour high line in place and an excellent sweeper keeper in behind in Jonathan Sirois, Valour eased their way to a clean sheet.

HFX WANDERERS 2-2 CAVALRY

I can’t remember another game in my lifetime where four goals, in fact – 100% of the goals, were scored from set-pieces. We could tell you about Cavalry’s almost 3-3-1-3-esque build-up or Halifax’s stern 4-3-1-2 press, but ultimately this game was decided by free kicks and corners. In some ways, that may be very boring. But on this occasion, three out of the four goals resulted on the back of both tactical and psychological mistakes, more than worth breaking down.

In the first instance (and throughout the game), Halifax positioned two players on the posts when defending Cavalry’s corners. Research has generally shown that this is one least successful approaches when defending corners in the modern game, possibly due to the numbers it takes away from other areas of the box, and the potential complications it creates for the goalkeeper in commanding their area. The clear advantage is in adding a second and third goalkeeper to the mix, albeit ones who can’t use their hands, theoretically aiding the team’s ability to stop shots on the line. But that only comes to fruition if the players stay to their task, unbothered by any other distractions. Colin Gander failed in this instance after the initial header was lost, and his decision to leave his post is exactly why Myer Bevan was able to stroke in the rebound, in the exact spot where Gander began the sequence.

But the goal was far more complex than just Gander leaving his post. HFX’s zonal marking scheme, specifically the positioning of their players, was puzzling at best. They positioned three players at the near post + the near post marker. They also positioned two at the back-post, even though no Cavalry players were anywhere near them. From the above image, you can already begin to see the wheels falling off. Only Samuel Salter is in a sound enough position to cover a player, and if he leaves his zone to track Karifa Yao, he’s done like dinner. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Yao moved to Salter’s left, pulling the winger with him, and opening the door for Daan Klomp (highlighted) to receive a free header in the most dangerous area of the pitch, with only Aidan Daniels (a significantly weaker aerial threat) close to the situation.

At a bare minimum, HFX should have positioned one of their stronger aerial players around the penalty spot, or even man-marked Daan Klomp – knowing the threat he poses in the air. Stephen Hart’s team have all the commanding tools they need to excellently defend set-pieces and crosses into the box, but positioned their best pieces to the puzzle in the wrong places.

Fortunately for HFX, Cavalry had their own catastrophic marking from corner kicks. With Bent delivering an in-swinging ball with his right foot, Halifax aimed their deliveries toward the back-post. On paper, Cavalry are far more equipped to defend this ensuing corner kick than Halifax were in the last instance. But there’s a tricky line to manage from set-pieces, and it’s the line of when to watch your marker, vs. when to watch the ball. With the right body position, the best can usually achieve both. But here, right from the start we can see two clear issues. First, both Victor Loturi and Jose Escalante have no regard for the flight of the ball, and are only paying attention to their man. In fact, they even have their backs turned to the ball.

The second problem is an aerial mismatch in the 5’10 Jose Escalante matching up against the 6’2 giant Samuel Salter, who also happens to possess favourable intelligence with his movement in the box. So when Bent’s delivery lands exactly on the money of Salter’s noggin, Cavalry are completely out of sorts. But the problem is only exacerbated from there.

As soon as Salter peels away from Escalante, Loturi only has eyes for the ball. In the split-second that this happens, Karifa Yao also loses Peter Schaale, giving the Halifax defender free reign in front of goal. When Schaale’s subsequent header bangs off the cross-bar, Loutri’s now lost Akeem Garcia completely, with the goal-scoring striker now in acres of space.

Individual mistakes like this generally have less to do with team tactics, but it must be noted that when Cavalry should have engaged greater attention onto the ball, they were too focused on the man. But as soon as focus needed shifting back to the man, they focused instead on the ball. Again, it’s difficult to track both simultaneously, and that’s where tactics and organization can help. Cavalry could have started Ali Musse in a far more advantageous position, as he’s doing absolutely nothing at the top of the box other than preparing for a subsequent counter attack.

The starting position of Simmons is also odd, given that no player would have been likely to either receive or move into the zone he covered. He could have shifted himself a few steps closer to goal or closer to the penalty spot, which is usually the most congested area for opposition teams to attack. As HFX persisted in playing to the back-post, Cavalry could have been quicker to change their defensive organization.

Unfortunately for Tommy Wheeldon Jr., even when he changed markers, Samuel Salter again wheeled away from his opposite number. Moments before the third goal, we see Ali Musse and Elliot Simmons in exactly the same positions, for little reason.

Simmons has half an eye on Aidan Daniels at the top of the box, but would be better served situating himself at the top of the six yard box and helping to defend an area that HFX are likely to deliver into, or more likely to bang in a rebound. We also see Jose Escalante and Mason Trafford have switched markers, with the captain now tasked with tracking Salter at the back-post. As the delivery soars into the exact area we suggested that Simmons could have been marking, Mason Trafford tries to get in front of Salter, preparing for a back-post flick-on.

Sound in idea, Trafford fails in execution, as his body positioning fails to allow a clear line of vision to the HFX man. Salter then receives with room to make up his mind, take a touch, and hammer home the left-footed finish.

From there, Halifax always looked the stronger team, and defended well in their 4-3-1-2 shape. But they couldn’t stop committing silly fouls, and it ultimately proved costly with nearly the last kick of the game. The least incriminating on the day, Halifax again failed to adequately cover the correct zones of play when defending this free kick. They positioned two players in close proximity on the back-post, away from the congested area, and failed to place any player around the penalty spot, or on Cavalry’s intended target – Daan Klomp.

They failed to learn their lesson from the first corner of the game, and paid the price for it. Christian Oxner could also have questions to answer, in his attempt to come out and command an already congested area. As he failed to win the punch and Klomp bulldozed his way through, HFX could do nothing to stop the shot on the line.

Heading into Matchday 7, both Halifax and Cavalry have much to sort out from their set-pieces. Halifax should focus on developing their zonal marking schemes to better adapt to the opposition, and switch to a mixed-marking-scheme, in which they can man-mark the opposition’s danger men. Cavalry meanwhile will need to do the same in shifting players into areas where they are better positioned to aid the team’s cause, and may need the rudimentary reminders about ball-watching, and how to best track both man and ball at the same time.

So for Matchday 6, that will be all in the Canadian Premier League! Be sure to check out our updated Player Ratings and Team of the Week, and check back for next week’s analysis.


So there it is! The key tactical discussion points from the weekend that was in the Canadian Premier League‘s sixth round of fixtures. Be sure to follow @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite on social media to never miss a CANPL update, and consider becoming a subscriber to the site if you enjoy our content! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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