Carlos Gonzalez – Atletico Ottawa – Tactical Analysis

After finishing bottom of the table in 2021, Carlos Gonzalez has come into Atletico Ottawa and completely transformed the team into one of the most resolute, remarkable teams in the Canadian Premier League. In just half the games, they’ve won more matches than they did in the whole of last season, conceding the second least amount of goals in the league. Along the way, they’ve played one of the most tactically fluid and fantastical styles of football in the division, adamantly changing formation and player roles between the phases. Here is our tactical analysis of Atletico Ottawa’s rise under Carlos Gonzalez.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2 / 3-5-2

As customary in modern football, Atletico Ottawa change their shape in and out of possession. But the distinction between their 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 feels like a marked change, particularly when considering the two formations have very little in common. It’s one thing for a team to operate in a 4-2-3-1, that adapts toward 4-4-2 in defense, and 2-4-4 in attack. That much is logical. What Atletico Ottawa have done with their player roles has never been particularly logical from day one, and that’s the beauty in it. In fact, it took quite a few CPL pundits and regular watchers of the league several tries to get it right. Here’s how it works…

Out of possession, where Ottleti spend the majority of their time, Gonzalez’s men defend resolutely in a 4-4-2 formation. This sees their right and left wingers hold a defensive role almost right on top of the full-backs, with Oliver Bassett more likely to step up and join the press from central midfield than anyone else. As soon as they win the ball, the shape then changes to 3-5-2, which takes their left-back into a left-wing-back role, their left winger into the half-spaces down the left-hand channel, and their right-back into a right-centre-back’s role as part of a back-three build.

This can only be described as incredible fluidity, but the fluidity also happens to be incredibly rigid. 10/10 times, it’s the left-back that overlaps into the attack to create that wide-left overload, rather than the right-back, who always remains part of a firm back-three. The player operating in the left-wing role out of possession then rarely ventures any further than central channels when the possession changes fortunes. This rigidness in organization helps Ottleti to achieve a sense of consistency in their principles of play, where players are better able to understand their role on the pitch and enact the manager’s plans. We will delve deeper into the specific intricacies of both shapes as we move along, but this fluctuation between shapes must be noted as a preeminent factor behind Atleti’s brilliance in 2022 in the Canadian Premier League.

So with those fluctuations in mind, let’s quickly discuss the key figureheads within the system of play. Nathan Ingham has started all eighteen matches in goal, acting as one of the top keepers in the league. An exceptional shot stopper with a clear sense of command, communication and control, Ingham rarely lets his team down. The former York United keeper has kept 7 clean sheets in his 18 matches, and is yet to make an unsuccessful action when running out to sweep in behind his defensive line. Even despite Atletico’s low-line of engagement, this is an integral aspect of modern-day defending. As seen with Burnley last season, Nick Pope showcased just how important having a ‘Sweeper Keeper’ can be in behind even the lowest of low-block 4-4-2 teams. Nathan Ingham is exactly the same way, and Ottleti made one of the smartest off-season signings in securing his signature.

Ahead of Ingham, Gonzalez has created one of the most resolute defensive structures in the league. With an excellent organizer in Drew Beckie already within his ranks, Gonzalez smartly added the aerially robust Diego Espejo and Macdonald Niba to create one of the sturdiest defenses around. 19-year-old Espejo is key to playing out from the back and creating moments for long, progressive passes out wide, whilst Beckie and Niba could both be considered “throwback” defenders for their no-nonsense approach. In Miguel Acosta, Ottleti have an additional option for beautiful switches of play and progressive passes through the thirds, and one that even holds his own in aerial duels and defensive phases himself. Those four can form an unbreakable defensive-line all on their own, but they would be partially incomplete within Gonzalez’s game-plan without the attack-minded Maxim Tissot.

After operating as Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson‘s stunt double for Forge FC, Tissot has now become a high-flying wing-back in 2022, and the key man that allows for the system of play to completely transform. In possession, he gallops up the left-wing on the overlap. Out of possession, he immediately retreats, falling into the left-back slot, as Beckie or Acosta shift across to right-back. This demanding role requires fantastic energy, and Tissot, a man who would not necessarily appear to be the quickest on first glance, has shown that in abundance. While I would always tell any CPL team to target this space in transition, that process becomes more difficult when you consider Ottleti’s use of Beckie and Niba in that left-centre-back position to break up play, not to mention the role of their left-central-midfielder, who is always the more defensively-minded midfielder between the two. Here, we can see the beginning blocks of Gonzalez’s wonderful achievement of balance.

Before confusing your brain into oblivion, let’s quickly touch on that balance achieved in midfield. Oliver Bassett is arguably the team’s standout performer, and the one with the most freedom to enact brilliance in areas of the pitch that he deems fit. He always plays on the right side of central midfield, and acts as the team’s key orchestrator in possession, particularly in spraying forward passes and through-balls into the gaps of the opposition’s defense. As we’ll come to discuss, he’s incredibly fluid and quick-witted in his movement around the pitch. In possession that may manifest in drifting wide to push the right-wing-back further forward. Out of possession, that usually transforms into an advanced pressing role, where he will not only push the envelope, but actively start higher in somewhat of a 4-3-1-2. Sorry. I promised I wouldn’t confuse you.

He’s normally partnered by Ben McKendry or Abdoul Sissoko, who might just be my favourite of ‘Midfield Destroyers’ in the division. Sissoko accumulates a booking just about every single game for his robust playing style, but he’s also incredibly solid in covering space and breaking up play in transition. Playing on the left means that he’s required to prepare himself to shift across and cover spaces more readily than Bassett. What he occasionally lacks in timing or tackling technique, he certainly makes up for in mobility in covering these spaces. McKendry is a more successful tackler, but Sissoko offers more of a fear factor. He knows his strengths, he knows what he’s not, and his team feel the same. Even if their build-up becomes 3+1 with Sissoko at the top of the diamond, they generally avoid him as an option, preferring to circulate until they find moments for long passing between Acosta and Espejo, or magic from Oliver Bassett’s boots. Having previously played for Gonzalez in Kuwait, Sissoko offers up just one more example of an astute off-season signing.

Occasionally, Bassett and Sissoko will have a third member of their midfield join their ranks, beyond just those in-possession 3-5-2 moments. In quite a few matches over the past few months, their out-of-possession shape has actually transformed into 4-1-4-1 instead, which is perhaps one more reason for Sissoko’s inclusion as a ‘Midfield Destroyer’. This has seen Zakaria Bahous take on the role of a ‘Midfield Maestro’, looking to get on the ball and dribble his way through tight spaces. He’s been equally capable of playing that left-sided half-space role to a slightly more influential effect than Zach Verhoven before him, staying in that same slot when possession changes hands. That shape would then see Malcolm Shaw become the left-winger out of possession, as Brian Wright holds rank as the lone striker. But normally, those two hold strong as a pair up top, chasing down long balls in the channels, and trying to get on the end of crosses into the box.

The most dynamic of goal-scorers in the side is however Ballou Tabla, another smart off-season addition. Tabla often operates as the wing-back down the right-hand-side in their 3-5-2, but works best when deployed as a striker. Ballou’s addition has completely changed the complexity of the side, not to mention the competition for places. He’s the other man given more of a free role for Gonzalez’s team, using his pace and power to drive forward both on and off-the-ball.

Tabla feels slightly restricted in that wing-back role, often operating high and wide down the right; and flourishes in the centre-forward’s position where he has more room to race away on the break. Carl Haworth has helped to push Ballou into that centre-forward role more often in recent weeks, as another dynamic wing-back who can deliver crosses into the box and use his pace for evil down the right.

All and all, Carlos Gonzalez has created a beautifully balanced team, full of genuine CPL superstars. With his fluidity and fluctuation between the phases, Gonzalez has created a complex system that becomes more difficult for opposition teams to work out, and allowed his players to thrive in areas of the pitch that suit their strengths.

With that, you may be surprised to hear that we haven’t yet given all the details away. Let’s now break down the deeper minutiae between the phases, and how Gonzalez’s team has achieved so much remarkable success in 2022.

OUT OF POSSESSION

With 43.8% possession this season, Atletico Ottawa have spent the vast majority of their time this season defending. It’s then even more impressive that they’ve managed to hold so resolute, conceding just 20 goals, with 7 clean sheets in 18 matches. This becomes even more impressive when you consider they’ve had the lowest line of engagement in the CPL this season, winning the ball back in the final third just 3.4 times per game.

Gonzalez’s team prefer to defend in a mid to low-block in their own half, where they can shift and shuffle in their shape as the opposition hopelessly circulate the ball. It really has been a hopeless endeavour for most opposition sides this season, with only Valour and Forge achieving a win by scoring more than two goals.

That means 10 of those 20 goals they’ve conceded this season have come in two “off games” for the red and whites. In the other sixteen matches, they’ve held incredibly strong, as the opposition pointlessly pass the ball around without any hope of reaching goal. Any time they try to go around Atleti, the defenders hold resolute in winning 1v1 battles, or clearing subsequent crosses out of the box. Breaking through the midfield is rarely an option, particularly in Atleti’s 4-1-4-1 midfield trio that sees Sissoko as a firm ‘number six’ to screen the opposition’s striker.

With Atletico being so open and wide in attack, you would think hurting them in transition would be your best bet. But their rest defense of 3+1 holds in-tact, and provides at least a solid base that allows other players to get back into position. Valour were the only team to completely take advantage of Tissot’s high-position in attack, in that famous 6-1 win where they tore Ottleti apart.

In truth, the early goals Valour accumulated in that game completely killed Ottleti’s confidence in ways we will not see again the rest of the season.

Again, the endeavour to hurt Ottleti on the break is complicated by the fact that the left-central-midfielder remains ready to cover in behind for Tissot. That player is then backed up by the most robust and proactive defender on the day, whether that be Niba, Beckie or even Sissoko himself as the left-centre-back. Tissot himself is the team’s top interceptor, whilst Acosta, Espejo, Beckie and Sissoko are all prepared to pick up a booking when necessary, even if unintentionally.

Abdoul Sissoko’s heatmap in 2022, from SofaScore.

When you add in the final piece to the puzzle that is Ingham’s quick thinking off his line to command any situation, you get a team that handles their defensive transitions incredibly well.

So what about pressing? Ottleti have the lowest line of engagement, but that doesn’t mean they never press from the front. In fact, they do so with an intriguing look. Bassett pushes up all the way to the front in a 4-3-1-2-esque shape, limiting central penetration all the more.

If the press is broken, Bassett evidently has more work to do in getting back into position, so that is where the wingers must narrow alongside Sissoko. In the team’s 4-1-4-1, it’s again the central midfielders pushing the envelope, actively stepping out to pressure opposition centre-backs one at a time. They’re afforded the ability to do so, knowing the resolute Sissoko screens and holds rank in behind.

Despite being deployed for reasons of adventure and wonder, even Zakaria Bahous employs the team’s hard-hitting nature. He’s thrown himself into 2.0 per game, the third most in his team (behind Acosta and McKendry).

Everywhere you look, Atletico Ottawa have a team of defensive warriors. If they can now build and expand on this defensive stability to grow and expand their attacking horizons, we may even see Carlos Gonzalez’s team take their game to new heights. They’ve already proven capable of being more than just a “counter-attacking” team, scoring many of their goals through intelligent passers like Acosta, Espejo or Bassett, not to mention the sheer dynamism and strength of Shaw, Tabla and Haworth. It’s always a tough balance to crack between defense and attack, but Ottleti could afford to be more adventurous in the future, and may reap the rewards as a result.

IN POSSESSION

From taking on that defensive approach with low possession, it’s no surprise that Ottleti have scored just 21 goals in their 20 matches. Yet despite that, you could reasonably argue that they have one of the most free-flowing, invigorating attacks in the league. Tabla threatens wherever he goes, and in Oliver Bassett, Gonzalez’s team have one of the most accomplished passers in the league. The two men have been absolute staples to the side this season, with 14 goals + assists between them. Bassett’s worked much of his magic from set-pieces, such as his immaculate free kick against Forge, or the whipped corners he frequently puts on a plate for the likes of Drew Beckie.

But he always remains a threat from open play, and his movement up the field is usually timed to perfection meet the demands of his teammates. My favourite Atletico Ottawa goal of the season came from Bassett against Forge, nicely highlighting much of their key attacking principles.

Espejo waited for the right moment to play the long pass down the right-wing into space for Carl Haworth to run onto, and he perfectly cut back this cross into the advancing Ollie Bassett. With a bit of smart combination play between the team’s two top scorers, Tabla then put the former Pacific man through on goal, and Bassett smashed the ball in from there. This is essentially the dream for Gonzalez and his team.

While they love to score goals on the break through the sheer pace and power of Ballou Tabla, they’d prefer to score from smart sequences of play like this. Acosta and Bassett will then look for moments of progressive play where they can either play down the half-spaces or switch play over to the left.

The overloaded left between Tissot and the ‘Inverted Winger’ operating in those left-half-spaces then affords more room for Atletico to combine down the wing and deliver into the penalty area. Malcolm Shaw thrives off crosses into the box, and that means the dynamic wing-play from both Haworth and Tissot can often take center stage.

Ollie Bassett heatmap in 2022 for ATO, thanks to SofaScore.

Creating nearly 2 chances per game, you can see the influence of Bassett in his heatmap alone, and just how often he looks to receive the ball down the right half-spaces to right-wing. In doing so, he allows for greater fluidity of movement for someone like Tabla to come toward the ball and envelop deeper pockets of space. He can then push that right-wing-back higher, whether that be Tabla or Haworth, simultaneously pushing the opposition’s defensive line back. Being an incredibly two-footed individual, Bassett then has the depth of quality to quickly wiggle his way out of trouble when pressed, ensuring Ottleti can keep hold of the ball for longer spells of time without solely relying on long passes.

So while Carlos Gonzalez’s men have clearly prioritized the defensive side of the game in 2022, they’ve still remained one of the most free flowing attacking teams in the league. Scoring 21 goals in 20 matches does not necessarily represent the depth of quality in their chance creation and attacking verve, employing one of the most fluid attacks around.

CONCLUSION

Despite operating with the most clearly defined defensive style, Atletico Ottawa have still managed to be one of the most exciting teams in the CPL. Carlos Gonzalez has turned an eighth placed team into one of the league’s top playoff contenders, with the most fluid and flexible stylistic differences between attacking and defensive phases. This has created not only intrigue but genuine excitement and buzz around Ottleti this season, as they continue to compete against even the best in the division. There’s only one major way up from here, and if Carlos Gonzalez opts for more possession and control in future matches, we may even see Atletico transform their attacking horizons all the more. For now, they’ve created one of the best defenses in the league, and that has to be commended.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Carlos Gonzalez’s Atletico Ottawa in 2022. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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