Stephen Hart – Halifax Wanderers FC – Tactical Analysis

On October 13, 2022, Halifax Wanderers officially parted ways with Halifax Wanderers boss Stephen Hart. The former Trinidad & Tobago coach had been in charge since the Wanderers’ inception in 2018, and won the Coach of the Year award for his efforts in 2020. But life inside the Canadian Premier League did not go as smoothly as planned in 2022, with the Wanderers stumbling down to a 7th place finish (in an 8 team league), as Hart’s time at the club inevitably coming to an end. So with that, we examine Hart’s tactics in his final season with the Wanderers, and how to fix the club moving forward!

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3

Stephen Hart prioritized a 4-3-3 formation with the Wanderers, bolstered by one of the strongest midfield units in the league. Rampersad, Gagnon-Laparé and Lamothe have what it takes to strike fear into the minds of any opposition midfield, and all have the qualities needed to dominate the ball, control the flow and break up the play immediately in transition to maintain that sense of stability.

In Zachary Fernandez, Hart’s team also had one of the best right-backs in the league. Down Fernandez’s side, Samuel Salter had a terrific campaign for the Wanderers, increasing his goal tally from 3 in 2021 to 11 this time around. Even on the other side, Cory Bent remained a strong player for Hart’s team to have at their disposal, as a dynamic wing threat capable of finding the back of the net. Unfortunately for Stephen Hart and co., 2022 was always going to be a difficult season after they lost their superstar in the second matchday of the campaign. Joao Morelli spent the entire season out with an ACL injury, and Hart’s team never recovered, particularly in terms of finding connectivity between the thirds to score goals.

As simplistic as that sounds, Halifax were abysmal in attack this season, scoring just 24 goals in their 28 games – by far the lowest total in the league. Without a focal point up front that could command the line, a domino effect took place. The attacking potency of Zachary Fernandez never took off the way it could have; and the brilliance in possession of players like Gagnon-Laparé, Lamothe and Rampersad to get on the ball and spray intelligent passes never achieved full fluidity. At the time of Morelli’s injury, we suggested a few key ways that HFX could turn their fortunes around, including injecting Aidan Daniels’ box-to-box mobility, and ensuring to prioritize their wide overloads with Fernandez up and down the wing. But admittedly, the team often felt disjointed without that presence linking the play between attack and defense – like Morelli did so well, and lacked a goal-scoring figurehead to bang in the goals.

Changing to a back-three upon the arrival of Cristian Campagna helped in their ability to play out from the back, and meant they now had a deep-lying distributor that didn’t need to drop into the defense to pick up the ball. After all, as a defender, he was predisposed to the left-half-spaces, and could push Gagnon-Laparé further forward.

But even then, everything felt disjointed, lackluster and like a team lacking in confidence. Eriks Santos had several strong showings, but always looked most comfortable alongside Mateo Restrepo – who left professional football to pursue medical school halfway through the season. Kieran Baskett also showed promise in his limited appearances, and perhaps could have been given the nod on more occasions in the battle against the more experienced Christian Oxner.

Whoever comes in next will need to try their best to convince the likes of Rampersad, JGL and Fernandez to stay on board. But even at that, a massive overhaul is needed. A ball-playing sweeper in the mold of Thomas Meilleur-Giguère has to be one of the top priorities, as will be finding a pair of left-sided players so that the Wanderers don’t have to change formation away from all they can achieve between Salter and Fernandez on the right.

It’s also worth reiterating again that while all three midfielders are abundantly talented, the balance struck between them isn’t exactly perfect. Lamothe is a watered-down carbon copy of Gagnon-Laparé, both excellently spraying passes left to right, but neither overly adventurous as they roam forward like Aidan Daniels.

From the outside looking in, I might personally adapt the HFX shape to be a 4-4-2 diamond, which Hart ultimately tested out from time to time. This would allow Lamothe and Gagnon-Lapare to dominate the half-spaces as they already endeavour to do, Rampersad to anchor the gauntlet, and a ‘Creative Ten’ to enter the fold for Samuel Salter to bounce around.

Jake Ruby and Cristian Camapgna performed well in a back-three, and while he’s underratedly sound in defense, Fernandez is more of a wing-back in his up and down approach. But a back-four will allow HFX to fit all of their midfielders into the same system, and allow for an additional face to enter the scene as someone who can genuinely link the play in the final third. Imagine a Tristan Borges type playing in the ’10’, an experienced left-back like Maxim Tissot down the left, and TMG bossing play from defense and organizing the defensive line.

Suddenly, you have a playoff contention team. So while HFX cannot count their lucky stars that they will sign any of these players, I would be looking for availability on the market in these three key areas, with these CPL stars as references for what they should be striving for in the off-season. If Kieran Baskett can continue to develop and Morelli comes back to fitness, HFX have a playoff team already in the making.

But as a reference for what could be possible in the future, let’s first examine Stephen Hart’s tactics in 2022 in greater detail.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

At the height of their attacking brilliance this season, HFX were an effective team. They utilized the likes of JGL and Lamothe to switch play side to side, as Rampersad held everything down in the centre of the park. Fernandez and the left-back on the other side were then able to overlap down the wing to aid the team in delivering crosses into the box, or create those overloads we spoke about with players like Bent and Salter joining the fun.

They also had ball-playing centre-halves in Restrepo and Santos wanting to carry the ball forward or play long passes of their own, and that only continued under the cultured approach of Campagna. But rarely did it ever feel like HFX had total control of the match. Perhaps their over-reliance on long passing led to unwanted errors, and ultimately came to nothing when the likes of Fernandez or Tabi had no one to hammer home the ball into the net. If both full-backs ventured forward simultaneously, the team could even leave themselves exposed with just a 2+1 rest-defense.

Lacking the pace on the defensive transition, HFX were extraordinarily weak in their own transitional moments going forward. Just 16% of their counter-attacks ended with shots, compared to the league average of 48%. This again stems from a lack of a focal point up front, or even a clear plan detailing who to use as a first outlet in transition.

Out from the back, Rampersad would often drop in between the centre-backs as Gagnon-Laparé or Lamothe shifted wide to pick up the ball. The change to a back-three felt like a natural addition that wouldn’t drastically change team tactics, but that might have been part of the problem. The likes of JGL, Lamothe or even Polisi continued to facilitate attacks from deep, rather than finding a way to get into dangerous attacking positions in the centre of the pitch to connect with the front-line. They ended up relying on Gagnon-Laparé’s brilliance from set-pieces to create moments of magic, and luckily had Salter as a set-piece threat of his own. The fact that the 22-year-old scored 11 of the team’s 24 goals is quite discouraging, and illustrates the dilemma they had in creating that connectivity between the thirds without Morelli.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

Out of possession, HFX often defended in a 4-3-1-2 shape, with Akeem Garcia as the lowest pressing member within the team’s front-three. He would help to lead the process from the stance of a ’10’, usually in the quest to track an opposition ‘6’, as the more energetic Salter and Bent pressed higher. The shape could also be adapted into more of a 4-4-2, with somewhat of a pendulum as Bent or Salter joined the front-man, and the midfielders responded in behind.

After the change in shape, a 5-3-2 became an inevitable defensive shape, and perhaps one that became overly defensive in disallowing HFX to explode on the break to the same effect. Their passes allowed per defensive action also went up (meaning down), thus bringing them further away from goal in the quest to counter-attack on regains.

To their credit, HFX often achieved defensive overloads against teams playing with a midfield double-pivot, where Rampersad glued himself to the team’s number ten and the other two held resolute in defending in front of him. Fernandez and Santos handled their 1v1 dueling responsibilities well, and even if Oxner often looked like a player bored of his life and ready to fly out of town without warning, that sometimes also manifested in positive sweeping in behind.

But again, the issues weren’t in their ability to defend 1v1 battles. Structural concerns were of greater concern, including their level of organization at the back, and how they defended wide attacks.

Tabi’s relative lack of defensive prowess meant they could often be beaten for pace down their left, where Santos would immediately find himself forced into tackles. They then often over-compacted in creating wide overloads defensively, leaving themselves easily exposed to switches into the middle of the field. As one player stepped out, another would always be left more exposed as the gaps widened.

At times, as they floundered around the pitch trying to steal the ball rather than hold position, they simply looked like a team lost in translation. Combine that with what felt like a fear of making tackles in their own third, and a lack of speed in defense during moments of transition, and you easily concede the second most goals in the league.

But HFX had the makings of a team that could defend solidly, and use a sense of physicality to their advantage even if they couldn’t compete with the tactical implications on the day. There is still much for a new manager to work with, and with the right player psychology, their young guns will turn into top pros.

So with that, let’s now delve into the transfer market and examine the key areas of improvement for the Wanderers.

OFF-SEASON RECRUITMENT

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After missing out on the playoffs for the second successive season, the time to start preparing for 2023 begins now. Experience across the pitch will be needed, and the Wanderers should assess the free agent market in late November. But there are also a few hidden gems in our scouting database that could be worth a shot.

LEFT-BACK
PlayerTeamDef. ActDef. Duel %Att. ActAtt. Duel %Pass F. 1/3 %
A. AhmedVan. Whitecaps FC II13.569.04.6352.376.5
T. AntonoglouToronto FC II9.1662.83.4541.575
N. DossantosPittsburgh Riverhounds9.5059.01.1239.664.1
T. GabarraASC San Diego8.1964.22.3552.174.2
S. SimpsonEsbjerg10.460.83.9349.164

Left-back remains one of the greatest needs in the team. Obeng Tabi is powerful and pacey, but susceptible defensively, and not all that fruitful going the other way either.

HFX might want to look into securing Toronto FC II player Themi Antonoglu on a loan-deal. Even despite having a promising season, the 21-year-old may be unlikely to break into the MLS side in his position, and HFX could be the perfect landing spot for his development. He’s smart about his ventures forward into the attack, closer to Fernandez in his attacking contributions than Obeng Tabi, and stands out in possession of the ball. The one area of the field that HFX lacked serious ball progression always came out wide, and Antonoglu is a smart passer who could help to bring greater dominance to their overloads down the left.

For a more defensive option, HFX could tap back into the Whitecaps II market and make a move for the bright Ali Ahmed – who won nearly 70% of his defensive duels in 2022. A beast at the back, Ahmed went the entire campaign without picking up a single-booking. Even at 21, he’d clearly be able to provide a sense of level-headedness to the Wanderers’ shaky defense, and help to immediately improve upon their defensive organization.

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But equally importantly, he’d be able to offer the same level-headedness in possession of the ball, just like Antonoglu. He completed 9.69 progressive passes per 90, and 3.35 passes into the penalty area in 2022 – both fantastic output for a full-back that already excels in the defensive side of the game. So if a defender in the Maxim Tissot mold of experience is out of reach, we definitely suggest HFX take their swing at Ali Ahmed or Themi Antonoglu.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

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After the ACL injury to Joao Morelli, the entire functionality of the team went out the window. That’s because they lacked someone who could connect play vertically up the pitch, and drop deep at the right moments to pick up possession. Instead of searching for a ‘False 9’ type of player, we instead search for a ’10’ that HFX could use in a variety of different positions. An ‘Inverted Winger’ of the Tristan Borges or Marco Bustos mold could work wonders in having that player drift inside to get on the ball, as the likes of Fernandez and the unsigned left-wing-back advance on the overlap.

We’ve suggested Calin Calaidjoglu to CPL clubs in the past, and he may be out of the price range given his exceptionalities on the ball, and intelligence in movement. Kianz Froese would be potentially available for half the price, and with all due respect, why play in the third tier of German football when you can rock up in your home country?

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Froese loves the half-spaces, and could be an essential part of the process in HFX’s quest to exploit them higher up in the pitch, particularly from the left. The 26-year-old times his movement into the penalty area well, giving himself that half-a-second more to create quality chances. Cameron Cresswell of IK Start could also be someone to catch the eye, as a shot-hungry focal point up top, capable of coolly finding the back of the net. But if they could convince someone like Sergio Camargo to join, there is certainly still room to look within the CPL.

CENTRE-BACK

PlayerTeamDef. Duel %Aerial %Fwd. Pass %Long P %Pass F. 1/3 %
K. SadikiVirtus Entella68.6374.675.9368.7569.79
B. HalbouniMagdeburg73.446.1577.5238.7171.43
C. MontgomeryMinnesota United76.6750.9879.2258.4473.03
F. SturingHorn65.4558.3375.2168.7570.41
F. LinderVan. Whitecaps FC II62.2658.8282.156.6781.08
Last 365 days as per Wyscout.

At centre-back, my personal dream for any CPL club would be to sign Thomas Meiller-Giguère, who excellently combines an on the ball presence with leadership at the back, defensive steel, and meticulous awareness. Let’s just say that he should be out of the question at this point, and that he hopefully gets his deserved move soon.

Part of me wonders if Minnesota would be tempted by an offer for Callum Montgomery, who didn’t play a single minute of MLS action in 2022.

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Both a decent progressor of the ball and solid positionally, Montgomery could be a nice move for HFX to consider. I would however see if I could get Kosovar Sadiki out of Serie C. He rarely loses 1v1 duels, dominates the air, and carries a sense of confidence on the ball that the Wanderers currently lack out from the back. Sadiki’s completed nearly 70% of his long passes in the last 365 days for Virtus Entella, emerging as the ideal candidate for the club in their pursuit to dominate more of the ball and have their long passes come to greater fruition.

Starting from a place of Sadiki, Ahmed and Froese would immediately inject more firepower and solidity into HFX, where they could then build their tactics around the pieces already in place.

CONCLUSION

After four years in charge of HFX Wanderers, Stephen Hart’s time ultimately felt as though it was always going to come to an end after this disappointing 2022 campaign. But with so many standout pieces still in place, the right manager could see immediate improvement. The club may have to settle for MLS B Team players again in their recruitment process, but should not be afraid to delve into the free agent market and see what value they can find. Whoever comes in next has much to work with in creating their own sense of culture at the club, and we could easily see HFX achieve a meteoric, Atletico Ottawa styled rise in 2023 under the right circumstances.


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