If you wanted a playoff match to perfectly represent the way that two teams played the entire second half of the season, this was that match. Full of intent and intensity, both teams played to win in their own distinct style, with their own unique complexities popping up along the way. Here is our match analysis of the first-leg semi-final between Atletico and Pacific, and what both teams may look to do ahead of the second-leg.
PACIFIC – IN POSSESSION
Starting with Pacific, James Merriman set his team up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Manny Aparicio floating in and out of the ’10’ position as he drifted toward the ball. Often as he dropped to receive, Sean Young would float higher, and Marco Bustos would come inside as Olakunle Dada-Luke stretched the width. Cedric Toussaint and Nathan Mavila would usually be the ones to hang low instead, as Thomas Meilleur-Giguère operated as the deepest member of the build-up to switch play and give himself extra yards in transition. Didic operated angled and higher than TMG, whilst Mavila’s often inverted position meant that Heard could operate high and wide down the left, where he was largely uninvolved. Kamron Habibullah existed as something of a ‘False 9’, drifting away from the compact Atletico defense to receive in central spaces.
In creating chances, Pacific funneled play through Marco Bustos and Olakunle Dada-Luke down the right side, before using a cut-cross to the central channels for Manny Aparicio to make a final decision. Bustos buzzed around the field with his close control and ability to take on several players at once in full flow, and no one could get a grip of his intensity. He won a flurry of free kicks in dangerous areas for his team, primarily through his ability to race away in transition.
The 26-year-old also made himself responsible for many of the best chances of the night, where Nathan Ingham rose to the challenge and clawed his shots away.
Unfortunately for Pacific, without Alejandro Diaz knowing where to be and how to move inside the penalty area, they lacked a focal point up front and became overly reliant on Aparicio and Bustos to create magic from deep.
Without someone to hammer home the finish, they struggled to make the most of the brilliance of the aforementioned pair of players. The out-to-in play of the team to consistently exploit the wide right channel before finding gaps in the centre made Pacific a constant threat. But other than a brilliant moment from Jadon Brown to take the ball down and strike, they were never able to conjure up dangerous chances in the penalty area.
In many ways, that was down to Atletico Ottawa’s own defensive structures and solidity, with the likes of Espejo and Acosta putting their bodies on the line. But the spaces were available to attack, and Pacific did well to find those spaces in their pursuits.
PACIFIC – OUT OF POSSESSION
Out of possession, Pacific defended from the front in a 4-1-4-1 shape, that would float into more of a 4-3-2-1 – with the central midfielders stepping on Ottawa’s outside-centre-backs. We discussed this tactic with Atletico themselves in our mid-season tactical analysis of Gonzalez’s team, and it’s ultimately an effective approach in forcing play to the outside, where the wingers are ready to trap the play. But with Aparicio and Young stepping on Acosta and Camus, not only were they able to limit the time on the ball of the two players, but they were also able to limit further penetration ahead into Ollie Bassett. Absolutely exceptional whenever he had the ball at his feet in playing forward passes and controlling the tempo, Bassett simply couldn’t get on the ball as much as he would have liked due to Aparicio’s ability to hustle and hurry.
Their press could also remain flexible as Aparicio shifted up to a 4-4-2, and Sean Young stayed reserved in midfield. We saw this with the introduction of Zakaria Bahous in particular, where the Pacific man would track the dynamic dribbler and then step on Camus as he began to carry the ball forward.
For their own right, Pacific held resolute and completely limited penetration into the wide areas. Espejo wanted to switch play and spray his long-passing brilliance, but Mavila and Dada-Luke were always in the way. Haworth and Tissot couldn’t get on the ball or use the wide overload attempts to success, with both Pacific fullbacks handling their own in 1v1 duels. Then it all came crashing down.
Somewhere in the second half, I can vividly remember Irving rushing out of his goal for no reason, and the chance going unpunished. This should have been a warning-sign for the Pacific vice-captain. Atletico are simply brilliant in transition, and Irving’s moment of mindlessness to sprint out of his goal completely undid all of Pacific’s hard-work in the blink of an eye. By sprinting out, he forced Didic to change his run as the nearest tracking defender (you don’t want to get clamoured!) and cover Irving’s own misery instead. Had he just held his position, Mavila and Didic were in a great position to recover the situation and stop Tabla from bursting into the box.
Pacific fell flat from there, shell-shocked that they had been cruelly punished for not making enough of their chances. Atletico only grew into the game with their substitutes injecting pace and power back into the team, and Merriman’s team ultimately left space wide open on their left for Zach Verhoven to hammer home the final finish.
ATLETICO OTTAWA – IN POSSESSION
Atletico Ottawa had spells of possession within their lack of dominance, but spending just 36% of the ninety minutes on the ball speaks to how little they endeavoured to maintain control of the ball. They strived to inject variety in their attacking play, with the likes of Bassett and Tabla floating around to different positions to receive the ball in space. Bassett for example could drift into the back-three as Acosta pushed ahead, or over to the right wing as Haworth probed inside. While this was fun, it ultimately did nothing for Gonzalez’s team, as Pacific held strong and defended the wide areas exceptionally well.
They relied on their counter-attacking approach, first using Brian Wright as the instant outlet, and later Ballou Tabla once he switched to the striker. Even if not able to find the best chances at goal through this approach until late on, they won four corners (more than Pacific’s three). In these instances, Atletico used a short first pass, as the corner taker would then overlap on the outside of that first option, before delivering a cross from a different angle.
This is how they created their best chance of the first half, when the ball eventually came back in for Sissoko to strike off the post.
But as the second half wore on, it felt like Gonzalez ultimately needing to make a change in order to inject more pace and power into their attack. They struggled to get the ball into Malcolm Shaw as he hung low in defense, and then wasn’t available as an outlet in transition. Zakaria Bahous was finding nice moments of dribbling magic and making his in-possession moments count, while Bassett’s forward passing continued to be solid. They just needed someone who could exploit space in behind the defensive line, rather than in front of it. So the Atletico manager made a smart adaptation in moving Tabla up top. Seconds later, they scored.
ATLETICO OTTAWA – OUT OF POSSESSION
With a clean sheet and a solid, typical Atletico Ottawa performance, it’s easy to claim that Gonzalez’s team were brilliant in defense. Perhaps more truthfully, they were fearful and frazzled throughout the first 75 minutes, particularly by the pace of Marco Bustos. Several Atletico Ottawa men found themselves booked through their aggressive approach (surprisingly Sissoko wasn’t one of them!!), and Tabla’s attack-mindedness consistently left space in the right-half-channels for Aparicio and Bustos to exploit.
Nevertheless, a clean sheet still suggests quite a bit of solidity. The Ottawa team defended in a 4-1-4-1 to 4-5-1, with Tabla low in that left-central-midfield role out of possession. This restricted Atletico’s ability to immediately spring forward in transition, as they normally have those two front-players to combine up top. The first half omission of Zakaria Bahous also made it so that they lacked a different edge to their in-possession moments – a player whose fanciful footwork could frustrate Pacific into fouls of their own. So they had to defend and shuffle with the play in that 4-5-1, with even Wright/Shaw low and behind the ball in many stages. They restricted Pacific to working magic deeper on the field, meaning they struggled to get into the right attacking positions to strike at goal. Crosses from deep became a frequent occurrence as Pacific failed to advance through the thirds, and Ottawa made 20 clearances on the night in shepherding those chances away.
Some of Atletico’s scarier moments came in transition, but whether it was Miguel Acosta or Diego Espejo, someone always stepped up to make that crucial challenge. In the end, their ability to shuffle with the play, whilst holding an organized and resolute structure frustrated Pacific all evening, even despite their lion’s share of the possession.
Looking ahead to the second leg in the semi-finals, the biggest news is that Ottawa are now going to be missing pass master Diego Espejo – after picking up his eighth booking of the season. Espejo’s played 26 of Ottawa’s 29 games this season, and 91% of his team’s minutes. Drew Beckie’s performed best on the outside of Espejo, and Camus is relatively untested in such a vital sweeping role. Gonzalez might look into playing Sissoko in the hole, as McKendry enters the fold in midfield, but even that would be a significant risk given Sissoko’s rash tackling and discipline issues of his own. The best move might be to place Drew Beckie back in the limelight, trusting his experience to organize the defensive line and spray passes around to a similar extent.
Pacific meanwhile might opt for Jadon Brown up front in the second leg, using a focal point up front to muddle the situation for whomever comes in at the back for Ottawa. Heard and Habibullah were relatively anonymous for long spells of the first-leg, and a natural striker will help to push Ottawa’s defensive-line back. and leave more space for Bustos and Aparicio to roam.
Ottawa themselves may test their hand at starting Tabla up top without Brian Wright, as Zakaria Bahous starts instead. The team simply looked superior once making this move in the second half, and Malcolm Shaw could easily play on the left to accommodate both players. At that, it’s tough to feel like Pacific FC have a shot of turning their fortunes around. But this is the Canadian Premier League after all, and anything is possible.
So there it is! Our tactical analysis of Pacific’s blunder of a loss to Atletico Ottawa in the first-leg semi-final. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, CANPL content, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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