After a long, hard-fought Canadian Premier League season, tomorrow will see the attacking fluidity of Forge meet the defensive solidity of Atletico Ottawa in the CPL Playoff final. The season saw an intense top four battle between the two playoff finalists alongside Pacific and Cavalry over the past seven months, and we are now one day away from the finale to what has been an explosive, groundbreaking season for the CPL. Here is our tactical preview of the final, and what both teams may look to do ahead of tomorrow.
Atletico Ottawa have been one of the most tactically flexible teams throughout this season, even despite also being the most rigid in their approach. That comes from a changing shape between their attacking and defensive phases, where they will operate in a 4-1-4-1 out of possession, and a 3-5-2 in possession. For Forge FC, the keys will be seeing if they can exploit the spaces in behind Ballou Tabla, who is the least diligent in tracking his defensive responsibilities. Pacific found room in both legs behind the Ottawa man, as he continuously left Manny Aparicio room to roam into free space.
The other key for Forge will be in finding different metrics for breaking down Atletico Ottawa’s stern low-block. Switches of play will be essential, such as through the use of Alessandro Hojabrpour in the centre of the pitch to play passes across. Forge will need to lure Ottawa into over-compacting on one side of the field, and then try to use the width of David Choiniere and Rezart Rama down the right to overload and isolate Ottawa’s left, before delivering into the penalty area.
Pacific did this effectively across the two legs, but just simply couldn’t buy a way past Nathan Ingham at the vital moment. This will be Forge’s greatest challenge in breaking Atletico down. Even if they can find space in the right-half-spaces that Tabla vacates, they will need to win their aerial contests up against the likes of Espejo and Acosta, and then they will face the other barrier of Ingham standing in their way. Crosses might not be the most effective approach in breaking Ottawa down given their aerial prowess and Forge’s lack thereof, but they will need to find the right combinations between Rama and Choinière in exploiting Ottawa’s weaker left.
Set-pieces could be another useful area, particularly as they employ their intricate short-corner routines to create different crossing angles. Pacific’s only goal across the two legs came from a back-post corner kick headed in by Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, and the whip of Tristan Borges could easily create a similar moment.
Drew Beckie could be a doubt for the match having picked up a head injury against Pacific, and Gonzalez will have a natural replacement in the form of Diego Espejo, who missed the previous match due to a first-leg yellow card. This should make Gonzalez’s selection fairly straightforward, with the only slight caveat being that Malcolm Shaw could easily start in place of Brian Wright. Shaw’s made more of an impact in fewer minutes across the two playoff matches, and scored that vital goal to ensure their spot in the final. He certainly deserves his selection from the start, unless Gonzalez wants to save him as something of an Alessia Russo super-sub.
All and all, if Atletico Ottawa can hold their defensive resilience and then counter-punch Forge on the break, they will have every shot at winning this match.
Forge will almost certainly set up in their 4-3-3 / 4-1-4-1 formation, with nine or ten players locked into a starting birth. In Kyle Bekker’s absence however, Bobby Smyrniotis will have a decision to make in his selection. Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson could play at the base of the midfield instead of Alessandro Hojabpour, as Abdulmalik Owolabi-Belewu makes a return to the eleven. Daniel Krutzen played a monstrous role in the semi-final second-leg against Cavalry, and Forge will be hoping his fitness lasts the full ninety in the final. Having that luxury then gives them the option of putting Jönsson back into midfield and shifting Hojabrpour into more of a box-to-box role alongside Aboubacar Sissoko. Noah Jensen could be the alternative option, or Terran Campbell from the left as Tristan Borges shifts inside. The depth that the Hamilton club have to offer is immense, and will play a massive part in their ability to replace such a vital figurehead.
Shifting Hojabrpour into more of an advanced role could be a massive move for the Hammers in breaking down that Atletico defense, with his incisive through passing taking center stage in both legs. It was his pass that unlocked Cavalry’s defense and allowed David Choinière to go through on goal unattended for the first goal of the previous game. That combination down the right will be vital against Ottawa, as the likes of Pacius and Sissoko also work to create chaos down Forge’s right with Rama and Choinière.
Forge will have two other key tactical battles to ensure they get right. Atletico Ottawa are formidable in transition, and Ballou Tabla will often drift into spaces that allow him to explode into the optimal amount of space. He’s the first outlet whenever the team regain possession, and his pace and precision can be electric in behind. Ashtone Morgan will then have to ensure he’s being diligent in his movement both forward and back, to not allow the Ottawa men to exploit his side. Rama will typically stay more reserved in the team’s back-three-build, preferring to play passes into the final third. Morgan can be slightly more adventurous down the left as the team work into a 3-2-5 shape, and this can allow players like Tabla to exploit the space in behind.
The second tactical battle that they will have to ensure they get right is down their own right-side, where Rezart Rama had quite the wild evening against Cavalry. He will need to stay disciplined and hold his composure out of possession in the final, even when coming up against the potential overloads between Maxim Tissot overlapping Zakaria Bahous. Atletico Ottawa make a habit of implementing game-changing substitutes like Malcolm Shaw and Zach Verhoven, and this will mean fresh legs will inevitably come up against a man that loves to get stuck into challenges and could have the potential to lose his head. Rama will need to stay composed within himself and work to bring out his assets rather than his weaknesses, ensuring he doesn’t have another moment like Jose Escalante ghosting past him and delivering on a plate for a teammate. Whoever then plays in the ‘6’ position will have a mammoth task of keeping their fullbacks on track, and that might be one more reason to play the CPL Defender of the Year in the position and push Hojabrpour further ahead.
The CPL Playoff Final is all to play for tomorrow night, and it is likely going to be a match of attack versus defense as Forge and Atletico do battle. Forge must find mechanisms for breaking down Atletico’s low-block, and that might come from switches of play and the wide overloads between Choiniere and Rama. Atletico meanwhile can have the potential to exploit Morgan’s high position in attack by using Tabla on the break, and will look to inject pace and power with their substitutes late on to cause more chaos to tiring legs. This will be a fantastic way to end off this season, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the CPL Playoff Final.
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