Halifax Wanderers lost another road game, which isn’t particularly interesting on its own–sometimes you lose road games–but the way they did it shows us a lot about how this league works.
I’ve wanted to do one of these for a while, and was waiting for a good opportunity. Most goals in soccer have an element of chance, and most are more cascades of minor events than one catastrophic mistake or definitive piece of skill. It’s part of what makes the sport such a chess much, and what makes the tactics so interesting.
Every so often, how a goal comes about says a lot about one or both of the teams playing. That’s the case with Cavalry’s first-half goal against Wanderers this week. It changed the game–not for the first time, Stephen Hart’s bunker-and-counter strategy had to be torn up after the team conceded early.
But it’s illustrative for Cavalry, too, both as an example of what they do so well and as an example of one of the things they don’t, and it shows us how that underlying issue could become a problem if and when their form dips.
After all, what is “form”, really? It’s one of those football-isms from the English game–practically, it just means who’s playing well and who’s not; it’s not something can really be measured. In the end, it derives from how many of the little moments come off right.
This goal starts with a little moment: Dominique Malonga, who at this point still didn’t have a goal this season, makes a really great play to hold the ball up.
This is possible because Wanderers are sitting so deep and narrow, a classic road strategy. Malonga, #23, drops deep, drawing Zela Langwa to him. Langwa’s a touch slow, which will become a theme here. (There’s also a great little layoff by Camargo right before this frame.)
Nico Pasquotti makes a simple but effective run down the outside, into the space Langwa vacates. This isn’t rocket science, but it is good, organized tactical movement, and it’s originates with Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and is made possible by having players who know each other.
Pasquotti gets a particularly lucky bounce off a recovering Langwa, and wins a corner.
Now Cavalry go to work. This is a set-piece, which they’re very good at. They’re good at them because they repeatedly win the second ball. They can do this because they’re industrious, yes, but there’s also some luck involved. Wanderers actually clear the corner three separate times–Hart no doubt prepared his team for these set pieces.
That’s pretty much exactly how you want that play to go. The first delivery was actually badly overhit, Cavalry–wait for it–had someone ready for that. Each time, Cavalry out-hustle Wanderers to win it back.
First, Juan Gutierrez doesn’t get out to Julian Buescher. Then Langwa, who to be fair, was in defending the cross a moment ago, is nowhere near Sergio Camargo receiving that ball.
That may read harsh on Wanderers’ defense, which is generally pretty solid. The slowness here looks, to me anyway, like a classic symptom of too many games in too few days. These guys are fit, and they can run, but it’s the scampering that just doesn’t come when your legs are tired from a game Wednesday night followed by a long flight. Gutierrez played 90 tough minutes against Vaughan. Langwa was involved, too. Plus, Cavalry’s pitch is slow. It’s the little things add up.
Now, instead of punishing this mistake, Cavalry actually futz it up quite badly. Skublak, who’s just a bit ahead of Langwa above, makes a really smart run behind Camargo. Langwa checks up to block, and Camargo spins and plays a poor pass backwards and outside, looking a.) for more time, and b.) expecting another cross.
This is the first symptom of not having a bona fide playmaker. When the move begins to break down, Cavalry have zero ideas other than cross it. There’s no one to put his foot on it and control play. It should be Camargo, but he’s putting on a clinic in what not to do here, panicking under pressure and going backwards rather than waiting or making a move himself. It helps, though, that Gutierrez doesn’t stop moving, pressing Camargo into making a quick decision, which turns out to be a bad one.
Skublak picks the pass off and is off to the races–or he would be, if Nathan Mavila didn’t make an heroic play to get back, get in front of him, and win it back.
Mavila’s lucky here–if that’s Akeem Garcia or Mo Korouma, best-case move is pull him down and cop a yellow. Cavalry have a lot of guys caught forward here–this was exactly what Wanderers wanted, and despite a slow reaction, almost got it.
Mavila spins away from Skublake and has time to make a pass–Elijah Adekugbe is screaming for it because he’s seen that Wanderers have six guys pulled left, pressuring Mavila and Camargo (who still hasn’t moved). Instead, he lomps a low-percentage ball back into the box.
Nobody is particularly ready for it, and Peter Schaale clears it from more or less inside Malonga’s forehead. This is good marking and it should be danger averted.
Except yet again, Cavalry win the second ball. In a precursor to what’s coming, it’s Joel Waterman, #15, hanging back in the left channel as a wingback. Andre Bona is slow to close him down, having been focused on the ball in. Bona’s a natural centre-back, and he plays this like one–rather than hassle Waterman, he stands off.
Bona, too, had played 45 minutes against Vaughan after Zach Sukunda, a late-game addition to the line-up instead of Bona, struggled. Credit to Sukunda here–he pinches in, like the fullback he is, to give Bona some cover. Wanderers really should win the ball here.
Instead, Adekugbe, just outside that frame, finally gets his pass. What follows is an almost hilarious attempt to break down a low block as Wanderers just box them out. Adekugbe does well to find Pasquotti, but he’s going backwards. Nobody is making a supporting or diagonal run, so he plays a risky sideways pass to Dean Northover, the defender who’s pushed forward and who is immediately under pressure. He just throws it back in the box.
Malonga, #23, is the only guy really anticipating that ball in. He’s already in front of Andre Bona, #3, who’s ball-watching. This is where Wanderers simply have to press faster. Those passes are inviting turnovers, and Northover’s actually in a pretty bad spot here with Alex De Carolis bearing down on him.
Instead, Joel Waterman is again completely free in the far channel. I’m not totally convinced Northover was actually aiming at him–the cross hangs up a fair bit and waffles over Malonga in the wind–but this time Waterman is better positioned and heads it first-time. Bona can’t get to him, and Peter Schaale is left having to track Malonga’s run. I don’t want to assume any communication errors because I wasn’t there watching it live, but it sure looks like Schaale never gets a shout. Either way, Malonga is so quick with his flicked header it might not have made much difference.
Goal. 1 – 0. Gameplan out the window.
What Cavalry do so well here is wait. Where a lot of direct, physical teams would just hammer a long shot or send a badly-aimed cross back post, they cycle the ball around, and when the cross does come, they know where Waterman’s run is going to be.
This is actually a really great goal. It’s the coaching and confidence gives them the patience, the intelligent movement, particularly by Waterman, creates the chance, and skill finishes it. And props to a whole series of former USPORTs guys, who are all over this clip, both for good and ill.
It is also, however, the sort of goal you tend to get at home–not luck, exactly, but only because it’s substantially easier to manufacture the favourable bounces Cavalry get during this sequence when the opponent is sitting deep, not engaging, playing on an unfamiliar surface on short rest. If Andre Bona hasn’t played a tonne, does he get to Waterman? If Wanderers aren’t so focused on defending the set piece, do they get faster pressure to Northover?
Either way, Wanderers should have seen the move coming–Waterman did it once, somebody has to be tracking him. Andre Bona can’t get caught wrong side of Malonga and also too far from Waterman. Zach Sukunda is partially responsible there, too, as the weak side winger who should be tracking the wingback–he’s tucked in to help defend the cutback, but sometimes you gotta sniff where the real danger is. It’s tough because after so many crosses, everyone’s positions and marks are mixed about. That right side of defense, though, has become a problem for Stephen Hart, and Wanderers are not set up to be the kind of team that can afford to give teams a preventable goal, at least on the road.
Cavalry really need to solve their problem at #10 before I’ll consider them quite as good as everyone says. They do a lot with what they have, and that’s what I really like about how Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has approached this spring season. Over the course of the full campaign, though, it’s not so much that teams will figure this out, as fatigue, travel, and sheer dumb luck will limit the frequency of these kinds of goals.
You can’t really see it right now because even xG, expected goals, the best stat to capture this kind of effect, isn’t properly usable in sample sizes under 10-15 games or so. And to an extent, breaking it down so quantitatively takes away from the little pieces of skill that make this goal, particularly from Mavila and Malonga.
It’s just relying on that is a bit of a fool’s errand, because as teams get more familiar, that back channel run won’t be unmarked. Camargo’s error would be punished, as would Pasquotti’s sideways pass.
When a team is well-coached and organized, though, that creates the conditions for this kind of goal to happen. In CanPL, you gotta win your home games and you do that by taking advantage of the visitors’ travel and fatigue. Cavalry have done just that at home, and have 15 points to show for it.
Now they have to try to recreate these kinds of goals on the road.1Interestingly, they did at Forge, and I almost did one of these for their winner, which was caused almost exclusively by bad Forge throw-ins. Just ran out of time.