Originally I set out to write one of those infuriatingly “neutral” previews with a nice lede and lots of stats.
Except Wanderers are in the final and I just can’t.
There is danger in excitement. One’s hopes can always be dashed, doubly so in a major final. I could try to hedge it, but I can’t honestly do that either because I think Wanderers have a real edge in this game. I think they’ve been the best team in CanPL in 2020.
There are reasons to doubt that certainty. Wanderers have over-performed their expected goals though a lot of that is down to Akeem Garcia’s finishing, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Their opponents, Forge, have a slightly better goal differential and better underlying numbers–again, shouldn’t be a surprise.
Wanderers weren’t quite as bad as the standings or stats suggested in 2019, either. If there’s one lesson you should take from stats, it’s that these things tend to balance out over time. It’s fitting that the four players they’ve had nominated for awards (and one who should have been, Andre Rampersad) were all Wanderers last year, too.
What’s new—or at least, much better executed—is their pressure and trapping in midfield. It was there at times last year, especially when Elton John played, and it flummoxed Forge more than once.
Indeed, this final presents a really tricky problem for Forge, because as long as Bobby Smyrniotis is in charge, Forge will play a certain way. They will also do it with good players, and Forge probably still have an edge on pure talent, but the way they play feeds right into what Wanderers do best.
Discipline in the press
It’s tempting to compare Wanderers’ press to Cavalry’s, but the two are quite different. Halifax have a deeper tripwire and set more two and three-man traps rather than immediately harassing the ball-carrier.
To work properly, Wanderers’ press has to be disciplined. That’s true for any pressing team, and isn’t just about not committing needless fouls, but also about not chasing too far.
Wanderers have committed a few needless fouls in this tournament and would be well-advised to avoid that on Saturday, but the latter part of that discipline is something they do very, very well, especially compared to 2019. They know where their own traps are laid. There are three: one on each flank, and a nasty three-pronged one on Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson.
Contrary to what people say, it’s not Kyle Bekker who’s critical to Forge breaking pressure, it’s Achinioti-Jonsson. He’s the one who drops between the centre-backs and starts play.
In the second match between Forge and Wanderers, Stephen Hart made a switch from a three-man central midfield to a 4-2-3-1 with Joao Morelli higher up. Morelli presses almost as fiercely as Abou Sissoko, and it leads to this:
Morelli’s the central runner there, advancing to cover Daniel Krutzen (#5, if you squint) after Wanderers cleared a ball. Just two minutes into the match, he’s already done this three times, and each time, Achinioti-Jonsson has made a mistake.
After Garcia forces David Edgar to play back to Henry, Forge reset. Achinioti-Jonsson drops between Krutzen and receives the ball. Both Wanderers strikers are immediately on him.
Note how high Wanderers two other midfielders are—Louis Beland-Goyette on the left and Sissoko in the middle. Omar Kreim is also tucking in. A minute prior, Kyle Bekker had recognized that and dropped way back to give Achinioti-Jonsson an option, but that’s not where Bekker wants to be. He wants to be right where he is, receiving and then linking the play to attack.
There are no good options here. Achinioti-Jonsson has to beat at least one man, and can’t. Wanderers turn him over, and Forge have no one close to put out the fire.
That ends in Wanderers’ opening goal.
Achinioti-Jonsson had a woeful first half and was promptly yanked at half-time by Smyrniotis. Given Bobby very rarely rotates his starters, it’s almost a given the Swede will start. Expect Morelli to be right on him.
When Achinioti-Jonsson can’t find Bekker, he recycles the ball back to the either the wide centre-back or the full-back, and that’s where Wanderers’ second trap springs. Here’s an example from the early in the first-round match against Forge:
That’s Rampersad—the most attacking of the midfield three that day—battling Achinioti-Jonsson for the header. It springs to the left, and you can see Cory Bent—who’d actually been defending near his own corner flag a moment ago, sprinting forward to force Daniel Krutzen to make a play.
In this case, Krutzen makes it, finding first Awuah, the left-back, and then supporting himself to play a one-two to Marcel Zajac. It’s good play from Krutzen, done cleanly and quickly. When Bobby talks about fundamentals, this is what he means.
But Choiniere’s in a bad spot here. Sissoko is across quickly, Chrinovoic N’sa’s got the line covered, and there is nothing on for Forge. This one ends in a throw-in. To watch Forge and Wanderers at this tournament is to watch a lot of these cycles: Forge build but are forced down the flanks. There’s zero space on this play, or anywhere. Kyke Bekker is stuck standing around and Wanderers have a guy on him even then.
All of this takes tremendous discipline and focus. If Sissoko goes too early, Krutzen breaks Wanderers’ press there. When Morelli plays, Sissoko has to be even more careful, and Hart mitigated this a bit in the second match by playing Omar Kreim—technically a creative player but one who hassles fullbacks all game—and Daniel Kinumbe on the flanks.
Exactly who Hart starts on the right wing, in particular, will go a long way to determining how he wants to disrupt Forge’s build-up.
Borges and breaking the press
All of this means Forge have to find a way around Wanderers.
Both Forge goals against Halifax this year were gifts from the refereeing trickster gods and both, actually, were the product of direct play—one off a long ball, the other off a corner.
Long play is one way to break a press, but it’s one that very much runs against Bobby Smyrniotis’ fundamentals. This was Bobby’s quote before the 2019 final.
“About a hundred minutes from now, we’ll have taken care of business today, and put in an entertaining performance, a performance that’s indicative of who we are, a performance that’s in our DNA. We get out there and play some smart football.”1If you’re curious, it’s at about 52′ (!!!) of the One Soccer replay of the first leg of the 2019 Finals. What always gets me, more so than Bobby wanting his team to play the way he wants, which is fair, is just how flat it is compared to Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s immediately preceding. Not that one approach is necessarily better–just interesting.
The single biggest difference between this year’s Forge and last year’s Forge is Tristan Borges. Against Cavalry in the 2019 final, Borges was an outlet. He was the only player on the team who could consistently beat a man one-on-one with skill and speed. That is also a way to beat a press. Wanderers set up a series of one and two-man battles. If you have that little bit of skill, you can break it.
Forge haven’t had that this year. Paolo Sabak, Borges’ replacement, is a very different player, preferring to sit in midfield and hit line-cutting passes. He’s very good at it, but he receives the ball in a different way than Borges. Likewise, David Choiniere is inventive and can definitely beat a man, but lacks Borges’ explosive acceleration.
I’d guess Kwame Awuah will play at left wing to try and replicate that success running at the back-line. If he does, though, who plays left-back? Notice above that Awuah is a key piece in breaking that first trap, too.
Essentially, Forge are a team that play “their” way. Halifax are a team set up entirely to prevent a team playing the way it wants to. Too often, Forge are over-reliant on passing through a press. They can do it, but the possibility for mistakes like Achinioti-Jonsson’s is much higher. As mentioned above, speed and skill can do it. Structure matters, too.
The more fluidly you play, the more you put each player out of position when the ball turns over. That negates playing a high-line to try and catch Akeem Garcia offside, too. Forge will be better off drawing Wanderers’ midfield up the pitch and looking long to a player like Anthony Novak.
Novak may or may not be fit—he’s made it into eight of Forge’s ten matches but has only started four of them. I suspect he’ll play—he’s rested, at least—but Smyrniotis has also tried Mo Babouli and Gabriel Balbinotti there, including in the critical third group stage game against Cavalry.
Forge are almost always better when Novak does play. He’s a focal point not (just) because of his goals, but because he’s very good at contesting panic clearances and second balls. Wanderers still don’t do that quite as well as they should, especially if you can get the ball over Rampersad and Sissoko. Both centre-backs—Jems Geffrard and Peter Schaale—tend to prefer to win the ball outright. Novak can handle both of them.
Mostly so I can talk about Akeem Garcia because I feel like I haven’t enough in this preview. Everybody else is, though.
Not without reason.
Garcia has six goals on PEI. Four of them have come in the first half, three of them before 15 minutes have passed. Joao Morelli has three in the first half as well.
Wanderers may not have the best xG, but they’ve spent a lot of time in this tournament sitting on a lead. Scoring first is usually a good thing in this game, and breaking down Wanderers press is that much more difficult when you have to come up field and try to maintain attacking plays.
If Wanderers do get a lead, and Forge have to come up field, then it will need to be the biggest game of David Edgar’s career. To my knowledge, he never played in a Championship playoff in England. I suppose last year’s inaugural final might have been bigger. If it was, Edgar didn’t get the attention he deserved. Forge were an entirely different team after his arrival. He’s 33, though, and this might be his swan song for Forge.
Garcia will no doubt look to test Edgar, who is not quick. Too often, though, Wanderers go into a bit of a shell after scoring that first goal, and if Edgar can keep the game in front of him, Forge have the weapons to break Wanderers down. While Halifax are the deeper team overall, Smyrniotis can bring players like Mo Babouli and Max Tissot off the bench.
If it gets wide open, though, Wanderers will have a field day. Edgar’s organization is key to ensuring that doesn’t happen.
I don’t put a lot of weight on the “Forge have played a final before” line. It’s just too hard to make it anything more than a cliché.
I want to find one wildcard factor, though, and I’ll settle on refereeing. It’s been a focal point in both games between these two, for the wrong reasons. Everyone will hope the final goes better, of course.
If it doesn’t, though? Wanderers need to stay focused. In both those previous meetings, Wanderers bounced back after tough calls. But in both they spent 10 – 15 minutes running around mad and those are the 10 – 15 minutes that lose you a final.