One of the more interesting tools to help analyze games is the game state: how does a match pan out when the score is 2 – 1? 3 – 0? On the road? At home?
A lot of coaching adjustments are based around game states. Teams rarely have just one game plan: they have a plan to start, a plan for a lead, a plan to chase–and they know the likelihood of each occurring. Any team playing Cape Breton plans accordingly.
The term is borrowed–liberally–from game theory. Soccer is an interesting game because so much is fluid–the ball stays inside the lines, and beyond that, anything goes, more or less1Depending a bit on your ref.. That gives the sport everything from its tactics to the inherent narratives that make the sport interesting.
Teams that make good use of game states tend to win more. Going all-out for 90 minutes is an ineffective strategy–as a game, soccer is just long enough to make that difficult (but not quite impossible). So smart coaches shift and change and flow with the game, recognizing that their players will, too.
With a game like UPEI – Dalhousie–we’ll get there in a minute–it’s the only way to figure out what actually happened, why the emotions were the way they were in that game. St. FX, on the other hand, have made a habit this year of dictating the game state using their offensive weapons, then seeing the match out, as they did against Moncton.
Other teams tend not to pay much attention to game states at all.
UNB (L 1 – 2 @ Dal; W 4 – 1 @ SMU)
UNB are one of those teams. The Reds have one way of playing, and it either works or it doesn’t. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen them change.
I was talking to Miles Pinsent this week–briefly, because he wasn’t in a chattin’ mood–and about the only thing he told me was the old cliché: we’ll play our game.
This would be meaningless from a coach who adapts on the fly, but with Pinsent, it makes sense. He’s used other systems in the past, but this UNB team either succeeds or fails on their own merits. Can’t fault that.
In truth, there isn’t much of a “system”. Watching them live, this is much more obvious. They attack with about eight players and defend with nine or ten. Everything hinges on Ben Gorringe in midfield, who is often the first man forward and always the first man back. The Reds roar from one end to the other all game long.
How advisable this is at Wickwire Field–the turf there is like concrete–is debatable, but that’s what UNB did. For 45 minutes, it foiled the Tigers, who were left reacting to their opponents’ lack of structure. It’s like trying to debate a modernist French philosopher–it can’t be done.
Nil – nil on the road is a game state: it’s a scoreline Pinsent would have been completely happy with, and UNB did play more “defensively”, by their standards–Gabriel Caggiano and Luis Garcia mostly stayed at home and a bit narrower.
But there are shifts and stories within a nil – nil. As the game went on, UNB began to tire, the press was less relentless, and Dal got more and more time out wide. For a while, Dal dominated the tempo. Eventually, they scored, and UNB, rather than adjust smoothly, panicked: the gave away a quick second and the nil – nil was 0 – 2 in an instant.
Pinsent did exactly the same thing on Saturday at Huskies’ Stadium. It just worked better; the Huskies were tired from a trip to Antigonish and they play a bit more open most of the time anyway. This time, UNB didn’t get caught conceding first–though they did give up plenty of chances. Once Saint Mary’s wore down, the floodgates opened. UNB may not have a lot of structure, but they are ruthless and experienced enough to know when they can put a team away.
Dalhousie (W 2 – 1 v. UNB; D 3 – 3 @ UPEI)
The UPEI game was probably the game of the weekend, and is what inspired my riff on game states. Much of this game was pleasantly chaotic. If you’re the Tigers, though, are you happy with that draw?
Dal were two down inside five minutes. This game didn’t have any kind of foundation. Any plan had to be ripped up 90 seconds into the match, for both teams.
Only Dal actually had one for falling behind. That it took two goals against maybe speaks more to a lack of intensity, but by thirty minutes in, the Tigers were ahead.
To some extent, Dal were always the better team. But anyone will tell you the Panthers are solid at home. Intensity matters–that’s as much a part of the game as any tactical shift. Good teams react to going down, and Dal are, fundamentally, a good team.
They also, however, got too comfortable–and perhaps a bit too defensive–on the road. At 3 – 2, Dal had chances to put this game away. They didn’t take them, and a road win became a road point mostly because of an individual mistake at the back. Individual mistakes happen, especially with a young back-line. Part of the nebulous “experience” is limiting situations where they can be damaging.
St. FX (W 3 – 0 v. SMU; W 3 – 0 v. UdeM)
Because the X-Men possess so much, their tactical shape is one of the easier ones to read in AUS, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Like UNB, they’re always a possession side, more or less. In attack, they move the ball side-to-side to pull apart not-so-skilled defenses. Against the better teams, they tend to bunker a bit and look for brilliance.
That means Graham Chandler and Co. half to plan well, and by and large they do. At home, and especially against teams like Moncton, the goal is to, well, get to goal–quickly. In both their games this weekend, that paid off with Dan Hayfield scoring (he’s been doing a lot more of that this year). Then their patience with the ball allows Tane Caubo or one of the wingers to get in behind a team that has to push for an equalizer.
This is probably the most common game plan in soccer. Wanderers do it every game, rain or shine, home or away, because Stephen Hart is an old-school CONCACAF manager. Good teams win at home and try for a point on the road.
St. FX are a good team. Think back over the past two weeks: they eke out a late winner at Wickwire Field, somewhat against the run of play. Check. They get into another chaotic shoot-out with UNB, blowing two leads when UNB overloaded them. There’s nothing overly radical–but they still came home four points richer, and now pick up six more to steal second place from the Huskies.
This is important because X are not a good play-off team. Playing away in Sydney, in the cold and rain, does not suit them. They’re patient and reasonably steady, but that’s less of an advantage against the top teams, and they’re always a mistake away from giving up that initiative. St. FX are like an old boardgame: you go first, you probably win.
Acadia (L 0 – 2 @ MUN; L 0 – 5 @ MUN)
Acadia, on their day, are a bit the same way, but more of their success comes from direct play.
That’s why they’ve spent the past couple years hovering right around the mid-tier with St. FX. The Axemen don’t have much more flexibility of approach, either, and now this year, they don’t have the talent to keep that steadiness.
(Good defensive midfielders are so criminally under-rated. Ryan Parris really was that good.)
The other thing that will kill any and all gameplans is ill discipline. Acadia went one down early against Memorial on Saturday, which is never good since the Seahawks are a defensively adept team. My guess is the Axemen would still have been in it but for Harrison Buck getting a second yellow (for dissent, too) around the hour-mark. Five minutes later, the one-goal game was a two-goal game.
When a team goes down a man, there’s usually a window where the adjustment is tricky, after which it can become quite hard to break down an organized ten-man side. Acadia didn’t adjust quickly enough.
On Sunday, it was Memorial with the red, but by the time it came, Acadia were already in a big hole, again thanks to early goals. Memorial could have sat back even more, but didn’t really have to. Instead, they took advantage of Acadia pushing and scored two more. Ho-hum.
UPEI (W 1 – 0 @ Mt. A; D 3 – 3 v. Dal)
The win at Mount Allison was actually quite well-handled by UPEI. The Panthers were unlucky not to score earlier–they had loads of chances–but the Mounties can defend this year.
It would have been easy to panic as the game wore on and overcommit to attack. They didn’t, and eventually Nathan Chow scored his first AUS goal.
Sometimes things going right can be more dangerous than things going badly. UPEI don’t get a lot of 2 – 0 leads, especially five minutes into games. Both goals were gifts, and while the Panthers did well to take them, they weren’t in any way airtight enough to match what came next.
It’s possible, as above, that this would have happened anyway. But UPEI are all about frustrating teams, and were all over the place defensively, chasing the Tigers around and leaving loads of space between defenders. That’s uncharacteristic and probably more a product of that early lead than any planning.
The weekend leaves UPEI in an odd spot: third, but with eight games played and only thirteen points, they’re going to need a few from those last two weekends after Thanksgiving.
Memorial (W 2 – 0 v. Acadia; W 5 – 0 v. Acadia)
I know I haven’t really written anything definitive about the Seahawks yet, even though I was quite down on them in my preview–and maybe I was wrong? They’re good now?
They’re certainly opportunistic, maybe more so than last year. The actual approach, both tactical and in terms of reactions to different situations, is still bog-standard. I’m not totally convinced they make their own luck, but they do make use of it.
This three-game winning streak is a bit of an illusion given the quality of opposition. That’s part of planning–you have to beat the beatable teams to give yourself a chance, which Memorial have. They’re tied with UNB for the last play-off spot ahead of… trips to Sydney and Antigonish. Ouch.
As always with Memorial, it will come down to their home performances. They were better this weekend; they were dreadful against Saint Mary’s. Dalhousie, on the final weekend, will be a big test: the Tigers make mistakes. If the Seahawks wait and keep themselves in at least one (but probably both) of those games, they might get a chance at the four to six points they’re going to need.
They have to be more disciplined and they have to be a lot more willing to take the opportunities presented–that happened this weekend, but didn’t at home against the Huskies.
Moncton (L 0 – 2 @ CBU; L 0 – 3 @ St. FX)
This is the most difficult road trip in AUS, and Les Aigles-Bleus pretty much failed it. They didn’t give up too many goals, but neither did they register too many shots–one, in fact, all weekend.
The Cape Breton game was over early. The St. FX game was over early, after Christian Masimengo gave up a sloppy goal2In his defense, he held them in the game against Cape Breton about ten minutes longer than his team’s play deserved.. In both, Moncton allowed two of the best teams in AUS to play exactly the way they wanted to, which is actually a subtle difference from last year’s team that was at the very least fairly aggressive.
Beating the Capers was probably never on, but remember Moncton gave them a run in Sydney last year? This year, they had nine guys inside their own penalty area. Nobody closed down Cory Bent. Nobody closed down Caelann Budhoo. Mostly importantly, nobody pressured Peter Schaale. Dalhousie laid down a template for how to frustrate this Capers team. Moncton aren’t Dal, but they let Schaale hit pass after pass after pass.
As a result, they’re utterly out of it, saved from irrelevance only by Acadia’s rebuild and the Mounties. That plucky 2 – 3 at home to Dal was a long time ago. Moncton haven’t scored in three games, either. They have a bit of a home stand coming up–if there’s going to be another late-season run, it has to be now.
Cape Breton (W 2 – 0 v. Moncton)
I’m a little surprised how much time Deano Morley gave to his starters in this one. He’s always been a bit of a first-eleven kind of coach, but Caelann Budhoo scored early and the Capers didn’t even give up a shot on goal.
Peter Schaale has now played two-thirds of a grueling Canadian Premier League schedule and half a grueling AUS schedule. He’s made of stern stuff, but the Capers have an eye on nationals, where Schaale will again play three games in four days. Injuries killed them last year.
Maybe more interesting? Marko Djukic didn’t even make the bench. Osay Ibie’s played the last couple of games alongside Schaale, and looked good. Maybe getting a slightly new-look back-line some minutes in an otherwise fairly straightforward stretch?
I’d expect more rotation next week against the Mounties in another solo week. This is the kind of stretch that can be tough, focus-wise, though I doubt the Capers will need too much of that motivation. Fighting for starting spots is never bad, though.
Mount Allison (L 0 – 1 v. UPEI)
I feel bad putting Mt. A last again. I’ve been making a note to watch them more this year and they really have been playing a lot better.
What they can’t do yet is control games. They’re dangerous enough on the break, though the lack of a #9 is almost painful. They combine well in midfield, but again, the lack of any real attacking shape limits what they can do to challenge teams in the run of play.
Defensively, they’re miles better, which at least gives them the option to sit back and try to outlast teams. Yet again this year, they’ve come close to a point only to drop it late, when Brogan Skinner couldn’t manage to get his body in front of a guy half his size.
They’re making individual mistakes now instead of system mistakes, or at least, mistakes caused by cascading, team-wide breakdowns in execution. It’s a lot more watchable, frankly.
Backup goalkeeper of the week
Nathan Ford is back!
UPEI’s veteran goalkeper-turned coach-turned goalkeeper again had to re-enroll in classes this week because the Panthers’ other two keepers are out injured.
And it’s probably an improvement in goal.
Saint Mary’s also went to a young ‘keeper this week, having had their other young ‘keeper sent off last week. Carey Mitchell filled in for Jensen Brown, who filled in for Christian Oxner last year.
It’s not Canadian soccer unless you have to draft an emergency ‘keeper.
What I’m watching next week
Not the “HFX Derby,” sadly. I have refereeing commitments and can’t make it this year.
Last year, the turnout was great and the soccer was crap. I have a feeling the turnout may be a bit lower this year, but hopefully the soccer is substantially better. Both teams need those points badly.
As a result of two teams playing Thursday, the weekend is a bit of a non-event–the main thing will be whether UNB can manage to get things done at home against Acadia and away to UPEI. They’re currently clinging to the last playoff spot but have a very easy schedule. Easy schedules can get hard if teams don’t get the job done, though.