Marcel de Jong and the fragility of tactical planning

Canada's Marcel de Jong running past a defender.
Marcel de Jong has been capped 56 times for Canada. (Photo: CanPL)

Dreadful news for the Canadian Premier League this week: Marcel de Jong is out for the year. Rumour says it’s an achilles injury, which tends to be freak bad luck.

Six weeks before kick-off against Halifax Wanderers, Pacific are left with a very make-shift backline and fans are left without one of the more exciting, proven players in the league. A couple weeks ago I wrote:

de Jong is one of my favourite Canadians to watch: he’s good on the ball, can cross and shoot from distance, is rugged in the tackle defensively, and a great leader.

I’m gutted to see such a great player injured, even if Wanderers’ chances of an opening day win just went up. He could do things like this:

Pacific are left without a bona fide left back on the roster, though they have some space left to make new signings to supplement Hendrik Starostzik and Luke MacNaughton on the back line. It remains to be seen how or if the club will get much relief from the league vis-a-vis the salary cap and roster spots.

With rosters limited to between 20 and 23 players, CanPL sides are ill-equipped to weather long-term injuries like this. The rigours of the season have just begun–there will be tackles, twists, and tweaks. With a larger squad, a coach can call on a depth player in any position. Even MLS teams have 28 roster spots, and most teams in the world carry more. With an academy, there’s always a young prospect hungry for a chance in the first team.

Instead, Mikael Silberbauer and James Merriman are going to have to manage their roster more like it’s a tournament. International teams, for instance, typically take 23 players to 4-5 week tournaments like World Cups and continental championships, often playing 10 or more games if you count pre-tournament friendlies1Granted, for major tournaments there’s usually a “taxi squad” of players who aren’t registered but who travel with the team, and if a player is hurt before a certain point, he can be replaced in the official roster..

Helpfully, the CanPL schedule does Pacific a favour here. The split-season format was a bit of a surprise to some, and was maligned in certain corners for being over-complicated, but one thing it tends to do is create a “tournament” feel to a season, because each stage (opening and closing) is shorter. CanPL’s opening stage, running to July 1, will only consist of seven games.

Over the course of a full season, most teams will develop an identity or style of play–a formation, a preferred approach to the game, and so on. Sure, a good coach will have a few different looks for different situations, but there’s a default option. In a tournament, though, it’s often smarter to go in having prepared two, three, even four basic tactical approaches, because when each game is life-or-death, it’s more important to manage whichever situation comes up in-game than try to develop a default designed to win most of the time.

In international soccer, if your key left-back goes down with an injury, and your second-choice left-back isn’t really at the right level, you might switch to play three at the back with a winger dropped back to play as a wingback. You might convert a central midfielder or centre back to fullback and have him tuck in. You might even do that anyway if an opponent has tricky attacking mids, since it’s a more defensive look.

Maybe that gets a result on opening day against Wanderers. Of course, the CanPL schedule does Pacific no favours–also much like a tournament–in that they then host Valour FC just four days later, then travel to Hamilton a week later. Silberbauer is going to have to adjust, a lot, to try and hide the loss of de Jong against those teams, but you can see a way to do it: Valour are shaping up like they haven’t heard of wingers, so loss of a fullback might be less of a problem there. Forge are likely to be good, so sitting narrow and countering might make sense at Tim Hortons Field.

One roster-building trend that’s been apparent from certain CanPL teams–particularly Halifax–is a focus on positional versatility. If you’ve got players who can play multiple positions, it makes tinkering a lot easier. A player like Elton John, though maybe not an A1 star at any single position, can play defensive midfield, centre back, and fullback. That may raise questions about a team’s ceiling, but in a short, busy season like Canada’s, it makes that team more resilient to injuries and more able to adapt game to game, opponent to opponent. In the end, points matter more than tactics.

Unfortunately, Pacific are not one of the teams built for a lot of flexibility, at least not at the back. Kadin Chung is pretty much a fullback. Starostzik and MacNaughton can spot in at d-mid, but that’s it. Fortunately, they have six weeks to figure this out, and I’d have guessed a depth fullback was on the way anyway–there is now a lot of pressure to get that signing right.

Silberbauer’s the only coach in the league who’s new to Canada–and he’s going to be thrown into the deep end making this work. If him and Merriman pull it off over the opening stage, even if it’s not enough to get Pacific a spot in the final, it’ll bode well for a team that, long-term, wants to source its players locally and develop them into the kinds of rounded, flexible players that can fill in when bad luck strikes.

About Dylan Matthias 83 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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