If you haven't done so already, you can read Part I: The Attackers here. A profile of the defenders will be out on Wednesday.
Back in those heady, halcyon days of 2019 – before the virus, before the chrome-domed Russian kleptocrat manifested his tiny-penis energy – I had the chance to attend several training sessions of The Halifax Wanderers Football Club (say its entire name out loud; let its majesty strut to the tip of your tongue and out your mouth – The Halifax Wanderers Football Club. It feels fucking sensational).
Despite being three years ago, I can still recall those training sessions with a decent amount of clarity. It’s intriguing after all to see professional athletes in their natural environment. On game day, under the guise of a camera lens and 6,500 supporters, a more guarded version of a player’s self is presented. Sometimes the veneer can crack (Jordan Murrell, u ok m8?), but usually it’s there: professionals professionally performing their profession.
Training though, is different. Shadowed from a match day’s spotlight, players reveal themselves more readily. Watching a session up-close, you see who the leaders of the group are. You see who the standard setters are. You see the edgier, more argumentative sides of certain players. And crucially, you get to see which members of the squad are most revered by their peers. For me, watching those training sessions in 2019, it always seemed like that player was Andre Rampersad.
Despite only being 23 at the time, the Trinidadian carried a quiet authority with him. It was no surprise then that for the final game of the 2019 season, when the Wanderers squad was asked to nominate the captain for the match, Rampersad was chosen. It’s a role he’s held since.
I was reminded of all this last week while listening to the excellent Down the Pub Podcast interview with Peter Schaale. The German, when prompted to name the best player at the club, brought up Rampersad because “everyone wants to be on his team in training, because his team always wins”. This remark tallied with a conversation I once had with a Wanderers trialist who, after I’d asked him a similar question, responded unequivocally with “Rampersad, 100%”.
It all begs the question: why is a player so revered by his peers overlooked by everyone west of Nova Scotia?
Firstly, he’s not a very stat-friendly player. Football statistics are still in their infancy, and as a result tend to place emphasis on end-product actions rather than all of the nitty-gritty stuff which leads to them. Rampersad is the king of the nitty-gritty.
Pass complete %, progressive passes, successful ball carries, duals won, distance covered… these are all areas the 27-year-old thrives in, but outside of an in-house data set – and in the appreciation of his teammates - it’s largely ignored.
But as far as CPL central midfielders go, Andre Rampersad is right up there.
He’s played several different roles in the middle of the park for Halifax. Usually he’s an all-action #8 – box-to-box, if you want to reduce him to a stereotype – but such is his unrelenting energy that he’s prone to pop up almost anywhere on the pitch. This ability to cover a lot of ground, to be everywhere at once, is borne from Rampersad’s staggering levels of fitness. It’s a quality that can’t be overstated.
Interestingly, on occasion Stephen Hart will also use him as a kind of proxy #10 in a 4-4-1-1 (his ability to cover a lot of ground means Halifax can play a hybrid 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 when he’s in this role. With Morelli as a #10 it’s far more of a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, with the Brazilian loathe to drop back and do the peasant work).
Rampersad’s game thrives in tight areas. He is - much like a few of our other midfielders – a small-space player. Bow-legged and malleable, he likes to receive the ball in congested areas, on the slant, before a shoulder-drop and jink gets him away from his marker. A quick pass into the space he’s created for a teammate will then usually follow.
It’s this technical security that has earned him the trust of his coaches. Watch how Wanderers build from the back: when the ball is at the Halifax GK’s feet, the FBs push high and wide, the CBs split and move into the areas the FBs have vacated, and a CM drops into the deep central space to receive the pass. That CM is often Rampersad (but by no means only Rampersad).
It’s a high-pressure role to play. If his teammates have created the right angles, he should be one corner of a triangle with two passing options either side of him. But if the opposition has pressed intelligently, these angles can be cut off. It’s then up to the CM to find a solution.
That Andre Rampersad is trusted with this job more often than not is testament to the qualities he brings to this club, even if we seem to be part of only a small collection of people who recognise them.
One player who’ll be looking to solidify his place alongside the Trinidadian in 2022 is Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé. The former Canadian international (never has a cap for this country’s national team held such currency) would have been a little frustrated with how last season went, through no fault of his own.
After spending his time in the USL in a variety of different roles, JGL likely viewed his move to Halifax as a chance to solidify himself as a CM. Unfortunately, due to an injury crisis at FB, the 26 year-old found himself plugging the gap on the left side of Halifax’s defence for a large part of the season.
Gagnon-Laparé’s professionalism is often spoken about by those working at the club, so it’s no surprise that he took this new role on the chin, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario where he’s as game to do so again this season. Promisingly for his CM hopes, the signing of a LB – an actual LB, not a surrogate – appears to have been one of the club’s priorities during the off-season.
When he did feature in the middle of the park in 2021, I thought the former Montreal Impact man did well as part of a double-pivot or at the base of midfield as a #6. His playing style – the left foot (cultured, but aren’t they all?), the calmness – would often belie what an aggressive, combative player Gagnon-Laparé is. He revels in the dueling, scrappy nature of a midfield battle in a way that his on-the-ball composure disguises.
This is evident when he decides to aggressively press the opposition as they build from the back. It’s quite surprising to see him leave his zone and arrive so early in the press when this happens - not unlike a man in tie-dye wandering onto the set of a Regency era period drama asking if anyone’s got a light - but it’s likely a tactical instruction rather than the player going rogue.
Regardless, it can be a fairly high-risk strategy for a CM to commit that much to winning the ball back high up the pitch as it leaves a large area of space behind them (if the defenders around him are on the same page, they can drag the defensive line forwards to squeeze this space, nullifying the threat), but it often works for JGL.
The challenge for both Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and Andre Rampersad this coming season is to produce more from an attacking standpoint.
While goals and assists aren’t what either of them are in the team for, as discussed in The Attackers article, if Wanderers are going to succeed this season they need to be pitching in with 2 – 3 goals each. Whether these goals come from gambling on a run into the box or backing themselves to score from distance, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a responsibility both should take on over the coming months.
The most defensively minded of Stephen Hart’s midfield options is Marcello Polisi.
Polisi, whose facial hair is so meticulously manicured that he resembles a PlayStation game’s interpretation of what a bearded man looks like, offers something unique to this Halifax Wanderers team, and changes the tactical set-up in the process.
Without Polisi, Wanderers often line-up in a fluid 4-4-1-1/4-3-3 shape. In these systems, the extra body in midfield’s primary function is to support the attack. With Polisi however, that extra midfield body has a far more defensive role. What was previously a 4-4-1-1 becomes more of a 4-1-4-1, with the 25-year-old playing as a very conservative #6. He’s the archetypal holding midfielder.
Occupying the space between the Halifax back 4 and midfielders is where Polisi is most comfortable. It’s here that he can screen opposition runners, put out fires, and allow the Halifax FBs to venture forward safe in the knowledge that he’s there to cover the space they leave behind. It’s a thankless task but one he seems to absolutely revel in, the mad bastard.
In possession, he’s relatively tidy and looks to play short, simple passes into midfield areas (with a tasty line-breaker or two in him occasionally), but this isn’t why he’s in the team. Polisi’s M.O is to win the battles, and in doing so help Halifax win the war.
A nice counterbalance to Marcello Polisi is the ethereal Pierre Lamothe. He’s the Frederick Chopin to Polisi’s 2-minute-melt-your-face-punk-rock; the sensitive, chain-smoking art school graduate to Polisi’s streetwise brawler.
On an aesthetic level, Lamothe is exactly the kind of player I enjoy.
The 24-year-old is a shifty, probing player with quick feet and a low centre of gravity that allows him to shuffle and twist away from markers. He’s another small-space player, one who gambles on himself to beat the press in tight areas. Stylistically, he reminds me of Andrés Iniesta (a necessary amount of context is required here, of course – but you know that). I love watching him.
I thought his confidence grew a lot throughout the season. He was quite good in the opening months, but it always felt as though he was testing the waters, unsure how far his talent would go amongst adults at a professional level. Eventually this cautiousness gave way and a more expressive, instinctive midfielder emerged. He ended the season as one of our few in-form players, and was rewarded with a start in the final match vs. Ottawa.
Much like Rampersad and JGL, Lamothe’s task in 2022 should be more to add more end-product to his game. The wonderful volley he scored versus Valour in Winnipeg is evidence that he’s got it in him (there was a near miss at home versus Ottawa too, which just brushed the post), so I don’t think 2-3 goals is out of the question this season.
Rounding out the central midfielders is the sole new addition, Mohamed Omar (a quick aside: Omar could well end up as a CB for Halifax. He played there in the TFC academy and for Canada U20. Given he spent his college career at CM though, I decided to feature him here.)
Omar arrives at the club a Round #1 pick in the 2022 MLS Superdraft (he was drafted by Colorado Rapids, but unfortunately due to restrictions on international players it didn’t work out. Colorado’s loss is Halifax’s gain).
After a standout college career as captain of Notre Dame, Omar was expected to make the jump to a professional league, and given his ability it’s no surprise how sought after he was from clubs both sides of the border.
It’s to the Wanderers recruitment team’s credit that he was sold on a move to Halifax and the CPL. He’s a player who will certainly view this transfer as a stepping stone to a higher level, as he should, and it speaks to how persuasive the club management were that he trusted them to help him get there.
Positionally, he’s almost a Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé / Marcello Polisi hybrid. Like Gagnon-Laparé he’s a smooth, left-footed passer who likes to see the game in front of him. Like Polisi, he often plays as a deep #6 who punches into tackles and breaks up opposition attacks.
There’s something effortless about the way the 22-year-old wears both these hats. For someone so efficient in harsh 50/50 duels, he treats them with the debonair approach of a Hawaiian-shirted, flip-flop-wearing man seated at a beachside bar (“Fetch me a Mai Tai cocktail please, my good man. And while you’re at it, you wouldn’t let me aggressively kick the shit out of you until the ball is mine, would you?”)
In possession, Omar has an array of weapons to choose from: he’s comfortable playing short passes in small spaces, but he can also be expansive. With the game happening in front of him, he’s able to switch the angle of play with a long diagonal balls out to the wingers, or play through the lines with intelligent, sharp passes into the striker’s feet. He’s also very tall, the Ontarian, so expect a goal or two from set-pieces this season.
Omar spent much of his time with Notre Dame as a single-pivot at the base of the midfield. His objective was to stop opposition counter-attacks, to be an always-available release valve for teammates who were in trouble, and to progress the ball forwards as a playmaking #6.
I'm very curious to see how much of his considerable talent can be carried into the professional game.
I really like the balance of these central midfielders. The more defensive-minded players contrast nicely with the more forward-thinking, connective-tissue players. That there are five players for two CM spots (though this number can – and will - change depending on the system), the nature of the league with all its travel and the resulting injury problems, means there will be plenty of minutes to go around for everyone.
With everyone fit, it’s likely one (or both) of Andre Rampersad and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé will start the opening few games. They’re the senior members of the central midfielders. The leaders. But don’t be surprised to see Mohamed Omar join this leadership group before too long. You don’t captain a top NCAA team without those qualities.
I can get on board with just about any combination of central midfielders from this group, whether it’s as a joined-at-the-hip double-pivot, a single-pivot #6 with two #8s ahead, a sitter and a runner, or any number of different roles. Stephen Hart has the personnel available to be creative with the Halifax Wanderers central midfield in 2022.
I’m fascinated to see who gets the nod on April 7.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86.