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Halifax Wanderers 2022 Preview, Part I: The Attack

Updated: Apr 1



It feels paradoxical given they had the league’s top-scorer in the ranks, but last season Halifax Wanderers Football Club had a goalscoring problem.


There was João Morelli of course – the outrageously efficient Brazilian who likely has a lumbar strain from all the heavy lifting he did in 2021 – but other than him, a goalscoring void; a dark, nightmarish pit of missed chances that would leave Romario, Puskas et al. restlessly thrashing at their bedsheets through the night.


A distinction though, before we go on, between Halifax Wanderers having a goalscoring problem and Halifax Wanderers having an attacking problem. Because in the case of the latter, there was really no issue at all.


Halifax finished last season with an xG of 39, only 3 behind the 42 of eventual champions and league top-scorers, Pacific. The chasm between the two clubs’ attacking output, however, can be seen in how many of those expected goals resulted in actual goals:


Halifax Wanderers xG: 39

Pacific xG: 42 (Pacific +3)


Halifax Wanderers goals scored: 28 Pacific goals scored: 48 (Pacific +20)


From an xG difference of 3, to an actual goals scored difference of 20. It’s a remarkable swing, and the fundamental reason Wanderers didn’t make the play-offs.

How then, to fix this problem? It's a question I've gone back and forth on.


If you’d have asked me in November I’d have said, without hesitation, that we need to sign an out-and-out striker. A player who'll score 13-17 goals, guaranteed. A player happy to carry the largest share of the goalscoring burden. A player who won't buckle under that kind of pressure. A player just like… João Morelli.


And it was then the penny dropped: Wanderers don’t need to be looking under every rock for a unicorn-like 13-17 goal-a-season attacker, because they already have him.


So if they don’t need to sign this type of striker, what do they need? It’s worth taking a look at the top 8 scorers (league games only) for Pacific, Cavalry, Forge, and York, the teams which finished above Halifax last season, for guidance (you can click the picture to enlarge it):



The first thing that jumps out is how evenly the goals are shared between the entire squad. Each team has one or two players a few goals ahead of the pack, but then it’s largely a collective effort. There are a lot of 3s and 4s in there. Halifax, on the other hand:



A glance at this and the area for improvement is rather obvious: we need more players to score.


Strikers? Those not named Morelli need to be getting 7+ goals, minimum. Wide attackers? 5+. Midfielders? 3 -5. Defenders? Fuck it, you’re responsible too, get a goal each from set-pieces.


In isolation these aren’t huge numbers, but added together they will leave Halifax with a far healthier looking GF column in the 2022 table.


Fortunately, one of Halifax’s two marquee signings of the post-season will go some way to fixing this problem. Enter: Aidan Daniels.


It’s surprised me how little fanfare this signing has received, because Aidan Daniels is a genuinely wonderful footballer. I had an idea we were signing him a week prior to the announcement so spent as much time as possible finding full matches featuring the TFC-alumnus. Luckily, YouTube has USL matches available, and plenty of OKC Energy – Daniel’s 2021 club – games amongst them.


By the end of the fifth or sixth match, I was as excited about the signing of Daniels as I have been about any player since Morelli. Perhaps even more so. Nothing I’ve seen of him in the matches I’ve watched since has changed that sentiment.


Aidan Daniels in training. Credit: Dylan Lawrence

The 23 year-old can operate centrally as a #6 or an #8 (he should perhaps have been left for the Midfielders section of this article, but given his primary role for Halifax will be to support the attack, I wanted to include him here), but most of the matches I watched of him last season featured him on the left of a front three or as a drifting, roaming #10 playing just off the striker.


He’s lovely to watch, Daniels; a swaggering, shifty dribbler who finds pockets of space between the lines and drives forward with the ball at his feet. This ability to receive the ball on the slant and carry it through the lines is quite unique to this group of players. In central areas of the pitch, we’ve got plenty of tidy, soft-touch players who can one-two you to death, but few who can breeze past players on the ball.


But what kind of goal output can we anticipate from Daniels? In each of the previous two seasons in the USL (perhaps a slightly a higher level than CPL, but certainly not by much) he scored 3 goals. Given his age (he's 23, still on the upcurve of his trajectory) and his talent, I think we can extrapolate that number to 5-7 goals in 2022. It's an achievable target and one he's likely set himself, too.


Expect him to play a similar role for Wanderers as he did in the US, on the left-wing or as a #10, with some minutes as an attacking #8 thrown in for good measure.


A key to Wanderers’ success this season will be how quickly Daniels and João Morelli start to riff off each other. Morelli tended to have a free role for Halifax last season. He would drift between being a 10, a false 9, and sometimes even a wide-left forward, all within the same match. His ability to seek out pockets of space without being tied to one area was why opposition teams found him so difficult to track and defend against. You almost have to go man-to-man with him, but doing so leaves a big gap of space elsewhere on the pitch.


Heee's Brazilian. Credit: Dylan Lawrence

It’s going to be interesting to see how the dynamic between Daniels and the Brazilian develops, because they both have a tendency to drift into similar areas of the pitch: primarily, the left half-space of the attacking third.



Morelli’s impulse when receiving the ball in this area is to scan for runners either side of him and look for a pass, whereas Daniels tends to drive diagonally towards goal with the ball at his feet. The speed at which they strike an understanding in this area will determine how quickly Wanderers hit their stride in 2022.


This shouldn’t be something supporters worry about though: top players – and these are, by CPL standards, top, top players – figure this stuff out.


A word on Morelli: we really are fortunate to get to watch a player as good as the Brazilian week-in-week-out. After only seeing him on TV at the Island Games and the Winnipeg Bubble, I was surprised at what an outstanding footballer he actually is once Halifax returned to Wanderers Grounds in August.


The 25 year-old is good-to-excellent at pretty much everything. There are the goals, of course. But he’s much, much more than that. In possession, Morelli is incredibly economical. Rarely does he waste a pass; even more rarely does he lose the ball.


He can play with his back to goal (he has soft feet, watch how he cushions fizzed-in wall passes even when defenders are touch-tight), he can play with the game in front of him (chipped balls, daisy-cutters, eye-of-the-needlers), he could probably even play well after necking a shot or two of cachaça at Rio Carnival.


His superpower though, if there is only one, is the secondary run into the box. He’s so smart with the timing of his movement during Halifax’s attacking transitions. He’s never one of the first to arrive in the box if the ball has been filtered out wide. He jogs. He hangs back. He takes a drag of a cigarette and sips a coffee. He checks his watch. He ties his shoelaces… and then, AND ONLY THEN, does he decide to arrive in the box to stroke the ball into the net. It’s a skill that can’t be taught, an exercise in intuition and confidence. We’re lucky to have him.


Confidence. Something another of last season’s Wanderers’ attackers was sorely lacking. Akeem Garcia came into the 2021 season off the back of an excellent, MVP-worthy Island Games and was expected to hit the ground running.


We shouldn’t forget the force he was during those hazy late-summer weeks on the Island. His diagonal runs between centre-backs and full-backs, his uncanny ability to protect the ball with his back to goal, his finishing (the outside-of-the-boot, 20-yards-out goal versus Forge was scandalous). He was unplayable at times.



Unfortunately, issues with his knee during the post-season slowed down his momentum.


This coming season is a big one for the Trinidadian. We know what he can do when he’s feeling fit and confident. There is absolutely, unquestionably a very good goalscorer in there, but his body needs to feel right for him to fully express himself.


Akeem being interviewed in 2019... by me.

I interviewed Akeem in 2019 and really liked him. He spoke during that conversation about a bad injury he suffered in Trinidad & Tobago and the journey he went on to come back from it. The false starts, the difficulty in trusting his body again, the challenges posed to his self-confidence. It’s not a case of an injury healing and then suddenly being 100% fit again. These things require patience. Here’s hoping the 2022 Akeem Garcia has his patience rewarded. I’m certainly rooting for him.


Another player whose 2021 was affected by pre-season knee problems was Alex Marshall.


The Jamaican is a fascinating player. In terms of pure talent, I genuinely believe he’s in the top two or three in our entire squad. He really does have the potential to be that good. And he often is.


Take the September 4th home game versus Forge last season: Marshall receives a bouncing ball on the right-wing, back heels it to Cory Bent while the ball is in mid-air, receives the return pass on the run, pirouettes effortlessly around a defender, looks up from 25-yards out, and bends a curler that kisses the outside of the post. It was a breezy, ethereal passage of play that almost resulted in the goal of the season. He’s capable of moments like this.


On the other hand, he’s also capable of having moments like he did away versus Valour towards the end of last season. I remember this game distinctly because pre-match, in a group chat, I’d been waxing lyrical about him. “Marshall” I no-doubt haughtily proclaimed, “is, on a talent level, probably our best player”.


How very edgy & pretentious of me in the Morelliolithic Period of this club’s geological history to nominate Marshall as our standout player. How very Pablo-Honey-is-actually-Radiohead’s-best-album of me. How very… etc.


What followed was a quite stunning rebuttal from the man himself, because Marshall was dreadful that day. Like, he-got-subbed-at-half-time-he-was-so-dreadful dreadful. Perhaps he was carrying an injury, perhaps he was sick. But to me, it was almost as if he wanted to personally distance himself from my hubris.


Regardless, I stand by that claim, because from a pure footballing ability perspective, I still believe the Jamaican is among the best at the club. Hopefully 2022 is the year he starts to prove it.


The battle between Alex Marshall and Cory Bent for the right-wing starting spot will be an interesting one. They offer very different profiles in that position. While Marshall has a tendency to move towards the interior of the pitch to play short passes with the central attackers and shift the ball onto his left-foot, Bent likes to attack the exterior and stretch opposition full-backs. It's understandable given one is left-footed and the other right-footed.


Bent celebrates vs. Montreal. Credit: SaltWire

Like so many in this squad, Bent is incredibly versatile, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to ignore the fact that he could find himself on the left, as a 9, or even as wing-back, and focus instead on where I think – via a fair amount of projection, admittedly - the club sees him long-term.


What he offers as a right-winger is real, aggressive directness. His first thought is to beat his man on the outside and cross the ball. He’s a head-down-legs-pumping runner who gambles on himself in a foot-race. That’s not say there isn’t a subtlety to his game too, though. Recall the goal against Montreal: firstly, his defensive work was tremendous as he punched into the central area to pinch the ball off the Montreal midfielder. But it was his next few touches that really stood out, the ones that kept the ball glued to his feet and helped him wriggle between two defenders before the space opened up for a shot.


During that Montreal game, against MLS opposition, a lot of Halifax players revealed themselves to have limitations at a higher level. But while many struggled with this step up, some, like Cory, buoyantly rose with the tide. It was wonderful to see.


Rounding out the 2022 Halifax Wanderers attackers are the two youngsters, Samuel Salter and Chris Campoli.


Salter, still only 21, wasn’t the player I was expecting him to be when he signed for the club. Given his relatively large frame, I anticipated a rugged, post-up type striker, all flailing elbows and knock-downs. The player he turned out to be was far more sophisticated than that.


The first glimpse of this stylistic divergence was his goal against Cavalry in Winnipeg. Put through one-on-one, he didn’t panic. Instead he opened his body up, waited for the goalkeeper to commit, before dinking a delicate chip into the net. For a first professional goal it was awfully laid-back.


At such a young age, there are, of course, areas of his game he should look to improve: he’s very left-footed, for one. And given his height, it feels as though he could add another layer of physicality to his game to really dominate defenders. But the Impact Academy graduate should feel very pleased with his first season in the CPL, and to be mindful of that fact that there’s a position at this club as a main, focal-point striker that is very much up for grabs should he have the determination to take it.


Rounding out the attackers is USport pick Chris Campoli, who we can probably assume will be signed to a contract.


I’m hesitant to write too much about players I’ve never watched in at least a handful of full matches. Highlight reels, while a fun look at a player’s strengths, only tell a small part of the story.


There’s a focus in online scouting – underlined by YouTube highlight packages - to only look at what a player does on the ball, which is slightly absurd given they spend 95% of the match off the ball. It’s in these off-the-ball moments you really get a feel for a player: what kind of runs do they make? How is their spatial awareness? Do they track opposition runners? How often do they scan? Do they sulk when they don’t receive the ball? Are they talkers? All of these things are absent from highlight tapes.


Campoli in action for Ontario Tech

Regardless of not seeing him play for 90 minutes, we can probably infer the reasons Campoli has been signed: creativity and goals. From the footage, articles, and match reports available, it seems as though the former TFC academy prospect plays as left-sided attacker (inverted, given he’s right-footed) and as a no.10. A record of 11 goals in 12 games last season in USports suggests he knows where the goal is, too. Expect him to be back-up for João Morelli and Aidan Daniels as they seesaw between the left-wing and no.10 spots.


How will the Halifax Wanderers attack line up?


There’s an interesting dichotomy in tactical discourse these days. On one hand you have an audience that has never been more tactically literate. The proliferation of Football-Manager-loving, Michael Cox-reading supporters has brought tactics and playing principles into the mainstream, and we all have formations we regard with pious reverence as a result.


Maybe 4-3-3 is your jam. Maybe you're more of a 4-1-4-1 guy. Maybe you’re a traditionalist and nothing but 4-4-fucking-2 will do. Or maybe you’re a beret-wearing footballing poet; an avant-garde Marcello Bielsa disciple who wants to see a 3-3-1-3 with players man-to-man across the pitch.


On the other hand, while this increased knowledge is undeniably a good thing, it has led to an over-indexing of what appears on a pre-match graphic (“Looks like a 4-3-3 to me”), when what actually occurs over 90 minutes of football is far more fluid than what a "Here's today's starting XI!" graphic suggests.


A formation, for example, could be presented as a 4-4-2, but what does that even mean anymore? A 4-4-2 could be a 4-4-1-1 when the opposition are building from the back, before transitioning to a 4-5-1 when their striker's press is broken, which could then switch to an aggressive 3-2-5 when possession is won back and bodies pile forward. Every team – including Halifax Wanderers – has structural fluidity these days, it’s why it can be so difficult to really pin down a team’s exact set-up. But this variation in systems within a game isn't reflected on a score app's line-up graphic.


Halifax Wanderers in 2021 were a good example of this with Stephen Hart's team wearing several different tactical hats, not only match-to-match but also in-game.


In the majority of matches Wanderers would start with 4 defenders (the exceptions being against teams Stephen Hart clearly considered technically superior: Forge and Montreal, for example. The aim in these games was to clog up the center of the pitch and force them into wide areas).


The tactical variation for Wanderers tended to come in how the midfield and attack were structured. We’ll discuss the ins and outs of the midfield in detail in next week's article (spoiler: if Marcello Polisi plays we set up with a very defensive #6 and the rest of the midfielders ahead of him, if he doesn’t it’s usually a double pivot), but there will be some overlap here.


Last season, from an attacking perspective, Wanderers often played with a front 2 (or more of a 1-1, as the #9 tended to be further forward than the #10). Structurally, if, say, Garcia was playing as a #9 he'd play high up, pinned against the opposition centre-backs while Morelli - the #10 - would float behind him looking for space between the opposition midfield and defence. In attacking transitions, they would then be joined by the wingers, one of the central midfielders, and perhaps a full-back too, depending on how far the ball had progressed up the pitch.


In defensive moments, with the opposition building from the back, the #9 and #10 would either press as a front 2 or have the #10 drop into midfield to form a midfield 5 and press zones rather than players.


Occasionally, Hart would also decide to play with more of a front 3. In these scenarios there would be a single, focal point striker with wingers pushed high alongside him, often tucking into the interior to allow a full-back (usually only one because: balance) to join in and create a flat front 4 in attacking moments.

Often Wanderers would move between these systems in-match, depending on game state. Take a game versus Edmonton for example:


Wanderers often switch shape mid-match. Here's a 4-4-1-1- into a 4-2-1-3

And this is the modern game: positional fluidity and well-coached players with the intelligence to recognise different situations and game-states.


As alluded to at the top of the piece, this side of Wanderers' play last season - the system, the pattern play, the creativity - was very good. Like only 3-expected-goals-below-the-champions good. They key now is translating it into something with a tangible reward.


So how will our attacking players line up in 2022? At a guess, something like this:



It’s a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 depending on game state and, really, how you see football.


Expect a lot of tucking inside from Daniels and Marshall/Bent on the wings (as we’ll come to in The Defenders article, we have extremely quick full-backs this season, who will be expected to contribute with attacking overloads on both wings), expect Morelli and Daniels to switch in-game a lot, and expect the striker to look to stretch and push back the opposition centre-backs with off-the-shoulder runs to give our two best players – Daniels and Morelli – more space in and around Zone 14**.


And that, from an attacking standpoint, is that. For now at least. Whether reinforcements are added or not (and I personally think they will be, either in the form of a loan or the signing of a trialist), this is an attack that can take the next step in 2022. We have the 2021 CPL top-scorer ready to go again, we have the 2020 CPL top-scorer with a point to prove, we have wide forwards who are more than capable of contributing goals, and we have a shiny, new piece in Aidan Daniels who's capable of moving the needle. It should be a fun season.


Thanks for reading. Coming up over the next week will be a look at The Midfielders and The Defenders.


 

*for those unfamiliar with it, xG refers to Expected Goals. It’s a data point that assigns value to each shot or chance a team has in a match. For example, a penalty has an xG of 0.76 because around 76% of them are scored. An open goal, on the other hand, would probably have an xG of 0.95, whereas a shot from outside the box could have an xG as low as 0.01 – 0.10. It’s essentially a statistic which attempts to measure how many good goalscoring chances a team is creating. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a useful tool with which to judge a team’s attacking prowess.

** Zone 14








 

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.