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Halifax Wanderers vs. Forge: 5 Things We Learned

1. Diametrically Opposed Foes

It’s over now so I think we can all be honest: when the CPL schedule dropped at the start of the year, we all shit ourselves a little bit, didn’t we? That odd, squeaking sound you heard on January 30th wasn’t actually the walls of your house straining against the wind as you’d suspected, but rather the collective clenching of Haligonian buttocks.

Fortunately, the oh-for-fucks-sake of it all soon gave way to a hearty dose of fatalistic humour, because what else can you do?

In the opening two games, this rapidly assembled, paint-still-not-dry footballing start-up would have to play Ottawa – last season’s league winners – and Forge – perennial champions and the best team in the league. Away from home. Fan-fucking-tastic. Does anyone have Mark Noonan’s phone number? I’d hazard a guess that he was all in on a bathtub of sangria when he signed off on that.

But no, I’m joking obviously. This is a small league so there were only so many possible teams we could play who – unlike us – don't play on grass. So I get it, I really do. And honestly – after the fact – I’m glad we played these two teams first, because it allowed us to measure Halifax Wanderers 2.0 against the two most contrasting styles in the league.

Atletico Ottawa is a Diego Simeone team. 4-4-2. Two banks of four. No space between the lines. Sprint-y wingers and oafish strikers. They actively encourage you to have the ball. It’s like they’re playing a slightly different sport to everyone, some madcap amalgamation of football and the hot-potato game (Gah! Get the ball away from me! It buuuurns). But it’s incredibly effective, and on Wednesday Halifax Wanderers were well and truly Ottawa’d.

The Forge players, on the other hand, are rather fond of the ball. They collect it, keep it, caress it, and cling to it. They are positively besotted with it. Dislike them all you want, but they’re a wonderful football team.

On Saturday, they held a mirror up to our way of playing and gave us a good look at ourselves, because structurally what both teams do is quite similar.

Both Halifax and Forge play with a 4-3-3 which turns into a 3-box-3. Both have wingers who stay high and wide, a back-to-goal striker, and two 10s who press, collapse into the penalty area, and rotate with the wide forwards. Saturday’s match was the Spiderman meme writ large.

So how did we look against these two opposites over 180 minutes of league football? Answer: Quite good, actually.


The principles are there, you see that straight away. There were structural tweaks between the two games – more on that below – but we generally played the way Halifax Wanderers are going to play in 2023. Possession, fluidity, rotations, and overloads. Expand and contract. Control. Control. Control… until you’re hanging onto a 1-0 lead over the league’s best team and your legs go, that is.

So having these two test early on was a blessing in disguise as it stretched the limits of the way the team plays. That they exit these games with two good performances, heightened confidence, but with lots of things that still need to improve is – 6pts aside – just about as positive a result you could hope for.

2. Different Strokes for Different Folks (or Different Boxes for Different Foxes)

Are you sick of hearing and reading about “boxes” in football? From TIFO videos to those randomers on Twitter who post massive tactical threads to idiots who podcast (ahem), you’ve probably just about had enough, so I’ll keep this brief.

Halifax Wanderers play with a box midfield when they’re building play. You know this. I know you know this. But what’s interesting here, is that while in the two matches versus Atletico Ottawa the base of that box – the double pivot – was formed by our #6 (Lorenzo Callegari) and Riley Ferrazzo (a full-back), against Forge, that double pivot was instead formed by placing Andre Rampersad alongside the Frenchman in a more traditional structure.

Andre Rampersad, Lorenzo Callegari's midfield partner on Saturday

It’s a minor tweak really, but one which gives us another mask to wear depending on the opposition. If you’re a video analyst for Vancouver tasked with filing a report to Afshin Ghotbi for next week’s match, you’re in a bit of a pickle.

In week one, Halifax formed the base of the box with a #6 + the right-back. In the Canadian Championship match it was with a #6 + the left-back. In the Forge match it was the #6 + another #6. All of which makes us a difficult team to plan for.

Do you assume the left-back will invert and therefore attack the space behind them? Maybe, but if Ryan James – a more traditional, stays-in-his-post left-back is playing - then you’re shit out of luck. Ditto any assumptions you make about the right full-back inverting, or with Andre Rampersad playing 10 yards deeper as a #6.

Having different looks to lean into throughout the season is a good thing. A very good thing, in fact.

So often in the past Halifax has looked one dimensional. Forge presented the blueprint in 2022 of how to play against a Stephen Hart/Alejandro Dorado Halifax Wanderers after their 4-0 victory at Wanderers Grounds. Other teams then copied it, and we lost a lot of games.

By offering up so many different looks so early on, the hope is that Patrice Gheisar, Jordan Feliciano, and Jed Davies have future proofed our way of playing to last the season.

3. 90 Minutes

The reason so many Halifax Wanderers fans – myself included – are so enthused by the start the club has made to the season, despite waiting for the first win, is how unmistakably good we’ve looked for large spells of all three games.

We are a team that jumps off the screen at you. When the passes pop, when the patterns shape, when we have control, we look like a very, very good football team.

The next step, is to maintain that level for ninety minutes.

Which is easier said than done, isn’t it?

Because what do you do when you’re a goal up versus a juggernaut like Forge. When you’re playing your third game in eight days after six months off. When you’re working on a days less rest than Forge, who also had the added benefit of playing a PLSQ team rather than a CPL team midweek. When you’ve spent a week sleeping in hotels. Seriously, what do you do?

Sometimes game states can just suffocate you. There’s no real tactical tweak you can make to stop an onslaught like the one Forge threw at us. And after controlling the first 45 minutes relatively well, the exertion of the past week and a relentless Forge ended up wearing the team down.

This is football. Find me a team in this sport which don’t face periods of sustained pressure where they just… can’t…get… out. Even Manchester City and Pep Guardiola – a team and coach almost evangelical about control – face periods in matches where they lose it and can’t get it back.

The best way to stop this game state from happening is to proactively prevent it by killing all hope. When you have control, be ruthless. When you go 1-0 up, score again. Capitalise on your control while acknowledging it won’t last. It can’t last.

Again – easier said than done. But for a perfectionist like Patrice Gheisar, it’s likely to be the aim.

4. Centre-Back Carousel

One thing the first three matches of the season have told us, is that the most competitive position for the 2023 Halifax Wanderers is at centre-back. Of the matches played so far, three different centre-back pairings have been used.

In the season opener versus Ottawa, it was Daniel Nimick and Mo Omar. For the Canadian Championship, it was Cristian Campagna and Mo Omar. And for Forge, it was Daniel Nimick and Cale Loughrey.

(Daniel Nimick – it’s worth noting – has appeared in all three matches, but as a right-back in the second of them)

Daniel Nimick, an ever-present (Credit: Halifax Wanderers)

Centre-back then, is a position that will likely face continued workshopping as the season progresses, given the alchemy required from the coaching staff to strike the right balance. A quick look at each player’s qualities may help to inform which way this decision will go:

Daniel Nimick: Best of the bunch, in my opinion. Aggressive. Front-footed. Steps out of his hole to engage attackers. Good recovery pace. Good passer, particularly when going long.

Mo Omar: Cerebral. Steps back and sweeps. Technical leader. Vocal leader. Snappy passer who builds from deep. But your eyes tend to focus on what he does on the ball rather than where he is off the ball.

Cristian Campagna: Excellent passer. Good when he’s touch tight. Strong, with a lower centre of gravity than the others. A little on the small side for a centre-back, but has a good leap. Question: how well does he mark space?

Cale Loughrey: Unit. Physical. Good penalty box defender. Surprisingly good passer (or should that be unsurprisingly considering he played CM in college?), left-footer which opens up new angles of the pitch. I like the player. I haven’t seen enough yet to say why I like the player, mind you. But instinctively I do.

So, take your pick. Which of those two are you selecting as your centre-back pairing versus Vancouver on Saturday?

Personally, I would lean towards Daniel Nimick and Mo Omar. Nimick, because he’s been excellent across 270 minutes of football. The Englishman is an energetic player, and energy is a currency in home games at Wanderers Grounds. The crowd feed off it and project it back onto the pitch. Nimick has it in abundance.

Omar would be my next pick, but only just. The reason he gets the nod from me is that he has experienced being a home player at Wanderers Grounds already. The weight of the occasion doesn’t hang on the shoulders of someone who has experienced it before quite so heavily. If this was the fifth home game of the season, I’d probably play Loughrey given his performance versus Forge. But it isn’t, and the marginal gain of experience that Omar has should count for something.

5. Dads at a BBQ

And finally, this photo.

Never in the history of film has a photo so stunningly, so elegantly captured the essence of Two Dads Talking at a BBQ quite like this one does.

In fact, I’d wager that there are pictures out there of two dads actually talking at a BBQ which don't contain whatever mysterious quality it is that makes this one so on the money.

It’s all there. The strong, slightly guarded poses. The awareness from both parties that they’re having their photo taken. The conversation starter of which road they each drove in on. And the aw-jeez-they-really-do-let-anyone-in-here-you-son-of-a-bitch! of it all.

If you don’t think this is a masterpiece, you need to give your head a wobble.

Hang it in the Louvre.


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 at @FromAwaysHFX. He also guests on the Down the Pub Podcast - a CPL/Halifax Wanderers-focused podcast - alongside Anthony Abbott.

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