Frankly, I've always been slightly baffled by goalkeepers.
They exist as a kind of oddball ‘other’ within the footballing ecosystem; while ostensibly still playing the same game as everyone else, they do so via a distinctly different set of rules. See them over there doing their weird little catching drills while the rest of the squad work on attacking principles. See them in the corner of the dressing room chuckling away at their in-jokes about the ‘goalkeepers union’ and how brilliant it is they get to use their hands.
I don’t trust them, and neither should you.
And yet! Here comes Christian Oxner. Christian bloody Oxner. The man you can't help but love.
The Ox goes in to the 2021 season with his reputation enhanced. If year one was all about establishing himself as a starter, then 2020 was about solidifying his place as one of the finest goalkeepers in the league. He did so with distinction.
Almost every area of his game has improved since 2019.
His shot stopping, which was always very good, has become more measured. You never think "oh, that one was for the cameras" with him. Necessity comes first, highlight reel last. Surprising, really, for a goalkeeper who is so remarkably good at saving penalties that - hand on heart - when Wanderers conceded a penalty versus Edmonton at the Island Games I actually laughed.
Another area of Oxner's development has been the calmness he projects with the ball at his feet. It's palpable, and something that was lacking in his first season. There's no danger of overcomplication or risk-taking when he receives a back pass. His M.O is clear: recycle the possession out to his defenders and make himself available for the return pass. It's effective. It's simple. And you never feel anxious when he has the ball at his feet.
Some doubts lingered in 2019 over his presence in the penalty box on set-pieces. While more than capable at dealing with corners and dead-ball situations, there would be times he wouldn't dominate the space. This issue was offset in two different ways during the Island Games. Firstly, the addition of The Big Boys at centre-back took away some his responsibility, and secondly, he was another year older. Maturity begets confidence. Confidence begets presence.
Perhaps the quality I most admire in Oxner is his mentality. In the aftermath of the Island Games final, in which a rare mistake from the Ox had cost Wanderers a second goal, he was asked how he felt. His answer spoke unequivocally to his mindset: he was glad(!) it had happened to him, because out of everyone he knew he was the person who could deal with it the best.
“Adversity” goes the regularly misattributed meme-fodder, “does not build character, but reveals it”.
Character: something Christian Oxner has in abundance.
Hoping to the push the Ox for a starting role in 2021 is fellow east-coaster, Kieran Baskett. The 19-year-old spent last year at NCAA school William & Mary, and at 6’3 he’s an excellent height for a goalkeeper. Does he have a realistic chance, at just 19, of usurping Oxner from his position as no.1? It's tempting to say no, but then again it would've been tempting to say the same of Oxner himself in 2019 and we all know how that ended up.
I've never seen a full 90 minutes of Baskett in action, so it would be disingenuous to claim any kind of position on what he will bring to Wanderers this season, but his highlight reel is good, and all the noise around him coming out of pre-season training has been very positive. You can get an idea of what he's about in the video below:
In the 2009 edition of Four-Four-Two magazine’s annual top 100 players list, Barcelona midfielders Andreas Iniesta and Xavi both came in at no.3 in the rankings, something that had never happened before. Due to their indivisibility, the magazine determined it would be wrong to separate them for the sake of order, and so it was that for a moment in time the two Spaniards existed as a kind of beautiful, interlocking whole.
A similar dynamic can be found in the centre of the Halifax Wanderers defence, with Peter Schaale and Jems Geffrard offering a comparable study in conjoinment.
The German and the Haitian really do make a wonderful duo. At times during the Island Games, they were akin to a pair of stoic bouncers manhandling drunk 18-year-olds out of a nightclub at 3am. "Yes, Austin Ricci, Tomi Ameobi et al., we remember our first beer, too. Now off you fuck home, and try not to wet the bed".
Their's was an understanding built on positional compatibility (Geffrard on the left, Schaale the right) and physical presence (they’re big bastards, both of them).
Collectively, they always win their aerial duels, they usually win their ground duels, and if one of them loses a foot race, the other one sweeps up. They’re the beating heart of this Wanderers team, without whom the run to the final in 2020 would not have been possible.
A quick word on them both as individuals, though: Peter Schaale, fan-favourite and co-captain, had an excellent Island Games. I’ve written previously that Schaale was so adored by the Wanderers Ground faithful due to him having a skillset that was instantly recognisable to the average North American sports fan: determined, aggressive, brave… but it now feels as though this theory does a disservice to Schaale, because his excellence at the Island Games was for qualities far beyond those just listed.
Last summer's 2020 incarnation of Peter Schaale, while perhaps less eye-catching than the one seen in 2019, was much improved.
A growing maturity had inserted itself into his game, particularly in possession. While in 2019 his long-range passing oscillated between the sublime (truly, his diagonal passes were occasionally jaw-droppingly good) and the suspect (they also occasionally cleared the touchline), the Island Games introduced us to a much more refined player with the ball at his feet; the long, raking passes were still there, but only when the moment called for them.
A greater ease in playing balls into the feet of his midfielders was also apparent (whether this says more about the quality of players in front of him rather than a stylistic adjustment is up for debate), as well as increased positional intelligence. All in all, he had become a far more complete player, and a criminally underrated one at that, which feels odd to say considering how loved he is in Halifax. If his trajectory continues into 2021, he’ll be right at the very top of the ceiling for defenders in this league.
As alluded to, part of Schaale’s improvement is down to Jems Geffrard. The Haitain arrived in Halifax after a season with Fresno of the USL, where minutes were hard to come by. For Wanderers though, he's been a revelation.
It seems like an obvious place to start, but Geffrard’s ability in the air is a huge asset for Stephen Hart's men. This league, while slowly becoming more technical, still has one foot in the antiquated world of the long ball. Having the aerial presence of the 6’3 Haitian nullifies this threat considerably.
A surprising aspect to Jems’ game is his comfort on the ball. Despite being a little one footed (why is this such a common characteristic of left-footers?), he’s content to play out from the back in several different ways: He can break the lines well, and also, like Schaale, play expansive diagonal balls to switch play quickly. Having two centre-backs apt at doing so feeds into the secondary attacking principle of this team (the first being to press and counter quickly), which is to switch play often. Doing so shifts the opposition’s shape around, causing gaps to appear for intelligent runners such as Akeem Garcia to exploit.
Perhaps then, the biggest challenge for Stephen Hart in the opening weeks of the season will be replacing Jems Geffrard, who’s time away with the Haiti national team will likely stretch into the Gold Cup and see him miss most, if not all, of the Winnipeg bubble.
In line to take his position during this time will be one of Eriks Santos or Kareem Sow.
Eriks Santos was unfortunate not to join up with Wanderers in 2020, with visa issues blocking his path. As a result, the Brazilian hasn’t featured competitively since November 2019. Prior to this COVID-enforced break, he was playing his football at FC Dila Gori of the Georgian top-tier.
A centre-back with experience at left-back too, Santos' most obvious stylistic doppleganger is former Ajax, Arsenal, and Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen. Like the Beglian, Santos has terrific standing leap, despite not being the tallest, as well as good recovery speed. The latter quality will allow Santos to pair well with a more front-footed defensive partner, of which Wanderers have several.
One question mark remains over Santos' primary role in the team. His minutes in Georgia seemed to have been spread evenly between centre-back and left-back, and while this adaptability is good for the club, as Christopher N'sa found out, sometimes versatility can wok against you really nailing a position down as your own.
The other option at centre-back is Kareem Sow, who, like Santos, faced difficulties in joining up with the team. The U SPORTS pick from Université de Montréal only recently arrived in Halifax after delays due to COVID, but he’ll be hoping his assimilation into the group is quick.
Sow is an interesting prospect. A calm player who’s good in the air and positionally very smart, the 20-year-old has a knack for playing line-splitting passes from deep defensive positions. While Wanderers established themselves as an excellent counter-attacking team in 2020, adding a more possession-based string to their bow in 2021 will do no harm at all, and a defender like Sow pushes them in this direction.
Santos and Sow also offer depth at left full-back, an area of the pitch which followed the same arc in 2020 as it did in 2019, with the understudy eventually usurping the starter.
In 2019, after some poor performances and question marks over his attitude, the slightly manic energy of Ndzemzela Langwa was replaced with the assured, calming presence of Alex de Carolis at left-back. History would repeat itself on Prince Edward Island, albeit in reverse. This time Mateo Restrepo was the understudy, and after sitting out the opening game versus Pacific, soon forced himself into the team, bringing his own type of manic energy to the left side of defence (although far more cerebrally than Langwa).
He’s quite the specimen, Restrepo; part Vesalius’ imagination writ large; part Disney child-star reinvented as a risqué solo artist; part, as it turns out, future Doctor. He's essentially better than all of us based on every single metric that matters, and that's perfectly fine.
Most importantly of all though, he's also a wonderful footballer.
Prior to leaving for PEI last summer, many – if not all – had him down as a right-back (no surprise, really, given the only YouTube reel available of him in 2020 was titled ‘mateo restrepo RB footage’). But soon he was contending with Alex de Carolis for the starting spot on the left, and winning.
Full-backs playing on their weaker side is still a positional quirk I struggle with, but that probably speaks more to the limitations of my tactical IQ rather than there being any actual problem with it. I guess my apprehension is born from the narrowness that occurs when a full-back’s instinct is to cut inside onto his stronger foot instead of overlapping and crossing with his weaker foot.
That is not to say Restrepo was guilty of this during his spell on the left in 2020. In fact, such was his performance in that role that there was a very real argument to be made for him as Wanderers’ player of the tournament. But regardless, it's a personal hang-up of mine, probably based on some by-the-numbers coaching tip I was given as a 6-year-old that has stuck.
Depth on the left side will likely come from the same two players who are providing depth at left centre-back: Kareem Sow and Eriks Santos. With Jake Ruby and Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare also options if required.
On the right side of the Halifax defence, Stephen Hart has built what is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a right-back depth chart, with 27-year-old Morey Doner understudied by 21-year-old Jake Ruby.
Morey Doner arrives in Halifax off the back of two solid seasons with The Artist Formerly Known as York 9. He's a player I really, really like.
The 27-year-old brings a welcome front-footedness to the Wanderers defence, a real asset considering the intense pressing style established at the Island Games. There's a snappiness to his defending; he plays with the intensity of a man who wants to win the ball back as quickly as possible so he can return to the fun task of attacking.
Unlike a lot of full-backs, Doner is comfortable with both feet. Assists on his right and left foot across 2019 and 2020 highlight this, as well as the two-sidedness of his passing. Having an opposing full-back’s ears ringing from a scouting report detailing Doner’s ability on both sides will lessen the predictability of attacks down Halifax’s right, make no mistake.
Depth on Halifax’s defensive right comes in the form of Jake Ruby, a player who looks every inch the young, rakish World War II fighter pilot refusing to buckle under the pressure of an intense enemy interrogation.
Ruby's high-energy defensive style, coupled with his willingness to create overloads in attacking positions, provides Stephen Hart with another good option on the right side, as well as vital U21 minutes.
He's a player who his teammates spoke of as being underrated after the Island Games. This is perhaps the biggest compliment any professional footballer can get. Score a goal or do something eye-catching on the pitch and the fans will notice you. But win your peer's respect with the selflessness of your performances? Now that's real praise.
And we'll leave it there. Later in the week, midfield and attack...
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 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.