If you haven't done so already, you can read Part One: Goalkeeper and Defence here
First things first: the Aboubacar Sissoko-shaped elephant in the room.
After a breakout tournament at the Island Games, Wanderers fans were smitten, and for good reason. Sissoko had brought a bustling, all-action presence to the heart of the Halifax midfield, swooning his way into our hearts and minds in the process. Unfortunately, as tends to be the way with these things, ours wasn't the only head he'd turned.
Before we'd even gotten the chance to know him, the 25-year-old was off stateside to Indy Eleven, with the opportunity to walk the USL catwalk for Mr. L.S Scout a little too tempting to pass up.
But so it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut would no doubt remind us.
Restructuring the midfield without Sissoko (and Louis Béland-Goyette, lest we forget) would’ve been at the forefront of Stephen Hart’s mind heading into 2021, with Andre Rampersad, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, Marcello Polosi, Scott Firth, Pierre Lamothe, and Omar Kreim his options.
After a 50% turnover of talent in the middle of the park, much of pre-season was likely spent toying with different combinations of midfielders in search of the right balance. While there is, of course, a thought-process that goes into a decision like this, it is not as simple as just trying to fit complementary attributes together like a game of Tetris. Some players just click, regardless of what skillsets they each offer to the team.
Case in point: did anyone think Andre Rampersad and Aboubacar Sissoko would end up being the indisputable first-choice pairing in 2020, especially given Louis Béland-Goyette’s arrival as the flashy new signing? It’s unlikely. But the Trinidadian and the Malian just clicked. A similar instance of player alchemy will likely have to occur in Winnipeg if Wanderers are going to make a real run for the championship this season.
As club captain and one of the best players at the Island Games, Andre Rampersad will fancy his chances of being part of the conversation.
Full disclosure: Rampersad is my favourite player at the club. As I creep deeper into my 30s and further away from having posters of Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright on the wall of my childhood bedroom, I try not to be too invested in individual players. We all know how transient this profession is, particularly the lower down the football ecosystem you go, but there’s something about Andre Rampersad that just clicks with me.
Part of this is down to soft factors: heart, determination, and desire… all intangibles which tend to be overstated in sports (“they just wanted it more” is perhaps the laziest piece of punditry going), but you can’t argue they don’t exist. Rampersad is brimming with them.
He’s technically a very underrated player, too.
Watch his body shape when he receives the ball in tight spaces. The malleability of his hips and legs, which are slightly bowed, help him to shift angles quickly. Some players are very one dimensional: before the ball’s even arrived at their feet you can read their next movement based on their body shape, but Rampersad’s athleticism allows him change the direction he’s moving or passing quickly. He's a wonderful footballer who's almost certain to start when fit.
But which player will partner him? Or should that, in fact, be players?
The most obvious choice is Halifax’s first ever Canadian international, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé. While the 26-year-old arrived in Halifax the most decorated player in the club’s short history, he’s made an excellent impression on those behind the scenes at the club. His professionalism, his mentoring of younger players, and the seriousness he brings to training have all been mentioned by those who work with him on a day-to-day basis.
He’s an interesting player, Gagnon-Laparé. Despite spending some time at left-back in recent years (as well as an appearance as a False 9 for Ottawa Fury at the Wanderers Grounds), he’s fundamentally a central midfielder.
There’s a smoothness to the way he operates in the middle of the park. His left foot – wand-like, but aren’t they all? – can spray the ball long or punch it quickly into the feet of the strikers. His energy levels are good, despite him not being the quickest across short distances, and he’s played at a high enough level of the game to bring some guarantees in terms of positional discipline.
Existing slightly behind Andre Ramprsad and Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé in the pecking order (on paper, at least) are Scott Firth, Marcello Polisi, Pierre Lamothe, and Omar Kreim.
Of those, Scott Firth and Omar Kreim are the most familiar.
You feel this is going to be an important season for Firth. There were some glimpses of the 20-year-old’s ability in 2019, and during the minutes he got in 2020 he was quietly very good (during the dead-rubber against Pacific at the Island Games I felt he was Wanderers best player by some distance), but he’ll be hoping 2021 is the year he really breaks through and solidifies himself in the first team. The talent is certainly there.
He’s a quick, snappy passer of the ball, Firth. A player who has clearly been coached to recycle possession, to always be available for a pass, and to understand that if you have the ball, the other team can’t score. His possession stats, which have seldom dipped below 80%, are testament to this.
Perhaps one thing that has worked against Firth previously is that keeping possession has never been particularly high on Wanderers’ list of priorities. Much was made of this in 2019 when Halifax was losing, but in 2020 it was barely mentioned, despite their average possession per-game being the same, if not lower, than 2019.
With Gagnon-Laparé and other more technical players joining the group in 2021, there will likely be a stylistic shift towards keeping the ball more for Stephen Hart’s men. Firth, as much as anyone, will benefit from this.
Another midfield returnee from 2020 is Omar Kreim. The 26-year-old remains somewhat of an enigma, because despite his obvious qualities, could any of us claim to know his best position?
At the Island Games he moved between a central role and a wide role, without getting a real run in any one spot. Personally, I like him on the right side of central midfield rather than on the wing. His qualities – close control, quick passing, combination play – add more to this Wanderers team through middle as opposed to out wide, where the club is stacked with quick, attacking talent.
Another contender for a spot in central midfield is Kreim’s university teammate, Pierre Lamothe. Stylistically, the 24-year-old has exactly the kind of profile I enjoy. He’s a short, shuffling, type of player; forever receiving the ball on the half-turn, constantly twisting and turning his way out of trouble. He should be Spanish.
Lamothe made his name playing alongside the aforementioned Aboubacar Sissoko and Omar Kreim for Montreal Carabins (Oh, what could have been!). Partnerships on the pitch are crucial, and a marginal gain such as Lamothe and Kreim knowing each other’s game inside out won’t have gone unnoticed by Stephen Hart’s coaching team.
I have a feeling he may feature more prominently this season than some would expect, given he was one of the lesser known of the 2021 signings. Wanderers have plenty of players now with end product, but they need ‘link’ players to connect the different zones of the pitch and feed the flashier attackers. Lamothe brings this quality to the squad.
Rounding out the midfield places is Marcello Polisi, a player who wasn’t on any of our radars until his surprise signing a couple of weeks ago. It’s an addition that makes perfect sense.
Despite being well-stocked with technical, ball-playing centre-midfielders, until Polisi’s signing there was a distinct lack of bite to the Wanderers engine room. While it does him a disservice to reduce his qualities down to this one characteristic, it’s something Hart will look for him to bring to the squad.
Of the Wanderers midfielders, he’s also the most naturally suited to playing in a holding position. He can screen the back four, break up play, distribute cleanly, and build play from the defensive third. It was a smart bit of business for the club to do late in the window.
I love what the Wanderers recruitment team has done with the attack over the past two-years.
2019’s anemic goalless draw merchants were replaced in 2020 by something altogether more alive. Perhaps the best work Derek Martin and co. did over the autumn and winter months was ensuring the majority of these players were retained.
There’s an obsession these days with starting XI’s (a quick Ctrl + F ‘first-choice, starting XI’ search of this article would reveal me to be just as guilty of this), but placing such importance on who is in the line-up on any given matchday risks not seeing the forest for the trees. The modern game, with the harsh demands placed on players, mean it’s as much of a squad game as it has ever been. As a result, teams no longer bend towards individuals, but instead develop attacking principles and systems that are sustained regardless of who’s on the team sheet.
With the array of talent at Stephen Hart’s disposal, little will change from this perspective in 2021.
Leading the line again will be Akeem Garcia (the fact that we’ve never really adopted “Froggy” – his nickname in Trinidad – is absolutely unforgiveable. Why isn’t there a frog-based chant at the Wanderers Grounds? My word, Wanderers fans, what are we playing at?).
The boy from Arima had a wonderful 2020. After being converted into an out and out striker, as opposed to a sometime-striker, sometime-right winger, Garcia thrived and finished top-scorer at the Island Games.
The Trinidadian’s evolution into the league’s best striker has less to do with the more obvious qualities a player in this position needs (finishing, well-timed runs, composure... he could already do these things at a high level) and more to do with the dirtier aspects of the game.
Watch him as he receives the ball into feet with his back to goal. He’s only 5’6, but he’s so, so smart in how he uses his body to shield the ball and win fouls. He backs into centre-backs, positions his body in such a manner that even the 6’3ers can’t wrestle the ball away, before laying a pass off to his wingers. Wanderers are lucky to have him, and should a move to a higher-profile league present itself over the next few years, he would leave as probably the best player in the club’s short history.
Challenging Garcia (and likely also partnering him) will be Stefan Karajovanovich or Samuel Salter.
Karajovanovich is a really exciting prospect. His scoring record in pre-season training has been astounding, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers. From a stylistic perspective, he’s not a million miles from Akeem Garcia, but where the Trinidadian has developed into a more well-rounded player under Hart’s tutelage, Karajovanovich is still all instinct and energy.
One man he’ll be looking to prove wrong is Jimmy Brennan, the York coach who passed over him last season. Why Brennan, every inch the smarmy real estate agent plastered across the back of intercity buses, didn’t fancy the 22-year-old isn’t clear, because just about everyone else with a passing knowledge of U Sport attacking talent did.
Another card in Stephen Hart’s striker hand is Quebec-based forward Samuel Salter.
At 6’2, and still only 20, Salter will carry a presence up front for Halifax; a much-needed attribute given the assortment of sub-5’7 players around him.
Salter is a well thought of prospect who has spent time in Europe and NCAA Division 1. It’s beyond cliché to say this, but he really does have good feet for a big man. And as one of the few left-footers in the Wanderers attack, he offers a slightly different focus from the other players in his position. Also of note is the positive impression he's left on people around the club since joining, in terms of attitude and conduct.
Buzzing around in the space behind and to the sides of the Wanderers strikers will be João Morelli, Alex Marshall, Alessandro Riggi, and Corey Bent.
The Pint-Sized 4 offer a thrilling dynamism in attack. All played prominent roles at the Island Games and all carry equal importance to this attack. It’s further evidence, if it was needed, that this team is built on attacking principles rather than individuals. Whether it’s Riggi on the right or Marshall, Bent on the left or Morelli, the basic functions of building play, of pressing, of off-the-ball running remain unchanged.
João Morelli is the most naturally central player among the group. He was used, to the surprise of many, as a false 9 on his debut versus Pacific last summer. It didn’t quite work that day, but you can see how a player of his ability may thrive there against certain opposition.
His comfort-zone is in the no.10 role, though. The Brazilian likes to ghost between the lines and across the space in front of the opposition defenders. Defending against this kind of movement is a nightmare. If a centre-midfielder steps back a few yards to mark Morelli, it cedes yards to the Wanderers midfielders. If, instead, a centre-back steps out of his position to pick him up, one of Riggi, Bent, Marshall, or Garcia have the pace to spin into the vacated space and have a run on goal.
With an increased understanding of his teammates’ movements after an almost full pre-season, Morelli is more than capable of going up another level this season.
Another player who’ll look to go up another level in 2021 is Alex Marshall. The Jamaican is a wonderful player to watch. They’re a dying breed, the dribblers of the world, but Marshall continues to carry the ever-dimming torch. Crucially, he has end product, too (see: his assist for Akeem Garcia versus Forge at the Island Games).
He’s a player many in his native Jamaica were surprised to see end up in the CPL. Speaking to a few Jamaican sports journalists for my squad preview last year, I was struck by how sure most were that he’d have at least gotten a move to MLS. It’s up to the 22-year-old to earn a chance at that next step in 2021. Of all the players signed to long-term contracts, you feel Marshall and Garcia are the ones most likely to garner Wanderers a decent transfer fee should they be sold.
Rounding up the attackers are Corey Bent and Alessandro Riggi.
Bent, a teammate of Peter Schaale at CBU, was instantly trusted by Stephen Hart at the Island Games, and after playing the first game of the tournament, he was a fixture throughout as a starter and from the bench, scoring with a beautifully taken finish against Valour.
Watching the way he moves, it feels like the should be a right-winger, but I actually think he works better centrally or from the left.
His low centre of gravity, his burst, his ability to drop the shoulder and cut inside… all of these qualities lend themselves to a wide, inside-forward role. The fact he’s at ease on both flanks though should guarantee him a nice wedge of minutes in 2021.
Another player just as happy on the right and left side of attack is Alessandro Riggi. It was a warming sight to see the former FC Montreal player back among the goals and assists on Prince Edward Island, after the injury hell he’d been through over the previous two years. Because of these troubles there were significant injury doubts around him going into the tournament – not least from himself. Could he trust his body? Could he reach his old levels? These questions, hopefully, were answered.
Riggi was understandably a man playing at around 75% at the Island Games. You could see him gently testing his body, never fully stretching himself to the very limits physically. After anther pre-season under his belt, Riggi should be nearing 100%.
It’s no exaggeration to say that an on-song Riggi is one of the biggest talents in the league. Much like Bent and Marshall, he’s an excellent dribbler with end product to match. Should he stay fit, he’ll be a force.
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.