Yesterday, towards the end of an overcast afternoon on Prince Edward Island, Omar Kreim stood over a free-kick on the edge of the York 18-yard box and took a deep breath.
The clock showed that 90 minutes had been played but for all the running in the HFX Wanderers players’ legs it could’ve been 190. After battling with 10 men since the 23rd minute, they had fought their way forward one final time in search of an equalizing goal, and now, close to 6 p.m, the time was almost up.
A packed penalty box eclipsed any real view of the goal as Kreim began his run up. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in this position, mind you. With the clock ticking down in the final of last year’s RSEQ championship vs. UQTR in Quebec, he had found himself in an almost identical situation. The result would end up being the same.
Kreim struck the ball cleanly and watched as it tracked a straight course towards the York goal. There was some commotion in the penalty box; shirts were tugged and heads strained upwards desperately trying to connect with the ball. Peter Schaale’s almost did. And then there it was: through a sea of players the sight of the net rippling appeared.
Just like the previous November in Trois-Rivières, Omar Kreim’s free-kick had reached its final destination in the right-hand corner of the opposition net.
It felt like team-defining goal for this group of players. They’d showed in the four previous games that they were a much better side now, but this felt different. It spoke to intangibles such as character and determination. It felt like a team coming of age.
Back on the mainland, it was a moment of intense joy for Wanderers fans. It was also a moment that revealed to me with terrifying clarity why this stupid, idiotic sport will have me bent over the barrel until my dying day. But what can you do?
The HFX Wanderers vs. York match was entirely in keeping with the spirit of The Island Games so far; a tournament that has been far more fun and eventful than it had any right to be.
We’ve had goals-goals-goals, a handful of Desmonds, some truly comical refereeing, and a digitally rendered stadium that actually looks very good. The whole spectacle has been a timely distraction from what has been a difficult period for everyone. Or, to be more frank, a period in everyone's lives that can absolutely fuck right off.
From a HFX Wanderers perspective, there has been plenty to cheer about so far in this tournament, even without taking yesterday’s last-minute equalizer into account. From standing face to face with Forge and Cavalry to swatting away Edmonton, the green shoots of progress have been plentiful.
Ours is a club that has gone from languishing at the bottom of the table to – and you may want to whisper this – actually having an outside chance of leaving PEI with the prized microwave plate.
So, how exactly did this happen?
Writing the HFX Wanderers Squad Review in February, I was struck by how good the midfield looked. There seemed to be the perfect balance of ball-winners & ball-players, of destroyers & creators. This optimism was only on paper though, because one of the biggest structural issues Stephen Hart faced in Year #1 was fostering cohesion between the thirds regardless of the talent available. Too often build-up play would breakdown in midfield, or more frequently just bypass them all together.
2020 has seen a seismic shift away from this problem. The midfield, which was once the Achilles heel of Wanderers, is now its beating heart.
The most eye-catching of the Wanderers midfielders has been Aboubacar Sissoko. The 24 year-old U-Sports Athlete of the Year has gone about his business with the intensity and determination of a man still seething at Vancouver Whitecaps’ decision not to retain his services after a long trial over the winter. His anger is not misplaced, either.
Sissoko brings a bustling, energetic presence to the centre of Halifax’s midfield. He performs two actions repeatedly and performs them both incredibly well: first, he wins the ball back by picking the pocket of an opposition midfielder receiving the ball (or alternatively by harrying a player already in possession), then he releases it quickly and efficiently between the lines to an attacker. They’re both fairly simple actions on paper, but for a team that scores the majority of its goals during turnovers in play, it’s vital.
The Malian also brings a level of technical security to the team. Of the games played so far, Sissoko’s pass completion % has dropped below 80% only once. He is a very modern midfielder with a very contemporary set of skills.
Alongside him for much of The Island Games has been the HFX Wanderers captain, Andre Rampersad. The Trinidadian is having an excellent tournament thus far. He has performed consistently at an 8/10 level throughout and displayed remarkable stamina and work rate in the process. Rampersad is, quite frankly, an astonishingly busy player. At times the 25 year-old has resembled a thrilled grandmother giddily rushing about to meet the every whim and fancy of her grandchildren on their once-a-year visit. Would you like a soda? A slice of cheesecake? How about I fix a bologna sandwich? You just put your feet up and relax while I simultaneously press the opposition centre-back and play a defence splitting through-ball, sweetie.
He really has been elevated by the armband though. There’s a renewed confidence to him; last season we saw flashes of this kind of player, but he occasionally lacked conviction. This year, however, he’s playing the football of a man galvanized by increased responsibility. You have to assume the Trinidad & Tobago coaching staff – one of which is last season’s assistant coach Derek King – are considering him for international duty.
The beauty of the Sissoko/Rampersad partnership is how flexible it is with regards to who can play alongside them. On occasions during this tournament Stephen Hart has chosen to sit Louis-Béland Goyette just behind the two to allow them to commit in attack. Goyette hasn’t yet nailed down this role, but I’m of the opinion that he balances the team really well. I like his range of passing – despite his radar being a little off vs. Cavalry – and I’m not sure I realized how good he was off the ball, too.
Alternatively, Stephen Hart has also taken to using Sissoko and Rampersad in more disciplined roles to allow Joao Morelli to play in his favoured position as a no.10 just ahead of them. It’s a tactic that worked superbly versus Edmonton. Having Morelli roam undetected between the lines resulted in far more cohesion between defence and attack, a solution to what has been Halifax’s most enduring problem.
Unfortunately, Wanderers will be missing the Brazilian for the next few games after his sending off on Saturday. As we’ll come to later, however, there should be enough to depth in the squad to soften the blow.
Confession: I am – against my better judgment – the type football fan still inclined to believe that possession-based football is intellectually and artistically superior to any other. It’s not my fault, really, I just happened to go through the steepest years of my football education during a period in which Pep Guardiola, Barcelona, and Spain seemed to start playing a completely different game from everyone else. Their’s was a version of football based on poetically passing teams to a death; it was robotic and metronomical; it was also, if we’re being completely honest, occasionally quite boring.
Regardless, it was during this time that I and many others started to obsess over possession statistics at the end of each game, a habit which has endured despite growing evidence that the importance of such statistics is fallacious.
Wanderers have been proof of this during The Island Games. Of the five games so far, only once have they come close to having 50% of the ball, and even then it wasn’t that close. In fact, during Wanderers convincing win versus Edmonton recently – a game in which they looked very, very good indeed – Hart’s side only had the ball for 38% of the match (vs.Pacific, Forge, Cavalry, and York it was 41%, 42%, 46%, and 35%).
Curiously, if you were to line up Halifax’s possession stats in 2019 and 2020 alongside one another there’s little difference. Yet despite this the team looks significantly better in all departments.
So how is this happening?
Primarily, it’s because Halifax is now a team that kills the opposition during transitions. The midfield and defence force turnovers by intercepting passes or winning duals, and the attackers react to this by breaking at pace and outnumbering the opposition backline. It’s a tactic that a lot of teams are employing these days. Much higher up the football pyramid, Lyon put on a clinic of it during their match vs. Man City in the Champions League semi-final. It’s something that has reaped rewards for Wanderers recently, too.
Take a look at all of the goals they’ve scored from open play this season.
Akeem Garcia vs. Forge: Sissoko wins the ball off a Forge player just inside the HFX half. He passes it to Marshall and suddenly Wanderers are 4v4. Garcia makes a diagonal run, Marshall finds him… goal.
Akeem Garcia vs. Edmonton: Rampersad wins it off an Edmonton player just inside HFX half. He plays through ball to Garcia… goal.
Joao Morelli vs. Edmonton: Rampersad wins the ball off an Edmonton player just inside HFX half. He passes to Sissoko who then passes to Morelli. Morelli plays it out wide to Riggi, and then continues his run. Riggi finds him with the pass… goal.
Joao Morelli vs. Edmonton: Schaale wins the ball off an Edmonton player just inside the HFX half. He plays to Marshall wide right. Marshall plays a pair of one-twos with Rampersad and Morelli. The ball ends up wide left with Riggi. He swings in a cross that ends up at Rampersad’s feet. Rampersad passes to Morelli… goal.
What do all these goals have in common? Turnovers in the Wanderers half followed by quick counter attacks and finishes. In fact, for only one of those goals (Morelli’s 2nd vs. Edmonton) did the ball take longer than 10 seconds to travel from the interceptor’s boot to the back of the net. Break up play. Attack in numbers. Score.
It’s simple, really.
The level of this league is such that no player is press-resistant. In the CanPL, players are technically quite good, but quite good won’t hold up against a well coordinated press, which is something that Stephen Hart’s team has in 2020.
So for all the self-reflection that low possession % can bring, it’s worth remember that HFX Wanderers play in a way that makes them far more threatening without the ball. And that’s perfectly okay.
At times last season you really had to feel for Stephan Hart. With Wanderers down a goal and desperately seeking to salvage something from a game, he’d turn to his bench and see… what, exactly? Some youngsters with little experience? A perpetually injured veteran? A Yousef?
This year, however, couldn’t be any different. Hart’s now equipped with an embarrassment of riches, particularly in attack, which has allowed him to not only make impactful substitutions, but to tinker with his formation as well.
Until the Edmonton and York games, each lineup this season had felt slightly different. There was a spine in place – Schaale/Geffrard – Sissoko/Rampersad – but around them were constantly moving parts. With Louis Béland-Goyette in the side, Hart has tended to use Sissoko and Rampersad further forward, with the Trinidadian often disposed as a second striker. Without Goyette, Joao Morelli has been used as a no.10. Both set-ups offer different attacking focal points and leave opposition managers with some tactical tinkering to do themselves.
If you want to get a good idea of a coach’s vision, pay attention to a team’s shape in the first 10 minutes of a match. It’s during this time, before factors such as game state and fatigue start pulling players out of position, that the shape they’ve been working on prior to the game is most evident. Below are examples from early on in the Forge and Cavalry games that reveal how Wanderers’ depth allows them to lineup in several different ways depending on personnel:
First, we can see the familiar 4-1-4-1 which is most often used when Goyette is operating as a defensive midfielder. Then, we have Rampersad playing as a second striker when Wanderes are out of possesion. Not featured is the 4-2-3-1 we saw in the Edmonton and York (for the first 23 minutes, anyway) games.
Another use of depth has been the recycling of full-backs. Each of De Carolis, Ruby, Restrepo, and N’sa has played important minutes thus far. It’s a demanding position in this Wanderers team. With the wingers often joining the striker and highest midfielder to make a front four during attacks, the full-backs must cover a lot of grass. Each offers a different interpretation of the role, and each has justified their selection. Expect Hart to keep rotating them.
Depth can also be found on the wings. Riggi, Marshall, Morelli, and Bent have all shared game time out wide, and have all contributed either goals or assists. You can’t, with any kind of confidence, name the strongest two of those four which is credit to Wanderers’ off-season recruitment.
The most recent evidence of Wanderers depth came yesterday vs. York as Omar Kreim produced a goal of genuine importance (not long after teeing up Akeem Garcia for a golden opportunity, either). There’s more in midfield too, namely in Scott Firth who completed 100% of the passes he made during his cameo vs. Edmonton.
So if Wanderers are to go deeper in this tournament, there should be no danger of tired legs and minds. There’s little point in constructing a Best XI of this Wanderers team because to do so would be to miss the point entirely. To win The Island Games, teams will need depth, not starting XIs. And depth is something Stephen Hart certainly has.
Cast your mind back to yesterday’s draw vs. York. On 23 minutes Wanderers are down to 10 men and losing 1-0. For any team in this situation a capitulation would be on the cards. There was a sense of injustice, the referee was giving them little, and tempers were fraying. A downing-of-the-tools felt very possible at that point. But what happened instead was as measured and controlled a 10-man performance as you’re ever likely to see.
Halifax’s shape after losing Joao Morelli was excellent. They almost immediately reverted to two rigid banks of 4, with Akeem Garcia shuffling around up top to pressurize the York defenders. There was no panic, no collapse; just a group of players calmly recalibrating their game plan and sticking to it. Without the work rate this group of players has though, it would have been impossible to pull off.
What’s notable this season is the intensity in which every action is performed. Players don’t run to block off a pass, they sprint. They don’t dangle out a leg out to tackle, the crunch into it. It’s exhausting to watch, but it is working. As a result of this, Halifax has been able to press every team they have faced thus far with repeated success. It’s why all of their goals from open play have come from turnovers in possession. None of this is an accident.
Part of this can be put down to a group of players who appear, on the surface at least, to genuinely quite like one another. It’s all a far cry from last year when the changing room often resembled a No Name version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ video.
Gone are the cliques, gone are the egos. In their place have arrived professional footballers who are serious about their craft and determined to show any suitors that they belong at a higher level than the CanPL. They are doing this by not only showing what they can do with the ball, but also without it.
Case in point is yesterday’s draw with York. The Wanderers players won nearly 63% of the duals in that game, quite literally outfighting the opposition in the process. All with a man less, too.
These aren’t things you can teach. This has nothing to do with talent. It’s application and desire, and this squad has it in abundance.
And so here we are.
At the time of writing, HFX Wanderers sit one point away from a play-off place with five games played.
Maybe they won’t end up making the play-offs. Maybe they will. Maybe the next two games will prove this optimism to be rose-tinted gibberish. Maybe they won’t. Either way, it feels like we’re at the beginning of something right now. And sometimes a beginning is enough.
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.