By the time the final whistle blew on a fun, raucous night of Voyageurs Cup action in Vaughan, Ont., HFX Wanderers had clocked up its 360th minute of game time over eighteen delightful days of Canadian football. In terms of sample sizes, it’s a little on the small side, but we’ve seen enough now to make certain assumptions about how Stephen Hart wants his team to look this year.
At first, trying to get a read on this team - or any of the teams in the league in fact - was akin to staring out of a window dripping with condensation; it was possible to see outlines and colours, but any kind of clarity or detail was lacking. As game rolls into game, those blurry images beyond the glass have started to take shape, and certain positions and personnel have crystalized more quickly than others.
Defence, for a start, appears to be relatively locked in. Ndzemdzela Langwa has been one of the league’s revelations at left-back, and Andre Bona’s power and pace seem to have solidified his spot at right-back. Centrally, two of Chakib Hocine, Peter Schaale and Chrisnovic N’sa will always start. One of the benefits of Hocine’s injury has been the emergence of the two young centre-backs as a genuinely capable pair, much, I’m sure, to Stephen Hart’s delight.
In attack, Hart has favoured the balance of Akeem Garcia on the right, and Mohammed Kourouma on the left. When fit, you’d also expect Luis Perea to come in as the first-choice striker.
Kourouma is a wonderful throwback of a wide player. It’s as if he was cryogenically frozen in the 1980s before being reawakened on April 28th, 2019, much to the pant-staining terror of right-backs across the league. A left footed left winger with a propensity for beating his man and whipping in a cross? How delightfully pre-2000.
Garcia, on the other hand, performs two roles at once; part orthodox right-winger, part second striker. A return of two goals in four games, while also winning 2,397 corners during that time, is testament to his ability to perform these roles simultaneously.
From a defensive standpoint, both wide players are expected to drop in line with the central midfielders when the opposition are building from the back. It’s lung-busting work, but the two of them have done well thus far.
So, of the 11 starters, 8 of them are pretty much nailed on. The problem facing Stephen Hart is that the three positions that aren’t are arguably the most important three positions on the pitch: the central midfielders.
From a shape perspective, Wanderers’ midfield has a fairly solid foundation with slight tweaks game-to-game. The role of the Wanderers no.10 (Gutierrez or Iida) remains well-defined: in possession they’re the link between the holding midfielders and the attackers, while out of possession they join the striker in aggressively pressing the opposition centre-backs.
Behind the no.10, Hart appears to have directed the deeper pair to operate in several different ways depending on the opponent, which usually looks like one of the following:
· two holding midfielders tasked with controlling the game.
· two holding midfielders with a mandate to screen and disrupt the opposition attackers
· one holding midfield alongside a more dynamic box-to-box midfielder.
Of course, this is an oversimplification as those roles bleed into one another during the game, but at the heart of these differing styles is a fundamental question: are HFX Wanderers FC a proactive team or a reactive team?
The answer is: it depends, really.
Against Pacific FC on the opening day, without having any concrete knowledge of how they’d set up, Hart went with Elton John as the holding midfielder, alongside Andre Rampersad, who was given a lot more license to roam. Ahead of them, and constantly looking to receive the ball between the lines, was Juan Diego Gutierrez.
It was a disjointed display from Wanderers that day. Playing below their level, the midfielders never seemed to get a true grip on the game as a young, energetic Pacific midfield hustled them into turnovers and misplaced passes.
In reaction to this, and with an eye on the attacking talents of their opponents, Stephen Hart picked a more conservative midfield three the following week vs. Forge FC, with Elton John and Kouame Ouattara sitting deep and Kodai Iida, who’d been such a breath of fresh air the previous week, coming in as the no.10.
I think Alex (@its_shep) summed it up best on the most recent episode of our podcast when he talked about Ouatarra being a midfielder that day on paper only. In reality his M.O was clear: do not let Kyle Bekker out of your sight. John, too, was tasked with a lot of off the ball work but was also encouraged to pass into the feet of the attackers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
With Kodai Iida also pressing as if the survival of the planet depended on it, Wanderers’ midfielders used up a tremendous amount of energy in the opening hour, and it was no surprise to see all three substituted before the end of the game. It was a fantastic off the ball performance from them, but stylistically not one that was likely to work as effectively against teams with less talent in forward positions.
The following week at Valour saw the midfield have a bit of a face lift. Kodai Iida remained at the tip of the three, but there were debuts for Matthew Arnone and Elliot Simmons.
Arnone, with his instinct for defending, and Simmons, more of a tempo-setting ball player, played roughly alongside each other for much of the game. It wasn’t quite table football with rods ensuring they remain aligned, but it wasn’t a million miles off it.
Both took it in turns to step in during the second phase of the Wanderers press, or move forward to support the attack, but they were generally tasked with playing close to one another throughout. To an extent, it worked.
Wanderers had their best performance of the season against Valour and were unlucky not to get anything from the game, particularly when you look at some of the chances that were missed.
Simmons retained his place for yesterday’s game against Vaughan Azzurri, with Rampersad and Gutierrez coming in alongside him.
It was this three that I thought Wanderers would start the season with. On paper at least, they seem to have skill sets that complement one another; Simmons the savvy controller, Rampersad the energetic runner, and Gutierrez the creative fulcrum. And at times last night, it worked out quite well.
The concern Stephen Hart will have this morning though, is how exposed his side looked in the second half when a series of turnovers in possession led to Wanderers looking rather vulnerable to quick counter-attacks.
When one or two of the full-backs pushed forward and the ball was lost, it was Simmons and three defenders versus a wave of adrenaline-infused Vaughan attackers. Whether this leads Hart to reactively revert back to two holding midfielders, remains to be seen.
There’s a lot to be positive about though. A lot. Wanderers are one or two small modifications away from challenging, and as spring turns to summer it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them clicking into gear. They’re my pick for the Fall season.
Next Wednesday’s return leg at the Wanderers Grounds will afford Hart another chance at finding the right balance in the middle of the park. The perfect midfield alchemy still a blurry image just beyond the glass; it's an image that becomes clearer with every match, but as of now remains tantalizingly out of reach.
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 @GaryG86