I'd like to start with an apology: I know hastily put together '5 Things We Learned This Week' type articles are tedious, but the sun is shining in Halifax for the first time in 3,758 days, and I'd quite like to be outside.
So, with that in mind, here's one of those sorts of articles that you and I are both bored of reading. And to really twist the knife, one that doesn't even make it to 5...
Elliot Simmons is good at football
There was a moment of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it class in the eighteenth minute of Wednesday’s enjoyably frantic Canadian Championship victory over Valour FC that summed up the emergence of Elliot Simmons as a key cog in the HFX Wanderers machine.
Mohammad Kourouma, pinned in on the left touchline with nowhere to go, played the only out ball available into the feet of a centrally positioned Simmons.
As the ball rolled towards him, the 21-year-old glanced over his shoulder to see Valour’s Marcos Bustos quickly closing in. The easiest thing to do at this point would be to release it first time and play a panicked ball over the top for Tomasz Skublak to aimlessly chase. But what Simmons opted to do instead was slightly different.
Aware of the angle of Bustos’ run, the Wanderers no.8 simply dragged the ball backwards between his legs, taking the Valour press out of the game and opening up the entire right side of the pitch for Wanderers to attack down.
It was a moment of pure spatial awareness; an action so subtle that it didn’t get the ‘ooohs’ it probably deserved from the fans in the ground, but one that validated what many of us have spent the past few months insisting: Elliot Simmons is a very, very good footballer.
It wasn’t this incident in isolation that has demonstrated this, in fact the influence of the young Brit has been growing game by game.
For a start, the passes have become more ambitious. There was an element of caution to Simmons during his first few appearances – the sense, perhaps, of a player with an eye on possession stats. Or maybe, as is more likely, a player whose teammates simply hadn’t quite figured out his skill set yet, and therefore were unsure of the runs they should be making for him.
In recent games though, the passes have become far more penetrative. It’s the reason that Wanderers have looked more connected as a unit of late. Balls played from deep that break the opposition lines were sorely missing early on in the season, but with Simmons adding this string to their bow, Wanderers have looked a significantly more dangerous outfit.
His partnership with Elton John has given Wanderers a new dimension, and in doing so solved the most pressing issue of the first half of the Spring season: the midfield conundrum.
As a double pivot they operate without the restrictive rigidity that some of the other combinations suffered from. There’s an interesting spatial depth to them which has allowed Wanderers to shift from playing in straight lines to attacking with more varied angles, rendering them increasingly unpredictable as a result.
Even after a week which saw Wanderers pick up four league points and a vital first-leg Canadian Championship win, Stephen Hart will perhaps consider the belated emergence of a bona-fide central midfield partnership as his biggest victory.
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
As someone who left England six-years ago and has spent a total of 28 days back there since, I’m not the best example of this - but within the context of the Canadian Premier League, it’s undoubtedly true.
Especially when away is between 1,800km and 6,000km west.
As HFX Wanderers have demonstrated this season, the gulf between home and away results has been a significant one.
It’s not their fault, really. As the only team on the east coast, and with a league that's weighted heavily to Canada’s west, Wanderers are going to make the biggest carbon footprint this season by some distance. It brings with it challenges that the club would have been well aware of, but ones that are impossible to fully combat.
For example, how exactly do you prepare for spending 8 hours on an airplane the day before a match? No amount of groundwork can be done to completely eradicate the effect that has on a body - particularly one as finely tuned as an athlete’s.
Despite this, what the past week of action has shown us is that the effect of travel is something that can also be used to Wanderers’ advantage.
A key factor that works more in Halifax's favour than against is time difference: as tough as it is travelling west into a new time zone, it’s far more of an issue for a team travelling east.
Case in point is last Saturday’s fixture versus Pacific FC. Halifax is four hours ahead of Langford, BC, so to Pacific's players a 2pm kick-off feels more like a 10am kick-off, and an 8am wake-up call feels more like a 4am wake-up call.
Not to mention the difficulties they'd have faced trying to force themselves to sleep the night before the game, much to the surprise of their baffled brains – “It’s 7.30pm Marcus, shouldn’t we be doing neck-lifts in the gym right now?”
Knowing me, knowing you (aha!)
Whoever coined the proverb that familiarity breeds contempt had obviously never coached a professional football team… or ever made the completely rational decision to eat pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Because familiarity, to a professional footballer at least, is paramount.
It’s why the quality of football played in the Champions League is better than the quality of football played in the World Cup. It’s also why, to use a more immediate example, Cavalry FC have begun the Canadian Premier League season by sprinting out the blocks: whisper it quietly, but Cavalry probably aren’t the best team in the league - just the one equipped with the most familiar set of players.
For Stephen Hart and this HFX Wanderers team, familiarity has taken a little longer to attain, and understandably so – of all the teams in the league Wanderers’ squad was the most exotically and unpredictably assembled, and therefore one that would take time to gel.
It’s felt at times this season that every week a new player has nailed down their place in the starting line-up, and slowly but surely this had led to the position we're in now, where 80% of the first eleven is pretty much set.
There are still a few question marks, of course. Still a few modular components that will likely shift match by match, but the core of the team is there now, and the past three matches have shown the benefit of this.
Footballers are intuitive creatures. Such is the speed of the modern game that much of what happens on the pitch is instinctive, and success in this environment requires a deep understanding of where your teammates are on the pitch and the movements they’re likely to make next.
Tomasz Skublak needs to know that Mohammad Kourouma will be in the right position to receive his first-time flick. Peter Schaale has to trust that Andre Bona will be occupying the space his headed clearance is intended for. And so on.
Seven of the eleven outfield players retained their place for each of the York 9, Pacific, and Valour matches. Compared to the opening weeks of the season as Hart and his coaching staff were still figuring his players out, that’s a very high number.
A mitigating factor that may be at play here, and one that could well prove everything just written to be incorrect, is the luxury of having three home matches in a row grants certain privileges, namely the chance to work players harder than they usually would without the hindrance of travel.
It’s this caveat that has led to a theory that yes, Hart knows his best home XI, but his best away XI could be something completely different.
A good away performance tends to be a lot more structured than the occasional attacking abandon of a home performance, and one that requires players, particularly midfielders, to keep their defensive shape diligently.
With this theory in mind, Hart’s propensity for playing a large number of defenders in a number of away games this season makes a lot more sense.
Either way, this is a team that appears to be starting to understand itself, and as a result starting to understand just how good it could be.
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.