The Halifax side has won the hearts of CPL fans in 2020 by succeeding in a style of play that they also attempted at times in 2019. They were fast, athletic, and — quite frankly — merciless. Most of their wins look similar to the others; they press high, they beat up their opponents in midfield, and their talented attackers are ruthless when they win the ball in space.
On Saturday, they couldn’t really do any of that. In fact, it was Forge who pressed, which isn’t something we’ve often seen from them. It was Forge who surrendered the ball, and Forge who put pressure on the HFX centre-backs.
The Wanderers’ midfield, composed of Aboubacar Sissoko, Andre Rampersad, and João Morelli, combined for 18 ball recoveries between them. The Forge midfield (Kyle Bekker, Paolo Sabak, and Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson), by comparison, combined for 21. That’s supposed to be HFX’s bread and butter, and they lost at their own game.
It was all by design, according to Smyrniotis.
“You look at what Halifax has done in this tournament, and a lot of times they’ve decided not to hold possession, not have the ball, and sit and find spaces to counter attack,” he explained after the match.
“In phases of the game, not the whole game, but in phases of the game we wanted to allow them to be on the ball a little bit more, and hopefully that would open up the spaces for us to be able to attack them. It was something we saw, not in a particular game in the league, but maybe in a lot of games of theirs.”
Forge allowed HFX to be on the ball, certainly, but not to be comfortable on it. Just look at how high up the pitch Forge’s front three were playing, on average:
The pace provided up front by David Choinière (number 7 in the graphic on the left), Mo Babouli (19), and Jonathan Grant (2) put HFX’s fullbacks Mateo Restrepo and Chrisnovic N’Sa under serious pressure, forcing both of them into making poor passes and giving the ball away.
Both players were uncharacteristically inaccurate with the ball; N’Sa only hit 71.4 per cent of his passes, and Restrepo had an even tougher afternoon at 61.5 per cent.
Part of the overall success for Forge was keeping every HFX player, save for Alessandro Riggi and Akeem Garcia, to a passing accuracy under 80 per cent, with three of their starters dipping under 70. Here’s what Restrepo and N’Sa’s day looked like, though:
Smyrniotis explained a little more of his thinking in the particular attacking setup he chose for Saturday, identifying Babouli in particular as a player he felt would be a good fit in the game.
“Mo is a player that can come into the space, we see a lot of times when Halifax defends they’ll drop their back four far back very quick, and there’s usually a lot of space between their defenders and their midfielders,” the coach explained.
It certainly worked out, with Babouli providing four key passes, four successful dribbles, two shots on target, and the assist for Achinioti-Jönsson goal. He did his job very well in the Final, living happily in the half-spaces on both sides of the attacking half.
In the end, the story of Forge’s victory in the 2020 CPL Final is one of control. They decided very early on what they wanted the match to look like, and they executed pretty much exactly the game plan they entered with. HFX couldn’t do anything they really wanted to, and Forge capitalized just enough to win, as they’ve always done.
After a comprehensive tactical victory like that, who knows what Bobby Smyrniotis might come up with next? He has plenty of time to plan for a Canadian Championship final with Toronto FC, and he’s sure to have something up his sleeve.