LANGLEY, BC – It was Country Night at Willoughby, and while cowboy hats and country tunes lightened the mood off the pitch, on the pitch it was a serious, hard-fought affair between Vancouver FC and HFX Wanderers. Goals from Gabriel Bitar and Mikael Cantave lifted the Eagles to their third victory as a club, and their second at home. Meanwhile, Halifax continue their search for an away win this season after a disappointing display.
Tactical Battle, Advantage Ghotbi
While it can be argued that VFC head coach Afshin Ghotbi has made some questionable calls in the way he sets up his players in his line-up so far this season, in this game he got it bang-on.
After experimenting a bit at the beginning, the 4-2-3-1 formation has become a staple of Vancouver FC. Against Halifax, Ghotbi’s game plan was to disrupt and destabilize Halifax, before hitting them quick on the break. His 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-1-4-1 out of possession, meaning that they were pressing high up the pitch with five men against the back four. This complicated life for Halifax, who usually like to build out from the back and exploit the half-spaces through quick and methodical passing.
The real dagger for Halifax was that Lorenzo Callegari was suffocated for a majority of the match, thanks to Elliot Simmons coming up from the double pivot and pressing the middle alongside Bitar.
“That’s how we had to play,” said Ghotbi after the match. “We felt that Callegari was the key from connecting the back-line to the strikers.”
Callegari only had some 50-odd touches in the first half, when usually he has many more due to how he likes to set the pace for his team. That set a precedent on control and pressure that allowed Vancouver to build and attack with more confidence than in recent weeks.
It was an effective strategy that paid off, with Vancouver getting the best chances and Halifax pinned back for most of the match.
Experience comes up big for Vancouver
For a long time, it felt like the crux of Vancouver’s woes were about their lack of experience and maturity. They just weren’t able to sustain or take control of a match across 90 minutes. They either lost their focus late in the game, saw them start poorly, or lack discipline. But with the addition of Miki Cantave, his experience and character has already helped lift his team to new heights.
“He was the key in the last two games”, remarked Ghotbi to the media. “We needed a player of experience, his quality, and I think he is surpassing our expectations. We never saw him play at Cavalry with this kind of confidence. He really influenced the game in so many facets.”
Cantave was a big part of how Vancouver set up since he was working as hard as the rest of the forward line to press and close down spaces. He already fits in nicely with Bitar and Shaan Hundal in their link-up and deservedly got that goal to win the game.
With the rumours of Alejandro Diaz heating up as well, these next few additions, if they have the same experience, maturity and work rate as Cantave, can be major game-changers for Vancouver for the second half of the season.
Gael Goes AWOL
One player that was not present in the squad at all for this match, nor the previous game, was Mexican forward Gael Sandoval. A player that was signed with so much promise, but with very little output. He seemed lethargic from the very start of preseason, but you had hoped that he would kick into gear once the season started. However, it never materialized.
Now, with the likes of Mael Henry and Emmanuel Robe already cut, it looks like Sandoval will be next to join the exodus. Vancouver FC is no longer mentioned on his Instagram and he was seen playing golf in Mexico on the day of this match.
“The club will make a statement,” Ghotbi responded when questioned about Sandoval’s absences. “We are trying to take it [this project] day by day, and we are trying to move forward to create a team that we feel embodies what the club’s identity will be”.
With the addition of Cantave, and the incoming loan of Diaz, Vancouver can easily replace what was to be their first talismanic signing with players that fit the mould of a hard-working star. As for Sandoval, he will likely look to return to warmer and more familiar grounds to revive his career after this soured spell.