By Patrick Gibson
*Rankings may not appear in this article....*
Every day for the past week, I made sure to let as many people as I could know that this would be a trap game. Every time something like this happens, I extend the platitude that I hate to say I told you so. Part of me does feel justified in what I mentioned on this very platform one week ago, but most of me genuinely hates having to bring it up. A 2-1 loss to the bottom-of-the-table team in this situation, with the league this close, hurts so much more than it would’ve in May or June. I want to clarify this wasn’t the worst performance we’ve delivered all season. Look back at any of our first three losses of the season, and you’ll see a team that looked far worse than what has been fielded the last two weeks. This was most evident in the amount of opportunities we gave up in transition earlier in the year, pointing specifically to the 4-1 defeat to Pacific. That was something that the 2022 team was much more capable of avoiding, and the inability to defend effectively was far more detrimental to the team than a lack of creativity going forward. We expected to lack creativity, as we were trying to have multiple players replace the attacking impetus of Ballou Tabla, but the defensive stability was not.
That said, the burden of expectation has undone so much of the goodwill that the team had built over July and August. The previous two months produced a side that looked far more comfortable hunkering down and avoiding calamitous mistakes that directly led to opposition opportunities (more on that in a bit). To anyone who was paying attention, though, the 6-2-1 that the team compiled in that stretch did not help to paper over the rest of the cracks that would open the proverbial floodgates. The lack of a true Ballou Tabla replacement was clear in the first few games of the season and has once again reared its ugly head these last three weeks. You can also include the Pacific game in there, even if the game plan against the then-league leaders was quite different from what has been asked of the side the last three weeks.
I’ve used the term “Pokeball formation” several times over the past few months to describe the phenomenon that occurs when Atletico Ottawa are attacking in a controlled manner. Though I’ve explained it before, I want to reiterate what I’m trying to describe. In so many situations, it feels like players are unwilling to operate in the centre of the pitch when going forward and instead drift to the periphery as much as possible, leaving a single player isolated in the middle whose only role is to seemingly switch play to the other side of the formation, where the same thing is happening, or to return it into defence to reset play entirely. It means that the defence is no longer worried about having to deal with balls coming through the middle because the end product is almost certainly coming from a winger or wing-back.
The average position for the starting XI of Atletico Ottawa in their last two games against Vancouver (left) and Cavalry (right) [courtesy of Sofascore].
**Iliadis’ spot here is a tad misleading as he was shifted to left wing back early in the second half in both matches.**
The issues of what I’m seeing are threefold. One is that the left winger this season has always been playing as an inverted winger, as Atletico Ottawa does not have a healthy player to play that position who is left-footed. The closest we had this year was Abou Sacko, but given how raw he still was, he was deployed in more defensive roles to allow him time to get accustomed to the role before he sustained an injury that kept him out for more than half of the season. The four players who have since filled in as the inverted winger/second striker have been Gianni dos Santos, Zach Verhoven, Malcolm Shaw, and Gabriel Antinoro. All of whom have demonstrated that they are far more comfortable cutting in on their right side, forcing either the left back to make demonstrably higher runs forward than needed to have any presence down the wing or harmless efforts at crosses or shots from the edge of the 18 as there is no support to facilitate opening space for the player with the ball, the striker making a diagonal run, or the would-be midfielder getting forward. That said, I do want to commend Noah Verhoeven for filling the space I’m talking about here at certain points in the second half. Those sorts of runs will open space for the inverted winger to do their job instead of harmlessly dribbling into three defenders who don’t have other assignments to worry about.
The second issue with it is what happens with Ollie Bassett. 11 goals and 3 assists in 23 games is an enviable total for any player in this league, not to mention a central midfielder. These raw goal contributions have been the main talking point about why he should be in consideration for a repeat as Player of the Year. But should that really be what he’s doing? Are teams not better offensively when the midfielder drives the play and creates for his attackers? These hypotheticals are merely a segue for me to discuss the real problem, Ollie’s heat maps. His average position this year is far more indicative of a right winger than a central midfielder. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most effective offensive games of the year are when the other players down the right are playing well, as the overload with Ollie becomes too much for the opposing left back to manage and Ollie then naturally tucks back into more central positions. But when it’s not working, it’s moving a player that should be facilitating in the middle of the pitch to a place where he can’t do the things necessary to create opportunities. If he were creating good opportunities from crosses, maybe I’d be more forgiving of the overall trend, but with 18% season accuracy, I struggle to see why it makes any sense for it to continue.
The third and final issue is one that may see me unable to ever enter the city of Zaragoza for fear of my life, but it’s the centre of that “Pokeball”. The distinguishing feature of why it’s called a Pokeball is the button in the middle. That button for Atletico Ottawa has been Alberto Zapater. I’ve heaped tremendous praise on the veteran for his calming presence in the middle of the park. The ability to settle everything around him was the catalyst for Ottawa being able to play well enough to get back into a playoff position. As I sit here now, I’m beginning to think the calmness is starting to go a little too far. Alberto’s understanding of the game and his ability make it easy for him not to need to play at 100% of his ability in every match. That’s not to say he isn’t giving it everything he needs to; it’s just that what he needs to give isn’t the totality of his powers. As a result, much of what he does is to simplify play as much as possible. While great in ensuring that the team does not concede as many silly opportunities for the opposition in transitional moments, the downside is that there is a distinct lack of risk-taking going forward.
I mentioned this briefly last week, and I’ll repeat myself here (something I feel like I’m doing a lot in this piece, I apologise), but I feel like the holding midfielder still needs to contribute something to the attack. Instead, he’s been positioned as an anchor and in times where he could attempt an incisive pass through the middle that may only work 50% of the time, he instead sprays the ball to an open player out wide that starts the issues I mentioned above all over again. Maybe it is too much to ask of a 38-year-old looking to wrap up his career to be the catalyst for everything about this team at both ends of the pitch. Regardless, I want to see him take one or two more calculated risks before the season ends in the attacking third. The foul he won that immediately preceded the first Vancouver goal was the farthest up the pitch I think I’ve seen him all year. While that’s not the point I’m trying to make, as I feel he can still facilitate playmaking opportunities from where he is on the pitch in most instances, it still feels telling of a system that feels incredibly disconnected.
The disconnected nature of the formation is having its biggest impact up top. Despite being on pace to score more goals this season than the team did last year, much of that is being generated from places other than where you would expect. While the 2022 ATO team was only able to generate 12 of 38 goals from their three strikers, for a ratio of just under 33%, the 2023 team is currently at 6 of 34, for a paltry 18%. At this stage, only York has a lower goal share from their strikers this season, and given the performances put forward by Ozase De Rosario and Brian Wright on their end, it’s something to be frightened about. Time and time again, the team has been unable to provide service to its strikers on a consistent basis. Sure, this isn’t all the time, as we can look back to the marvellous pass from Zach Verhoven to Sam Salter for the only goal in the first Cavalry home game or the cross into Salter in the previous game against Cavalry that he skied. Still, these moments are happening few and far between. That our only goal in this game came from a calamitous goalkeeping error from Callum Irving shows both sides of this issue. We were unable to create more than a couple of clear-cut chances the entire game against a defensive unit that has looked lost at times this season. We were unlucky to see Ruben Del Campo not convert his first goal of the season, as he hit the crossbar midway through the first half, but on the balance of the game, we did not deserve the 3 points.
Out of everyone, Ruben is the player who’s feeling the brunt of this issue in creating opportunities for our strikers. His lack of goal-scoring this season is different to the issues we’ve had from our other foreign strikers in previous years. His effort level is up to par, and his individual creativity has been on display a number of times this season. His getting around Anthony White to get to the ball for his shot in this game is an example of both of those elements. His pressing to snag the ball off Callum Irving as well. Not to mention the cross for his first goal contribution of the season against York, as the technique to curl that cross in was sublime. That said, he’s still a striker, and not having a single goal through 10 games is calamitous. That he’s only managed 3 shots on target in that span, not including the post he hit today, says to me that he’s not being put in a position to have the chances that a striker needs to be clinical rather than his presence on the field being the actively negative element. The problem isn’t that we’re wasting opportunities; it’s that we aren’t creating enough of them for players like Ruben to take advantage of.
Maybe I’m wrong, and what I’m seeing is a reflection of what I feel must be happening to justify the number of times that I’ve found myself frustrated in a team demonstrating a clear lack of creativity. Even the fact that we will, barring a catastrophe in these last 5 games, end up scoring more goals than we did last year doesn’t do enough to tide me over. Maybe it’s wrong of me to expect consistent flourishing attacking play from a league that will rightfully move its most successful players on as quickly as possible to facilitate growth for them and the reputation of the league. It’s frustrating to see that after 4 years and two different managers, there still does not seem to be a cohesive attacking mentality that has manifested at this club. We’ve seen exciting attacking players have the brunt of the responsibility thrust upon them without the rest of the team being able to fit into a system that encourages decisive play going forward. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer what we’ve got under Carlos Gonzalez to what we had under Mista. It’s a system with defensive responsibility that should generate a good base on which to develop an attacking identity; it’s just that the second part hasn’t come yet. And I don’t know if it will.
Besides these long-standing issues, there were certainly individual elements that needed to be called out from the performance on Saturday. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think everyone played terribly. Really good individual performances shone through the collective disappointment we all felt. Ilias Iliadis was exceptional in midfield until he was shifted to left wing-back, where he was above average but certainly not as impactful to the game. That said, there were equally negative performances that had the opposite effect. Unfortunately, Miguel Acosta was one of those players. From the get-go, he just seemed out of sorts this evening. Unfortunately, he was caught out in a 2v1 situation that resulted in the first Vancouver goal and, on the balance of the evening, was second best in many situations where you would expect him to normally come out on top. The yellow card at the end of the match was the icing on the cake, and while he’s still 3 away from picking up a suspension on card accumulation, it’s the sort of unnecessary caution that would come back to bite players in many cases.
The other individual I want to single out is Gianni dos Santos. For many of these articles, I feel like I’ve been tremendously fair with every individual on this team. The criticism I levy is littered with caveats and aspirations that everything will come good. At this point, I think I’m done with Gianni. I wouldn’t be upset if he didn’t see the pitch at all for the rest of the season. This isn’t just a gut reaction to what happened in his brief stint on the pitch today; this has been something that’s been bubbling just below the surface for weeks now. Initially, it was his penchant for looking to win free kicks at every opportunity rather than trying to find teammates when cutting in on his right foot. Now, while he is trying to avoid going down easily as he seems to have clocked officials not giving him the benefit of the doubt, he seems to be creating for himself rather than the team. And when he is trying to provide service for his teammates, the execution and situations in which it’s occurring have so little chance of coming off that it feels wasteful to give him the ball in the first place. That’s before coming to the calamity that was his giveaway before last night's winning goal. My issue really isn’t with the pass he chose to make, even if it was horrific; it was that he ignored the three teammates who were running with him down the left side to take three unnecessary dribbles from the left to the right side of the pitch before making that pass with his head down. He’s not generating anything, and you can live with that when he’s not having a negative impact on the defensive end. Now that he is, I’m not sure he’s worth even the five minutes he gave on Saturday.
Following our loss to Halifax on July 23rd, I made a statement that I didn’t think this team would make the playoffs. Most of that was based on the idea that most of our points accrued to that stage of the season had come against teams in the league's bottom half. Our next three games afterwards saw us take 7 points from teams that we had taken a combined 4 off of prior to that game. I feel like most of us saw that as a turning point for the season, myself included. I still had a little inkling in the back of my head that this wasn’t going to turn out how I thought it would, but I put that down to my natural pessimism rather than any serious consideration about the team’s potential. Even now, I still think I was right to try and ignore that pesky part of my brain that was saying it was too good to be true, even if the proverbial shoe has finally dropped.
We now sit 5th in the Canadian Premier League standings. We’re level on points with York, a team we’ve managed only 1 point against in three games this season and are only ahead thanks to their atrocious goal difference that they’ve accrued against every other team in the league (a +2 goal difference against ATO while having a -9 goal difference elsewhere). Many are saying that we’re still fairly safe to make the playoffs because of the hole that both Halifax and York find themselves in with their accumulation of u21 minutes. As it stands right now, Halifax needs to manage 600 minutes in 5 games, and York needs 513 from 4 games. With York, the equation is simple, as they’ll start Adisa de Rosario in goal in each of those games, and from there, they’ll only need 37 minutes a game from outfield players. For Halifax, a combination of minutes from Thiago Coimbra, Tomas Giraldo, and Armaan Wilson, all of whom looked quite competent in their hard-fought draw against Pacific, will fulfil that requirement.
At the end of the day, football is a team game, and the players who have been entrusted with reaching this milestone for the teams mentioned above are still professional players. I find it wildly difficult to believe that they will commit calamitous errors that will directly lead to a wave of lost points in the season's final 4 or 5 games. Patrice Gheisar and Martin Nash can integrate these players with others who can make a difference and fundamentally not lose out on a high level of performance. There are eleven players on the field at any one time, and there are far more obvious holes on both teams that will put them in danger of not making the playoffs. York won’t miss out because they have to . They’llplay Trivine Esprit or Cameron Buschman Dormand 40 minutes a game the rest of the way, They’ll miss out because their experienced defenders have been a horror show for most of the season. They’ll miss out because Mo Babouli is a petulant child who can’t keep his mouth shut and, as a result, will miss the next 3 games due to suspension. They’ll miss out because Martin Nash has failed tactically again.
We should be thankful that York is the horror show it is now. It’s our best chance of being able to make the playoffs. We should also thank the league for unnecessarily expanding the playoff field so that we’ll get an extra game out of the season despite finishing in the bottom half of the table. Maybe the team will run out motivated against Pacific and Halifax next week, claim 6 points, and render everything I just said moot. I’d love that, but I don’t see how they can do it. Maybe Luke Singh and Sam Salter really are that crucial to making this team click like it should. All I know is I’m a fool for letting myself get wrapped up so heavily in how 11 men kick a ball around a field of grass/turf. The greatest of fools, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having joined CCSG in 2022, Patrick started his footie career playing at the age of 4 and began watching the pros around the same time. While the first pro team he supported was Manchester United, as soon as Atlético Ottawa came to town, he was immediately on board. His wealth of footie knowledge has been a constant asset, along with his role as caretaker for Atléti Wikipedia pages.