How did Forge shut out Cavalry in Finals 2019?

Cavalry FC scored 2.83 goals per game in the regular season. They put the ball in the net 30 times at ATCO Field, Spruce Meadows in all competitions.

But, somehow, Forge FC blanked them in the CPL Finals. Over two legs, it was decisive; the Cavs found just three shots on target, even in a second leg that saw them strive desperately for a lifeline goal.

With some of the smoke perhaps now clearing from Forge’s championship revelry, a question emerges: How? How did Bobby Smyrniotis’ men keep the CPL’s most potent attack completely silent on the league’s grandest stage?

Smyrniotis’ opposite number, Tommy Wheeldon Jr., had just one word for what he wanted his players to do in Leg 2: “Suffer.” Well, beyond anything else, that’s exactly what Forge did in Calgary. It’s a cliché, but Forge’s relentless defending was the product of the blood and sweat of a club wanting to win so desperately.

The general flow of Saturday’s game was pretty much what everyone expected; Cavalry were back to their typical, front-foot soccer with a hair under 60 per cent possession and 14 shots. A casual observer would certainly pick the Cavs as the better of the two sides in Leg 2, and they probably were.

Still, it’s not just bad luck that kept Cavalry scoreless in two championship games. With so much familiarity between these two sides, and several weeks in October where they knew they’d be seeing each other in Finals 2019, Smyrniotis developed a plan for silencing Cavalry’s best players.

For Leg 2, he set his team up with a clear mandate to defend at all costs. Jonathan Grant, naturally a right-back, moved up to the wing for extra defensive pressure on Nathan Mavila and to help isolate Jordan Brown. It’s possible Forge expected to see Jose Escalante in that left-wing spot, but regardless, Grant and Dominic Samuel kept things very quiet on that side.

Canadian Premier League Finals - Cavalry FC v Hamilton Forge FC - Calgary, Alberta, Canada Nov. 2, 2019 Julian Buscher of Cavalry FC is sandwiched by Jonathan Grant (L) and Dominic Samuel of Forge FC. Mike Sturk/CPL
Julian Buscher of Cavalry FC is sandwiched by Jonathan Grant (L) and Dominic Samuel of Forge FC. (Photo: Mike Sturk/CPL)

Smyrniotis kept his centre-backs very deep, tasked more with getting the ball the heck away from their penalty area than springing attacks. David Edgar and Daniel Krutzen combined made 10 clearances each, with Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson dropping to help out as well. The whole Forge 11 remained in a compact block and refused to afford Cavalry the space they wanted.

When the Cavs did find space, it was out on the wings (they were much better out wide in Leg 2 than in Leg 1), but they had nowhere to go from there, with things so cramped in the middle.

Forge managed to crowd their penalty area enough to stop Dominique Malonga from having any real chances with the ball at his feet. Indeed, they didn’t allow any Cavalry attackers enough space to properly threaten in the box; Dominick Zator led the home side with four shots, which reflects how much the Cavs relied on set-pieces for scoring opportunities.

Yes, the dead ball seemed, at times, to be the only way Cavalry had any chance of scoring; time and again, Nico Pasquotti would dribble deep down the right flank and either send in a cross or win a corner (or a throw-in,which, for him, is essentially a corner).

And yet, Forge was ready for it. Surely now well-acquainted with Cavalry’s set-piece routines (which have been deadly all year), the Hammers didn’t necessarily always stop the Cavs from taking shots, but they ensured that those shots came from areas that wouldn’t cause trouble. Forge typically brought everyone back into the box to defend set-pieces, at the expense of many true counter-attacking opportunities, but that was surely by design.

Visiting teams at Spruce Meadows this season have occasionally managed to contain Cavalry for the first 45 minutes to an hour, but the Albertan altitude combined with the Cavs’ unrelenting pressure has caused almost every opponent to crumple eventually.

Not Forge, though. As Cavalry increased the intensity of their attack, the Hammers matched them with their defending.

Smyrniotis got the tactics right, certainly, with his side giving Cavalry a taste of their own medicine by putting energetic defensive pressure on their dribblers. What carried them over the line, though, was their workrate. A Forge player could rarely be seen taking a play off, and if a Cavalry attacker found himself unmarked in the box, it wasn’t in a dangerous position.

Saturday’s result was perhaps the most well-earned clean sheet of the year. Forge’s defenders had to claw for every single clearance, and it was obvious at full-time how much energy they’d put into this victory.

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