There is something special happening in the nation’s capital this Canadian Premier League season. This weekend, Atlético Ottawa defeated league-leaders, and defending CPL champions, Pacific FC 2-1 at home for their club-record third straight victory.
After finishing their first two seasons as a club last and second-last in the table, under new coach Carlos González they currently sit second in the league, just a point behind Pacific with a game in hand.
What exactly has been the catalyst for this meteoric rise to start the year? Ottawa has found success in an identity, a defensive compact system that gives up very few chances and is lethal on the counter-attack. But within that system, certain players have been allowed to thrive, perhaps none more so than midfielder Ollie Bassett.
In Ottawa’s new attacking blueprint, Bassett is the club’s primary builder. His range of passing, creativity and elite level ball control combine to make him a threat anywhere on the field, whether he is starting attacks or finishing them.
“He has a special talent with the ball,” González told the CanPL.ca newsroom on Monday. “He is a player that when we are able to keep the ball gives many solutions to the team. With Ollie, we have built that position in which he feels comfortable with certain freedom but at the same time being organized and being committed with the team.”
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It hasn’t just been about finding a position in which Bassett is comfortable, however, but also a consistent spot for him that has helped him succeed.
“Last year I played I think at the start of the bubble kind of in a lot of different positions,” said Bassett. “So playing like out wide and then as a six, as an eight and even as a ten sometimes. So it can be quite difficult sometimes to kind of get a rhythm to your game if you are constantly changing positions. But I think this year I’ve pretty much stuck to the same position which is just in the middle of the pitch as a midfielder.”
Lately, Ottawa has started playing with three central midfielders, which has allowed Bassett even more freedom to move forward and get higher up the pitch. Bassett has been enjoying that licence to operate. Opposing backlines? Not so much.
While the midfielder’s basic stat line, two goals and one assist, doesn’t jump off the page, it is his ability to create chances that sets him apart from the rest of the league. In the Ottawa buildup, Bassett is often the player playing the pass before the pass that leads to a goal — one that, while not recorded in the boxscore, remains just as important.
Bassett is among the league leaders in chances created so far this season, with 14. Below is a small sampling of his recent work (he starts with the ball in all of these clips).
For a player with the passing range and ability of Bassett, Ottawa’s system is a perfect fit. Their quick and direct approach often allows Bassett to pick apart backlines that are scrambling and unorganized.
“We are quite a compact team when we defend,” said Bassett, “so if teams want to keep the ball and break us down we know that if we can turn the ball over there’s going to be spaces in behind and in between the lines to exploit when we go forward.”
Here is an example of that done to perfection against Pacific this weekend. Ottawa wins back the ball in midfield, and it falls to Bassett, who plays a line-breaking pass to Ballou Tabla. Within 10 seconds of Ottawa winning the ball back in their own third, it is in the back of the Pacific net. While this particular sequence would be called offside, it is an example of just how lethal Bassett and his teammates can be.
Bassett has certainly played his part in starting transitions defensively as well, as his 68 recoveries are third-best in the league.
Another benefit of the recent shift to a three-man central midfield for Ottawa has been the fact that Bassett and Tabla now operate closer together. The pair dominated Pacific down the right flank and the combination of Tabla’s dribbling with Bassett’s ability to get him the ball in good situations has made them a lethal pairing.
“It isn’t actually something that we’ve kind of worked on in training,” said Bassett of their chemistry. “It more just came naturally, just playing on his side of the pitch, I know that he is a player that likes to get on the ball and take players on and I’m just there to kind of support him and play with him.”
Here is a clip of Bassett combining with Tabla for his goal against Forge earlier in the season:
Once again, the Ottawa system benefits the pair because they are so difficult to cover when they are the ones doing the defending. Then, all of the sudden, a ball is turned over in a dangerous area and defenders are scrambling to pick up Tabla and Bassett, often too late.
Bassett’s ability in tight spaces also makes him incredibly tricky to mark, as he can shield the ball or change the angle of a pass with ease. Against Pacific here, instead of just booting the ball forward he takes it down, shields it, and gives his defender time to pick out a pass and launch a counterattack.
There is one final attribute that Bassett has brought to Ottawa this season that is perhaps less tangible — his championship mentality having been a member of Pacific FC last season. González has called him a player with a winning mentality, and Bassett has been quick to impart on his teammates that while things are going well right now, it is a long season.
“We are only nine games in and realistically we haven’t actually achieved anything yet,” said Bassett, “so I think it’s very important to just keep it game by game and keep working hard and let the results speak for themselves. Because I think if we get too carried away then we can become complacent so I think it is very very important to just keep going and keep working for each other and hopefully by the end of the season we will be in a strong position.”
With a new identity, a deep squad, belief in one another and player of the year calibre players like Ollie Bassett, Ottawa are well on their way to doing just that.
All clips courtesy of OneSoccer