How did HFX Wanderers FC lose to Forge FC in the 2020 CPL Final?

It was always going to be difficult for HFX Wanderers FC.

After finishing dead last in 2019, the Wanderers qualified for the 2020 CPL Final with a run to remember at The Island Games that ended in a 2-0 loss to Forge FC on Saturday.

It was an emotional affair for HFX, with players channelling the support from back home in Nova Scotia to try and upset the 2019 CPL Champions. A nip-and-tuck affair through 60 minutes, Forge eventually earned the pair of goals to extend their championship reign.

Here are five reasons why the Wanderers lost on Saturday.

RELATED READING: How did Forge FC beat HFX Wanderers FC in the 2020 CPL Final?

Put off-guard by Forge’s gameplan

HFX Wanderers midfielder Abou Sissoko challenges Forge FC's Paolo Sabak. (CPL/Chant Photography)
HFX Wanderers midfielder Abou Sissoko challenges Forge FC’s Paolo Sabak. (CPL/Chant Photography)

HFX was not prepared to have that much possession in the CPL Final – 55 per cent of it, in fact, which was the most they’d had in any of their matches at The Island Games.

Perhaps the Wanderers were first alerted to this possession crisis by Johnny Grant’s start at left wing for Forge. As noted by before the match, Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis has installed Grant as a get-in-behind winger when it plays a more counter-attacking game, like they did on Saturday.

The Wanderers were given the burden of possession and forced to play in a style they weren’t accustomed to playing. Almost all of Akeem Garcia’s six goals in PEI came against the run of play and Stephen Hart’s team, objectively, lacked that heightened attacking cohesion and know-how to deal with more of the ball than they were used to.

Didn’t win the ball high up the pitch

If you study the Wanderers at the Island Games, one thing becomes apparent; a high press, and winning the ball high up the pitch, is how they won games.

Look back to their goals against Forge in their previous encounters: two balls won high, with space in the final third. In fact, the Wanderers made only three passes in the lead-up to those goals.

As shown by Centre Circle Data – the CPL’s publicly available data source – the Wanderers rarely won the ball high up the pitch.

The Wanderers’ average possession start height of 25.7 metres shows they had to play out of the back a little more, and couldn’t pick off errant passes in the attacking half of the field.

Obviously this has to do with Forge’s aforementioned gameplan to sit farther back. Rarely, if ever, were there chances for Wanderers attackers to capture the ball in-or-near the final third, but it’s worth noting considering how many Wanderers goals came that way. Forge, simply put, took that avenue away from HFX.

Wind was a factor

There was very little to choose between the teams through an hour – it’s easy to forget that. Forge’s first true chance, and opening goal, came through their ninth of an incredible 11 corner kicks in the match.

Forge was working with their back to the wind, too, with gusts up to 25 kilometres-an-hour aiding a string of second-half corners.

RELATED READING: CPL Final By The Numbers: Forge suffocates HFX to win 2nd championship

Hart agreed wind factored into Forge’s sustain pressure, but stopped at calling it a reason for the goal: “They had a run of corners and the wind helped them with it… the wind is a factor that you have to play with, but it wasn’t that much of a factor as we just struggled to clear the balls and get it out.”

You wonder if windy conditions subsided, and the Wanderers got a respite from Forge pressure if they could have avoided that first goal.

A bizarre mistake

Finally, we must mention the second goal – Christian Oxner’s error gave Maxim Tissot a 30-yard, 90th-minute insurance marker. Wind carried the ball, certainly, leaving the Golden Glove nominee with a bit more to do.

It’s disheartening, to say the least, when Oxner’s heroics kept his hometown side in the match for 90 minutes – a one-on-one save on David Choinière chief among them. But Oxner’s mistake insured the result and sank the Wanderers.

Lacking team cohesion and experience

When Hart said the Island Games would serve as a prelude to 2021, he wasn’t being coy or dismissive of his team’s chances in PEI – he’d never seen them play a game! The Wanderers impressed, despite Hart’s comments, a lack of friendlies and a typical pre-season, as the club’s seven returnees from 2019 were complimented by a host of new players.

But, when it came down to the wire, HFX missed that element of cohesion – something Forge has in spades.

For example, Forge was flexible enough to institute a “Plan B” of playing without possession and putting the attacking onus on HFX, and the Wanderers didn’t have enough experience playing together to match Forge.

Over a typical 28-match season, with appropriate training sessions and schedules, things could have been different, but in a quick-and-fast tournament like The Island Games, there’s little time to develop or grow.

If 2021 really was a prelude for the Wanderers, CPL teams better watch out – a new contender could be in our midst.

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