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PLATT: How Forge defended its way to back-to-back CanPL titles

Forge has gone back to back, and the path to each title has shared similar traits. At this stage, it seems fair to say that Bobby Smyrniotis has figured out a championship-winning formula and the rest of the Canadian Premier League is yet to find an answer to it.

Last year, Forge beat Cavalry 1-0 in the final game of the regular season and then won both legs of the final by the same scoreline. This year, they once again lifted the North Star Shield on the back of three consecutive clean sheets, beating Pacific and Cavalry to seal their place in the final before seeing off HFX Wanderers.

Forge did not score three goals in a game once at the Island Games, but they also never failed to score. And that’s enough when you’re capable of locking things down as effectively as they do in the games that matter.

“When it’s crunch time, they know how to get it done,” Smyrniotis told OneSoccer after the final whistle against Halifax. “That’s the easiest way for me to put it. When they get turned on and they want something, they go after it and they get it.”

How exactly do they get it done? Put very simplistically, there are four ways to score a goal:

  1. Break down an organized defence
  2. Counter-attack against a disorganized defence
  3. Capitalize on an opposition mistake (this often overlaps with #2)
  4. Set pieces

When it hits crunch time, as Smyrniotis put it, Forge takes extra care to take away #2, #3, and #4, leaving its opponent to try to figure out #1. Logically, because the defence is prepared and in position, that’s by far the most difficult way to create high-quality chances.

The especially important one is #2, because playing ‘in transition’ — i.e. when possession changes hands and the team losing the ball has to quickly switch from attacking organization to defensive organization — has become such an essential aspect of modern football.

It was also what Cavalry and HFX Wanderers were very good at in their respective runs to the final. Both of the goals Halifax scored against Forge earlier in the tournament came from transition situations:

How Forge prevents these situations from occurring is a mixture of tactics and mentality.

Where the former is concerned, there are clear patterns to how Forge plays in these must-win fixtures. One key principle is to avoid taking any risks whatsoever with the ball in the central areas of the field, because — as the above clips demonstrate — that’s where dangerous counter-attacks are born.

Take a look at the passes Daniel Krutzen attempted in this year’s final. Krutzen is the best ball-playing centre-back in the CPL, but he abandoned any attempt to thread intricate passes into midfield that could be picked off. Instead, he played simple, sideways passes to David Edgar and Triston Henry, long balls down the left wing, and little else.

CleanShot 2020-09-23 at 22.18.19@2x
Daniel Krutzen’s pass map.

Combined, Krutzen and Edgar attempted just one pass to Kyle Bekker all match.

Naturally, this inhibits the brand of football Forge plays itself in these big games. It’s not particularly entertaining or attractive for long periods. A team that normally averages over 400 passes per game attempted just 293 against Halifax. In the second leg of last year’s final it was just 233 pass attempts, the fewest recorded in a CPL match.

Forge has judged that it will still get the one or two chances it needs even with those inhibitions, and so the trade-off is worth it. And they have been proven correct.

On to mentality. Forge’s organization and commitment in these games has been total. They do not often press high collectively — that would be too risky — but they do ensure, to a man, that there is always pressure on the ball.

When teams are able to play through that pressure — as Halifax does in the clip below thanks to some excellent work from Alex Marshall — Forge retreats, with everyone bar Mo Babouli behind the ball and within the width of the penalty area. Freeze it at 02:17 to see what I’m talking about.

It speaks to the standards that have been set at Forge that arguably the most talented team in the league is never outworked (at least not when it matters). That’s the value of Edgar, who will enthusiastically chew out a teammate when he sees something he doesn’t like, and Bekker, whose mileage after a game like the final I would love to see. If the probable MVP is running like that, there’s no excuse for anyone else.

“You need guys who can not just lead on the field but coach on the field,” Smyrniotis explained to us a couple of days before the final. “That’s guys like Kyle Bekker, David Edgar, and Daniel Krutzen.

“These guys see things on the pitch. They see the processes that we’ve worked on in training or that we’ve talked about and they’re constantly thinking about it in their minds.”

In total, Forge conceded 10 goals at the Island Games: seven off set pieces (including penalties), the aforementioned two in transition against Halifax, and one against Valour which was marked as from open play but could be argued for the set-piece pile having come out of a clever throw-in routine.

The number of set-piece goals they allowed in the first round raised eyebrows but given (a) referees were more likely to be cautious with penalty decisions in the latter stages and (b) Forge had been the only CPL team not to concede a single goal from a corner in 2019, it felt like a blip.

Sure enough, Smyrniotis and his staff had that tightened up in the second round. And from that point onwards Forge was near-impenetrable on its way to another title.