YORK LIONS STADIUM, TORONTO – The Halifax Wanderers often do something wrong when they’re on the road, something fatal when there aren’t over 6000 fans behind them. But on Sunday afternoon at York Lions Stadium, they put in a perfect performance, from top to bottom. A 2-0 win is gratification for hard work put in in recent weeks, and it’ll be extra special for one man in particular: João Morelli.
The striker is only just returning from a brutal ACL injury sustained in the early stages of the 2022 season, following up on a stellar 2021 in which he seized the Golden Boot award. The last time he was playing away to York was coincidentally the most recent occasion where he’d scored. And he made sure that the same outcome would be on the cards. An incredible performance coming in off the bench early and being a constant threat down the middle, scoring a goal, made Morelli’s afternoon more memorable than most.
“To be honest I think of that [feeling that I’ll score] every game, but yeah I felt that a little bit more. I think because as soon as I saw I was coming on, I was like ‘These are more minutes for me to try,’ and I missed a chance in the first half, I passed the ball when I shouldn’t have. At half-time, I was like ‘Okay, just don’t think of that last chance, focus on the next one.’ And fortunately, I got that chance, and I was clinical.”
It’s quite clear how much Morelli adds to the Wanderers’ attacking unit. He was predominantly down the middle, and Halifax was sometimes lacking a consistent runner at striker before he came on. Morelli also got himself in dangerous positions across the line in transition and on quick plays, but it came together for him when Max Ferrari gave the ball away to Callum Watson, who knew there was only one pass to make. Morelli, it’s safe to say, was very stuck in, and he felt good despite a longer shift than usual this year.
“The false nine is a position where it’s easier for me to come back. It’s a little bit less defending than playing in the middle, and I feel like my best qualities show when I’m in the pockets and keeping the ball. That’s what we needed today I think, that’s what the coach wanted me to do, so yeah I felt like when I came on we kept the ball a little bit more, we started getting more chances, I mean, we could’ve scored so many goals today, it’s crazy that we missed them, so we’re gonna have to practice finishing for sure this week. But yeah, it felt great when I came on, and I think it was good, yeah.”
Was it an overshadowing moment? No, but everybody’s eyes were on the Brazilian. Halifax often looked to be on the front foot despite what ended up being narrow possession numbers. The issue with their attack may be that there are a lot of double-takes in the moment. Aidan Daniels was in one-on-one situations a couple of times but backed off and passed backward. There also weren’t the numbers you need inside the box. Morelli does bring the movements to get in it, but Callum Watson is more of a CAM, and Massimo Ferrin and Theo Collomb both like playing out wide. It’s something that, if worked on, could get Halifax buckets of goals. That, and as Morelli mentioned, overall finishing.
But the superiority of Halifax’s offence came in part due to York’s defence not being as good as it can be. Brem Soumaoro opened up the game very sharp with his tackles and was cool and collected, converse to the previous week. He was going along nicely, even on a play where he had to drop back and pick up a lot of pace to stop Watson. However, an abrupt injury left York’s defensive midfield out of any set order. It was almost as if everyone suffered without Soumaoro, who certainly does have the reputation of being a wall. His partner to start the match, Elijah Adekugbe, had to stay on his A-game a lot, as Halifax quickly gravitated toward that side and Aidan Daniels so they wouldn’t have to go through Soumaoro.
“I know Brem really well, he’s a great player, luckily within this group I feel like with the options that we have, if Brem goes down injured, like Baldi came in, I’m comfortable enough to play with him or whoever, we have a great group,” Adekugbe said. “So unfortunately with injuries, it’s more of a case of rhythm, you know what I mean? You play 20 minutes, the game hasn’t fully settled, especially for us, and he goes down, so now you have to resettle again, Baldi’s got to get into the game, which will take him five or ten, so, I mean, with the quality we have in the group I trust all the players, but it just kind of annoys the rhythm and the routine. Playing is about flow, things like that.”
Two crucial defenders, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and Tass Mourdoukoutas, both couldn’t play, and the latter’s tall presence was missed – but all told, Roger Thompson and Noah Abatneh didn’t do too bad of a job in the middle. (The fullbacks were another story, for sure.) Thompson has quietly been setting an example in recent weeks, very much out of his injury phase and into a run of play where he’s a reliable centre-back again. His athleticism is also still stellar, and he’s been forced into clearances and movements that require peak shape. Thompson has looked off for much of this year but he’s hitting his stride. His two tackles, two clearances, and three blocked shots show how crucial he is. Thompson was pegged back a lot just because of the ongoing Halifax pressure. It didn’t seem like he needed a break. His distribution was also incredible, placing seven accurate long balls on nine attempts. [All stats via SofaScore.]
Not quite the same could be said for rookie Noah Abatneh, making just his second professional start, and first since breaking a bone in his hand which sidelined him for a few weeks. He looked handicapped by being held back, as his style requires the freedom to play passes into midfield only from advanced positions. He only got one chance to dribble up before being swarmed or playing a poor pass. He’s a solid defensive centre-back, but aspects of his game just aren’t the things you want there. Martin Nash will be looking for long balls out wide, not grounded passes in the middle.
Speaking of out wide, York somewhat flourished only on one flank, and that’d be the right wing. Austin Ricci and Kevin Dos Santos were switching ends a lot, as is typical with how this York squad works, but Mo Babouli was also thrown into the mix there. And that sort of felt like a disruption. He left a central area open for Ricci, but both were angling for crosses which weren’t plausible for separate reasons. Babouli should lay off a bit more, and stay central, which is where he gets goals, but he ended up in all three channels. He ended without accurately crossing a ball on six attempts.
The Road To Olympic Gold – FC13 Podcast
“The way they defended he’s given a lot of free rein to find space because he’s creative,” Nash said of Babouli, “so I don’t mind him rolling out into those areas to overload wide areas. It worked at times… but I think for the first half it was pretty even, well, the whole game possession-wise was quite even. I thought we probably created more, funnily enough, in the first half. We went away from some things we were doing so yeah, I mean, tough outing. Credit to them, they took their chance, and caught us on the counter in the sloppy giveaway to make it 2-0. I threw caution to the wind to change the shape and tried to throw what we could at them.”
Ricci and Dos Santos did make some good dribbles and runs driving into the box, they combined for six successful dribble attempts, but the final ball was on the ground and Osaze De Rosario was given nothing. He was far too quiet, and you can’t say it’s even his fault.
“Yeam, I mean, service has to be better,” Nash added. “I think sometimes there’s a couple balls bouncing around in the box, especially in the first half we were flat-footed, there’s one in the second half as well. We were kind of flat-footed on the move, maybe we get on the end of it, right? We kind of stop our run, and then once you’ve got flat-footed it’s hard to adjust. I think the quality of service needs to be better but also the runs need to be better, but also stay alive in the box and get second bits.”
There is no question that this was a huge game for playoff implications. With a loss, York has fallen into sixth, out of the picture. But for better or for worse, next week brings another crucial contest with the team on equal points: red-hot Atletico Ottawa. There’s still plenty of time in the grand scheme of things, but as every match goes, some air is sucked out. It’s up to the players to find more breathing room.
Top photo by John Jacques
Subscribe to 13th Man Sports to get email notifications when we post!