Know Your Enemy: Montreal Impact

Marco Di Vaio. When he's not complaining, he's actually quite good. - Jean-Yves Ahern-US PRESSWIRE

A look at Montreal and what they bring. Formations, tactics, videos, what to look out for and areas to exploit, it's all here.

Two games in and Toronto FC's newest rendition has performed better than even the most devout supporters could have imagined. Gone, so far, is the record-breakingly poor defending; absent too are the last-minute collapses. Hopefully long losing streaks - check - and hopeless form on the road - yet to be seen - are also traits of the distant past.

This weekend brings a whole new challenge, it is MLS Rivalry Weekend after all, and that means... the Columbus Crew - checks calendar - nope, that was 2008.

Toronto, instead, takes the relatively short journey down the highway - in the opposite direction - to the neighbouring province of Quebec to face the old enemy, Montreal.

The two clubs may have little history in the grand sense, but for the cities this goes way back. The French versus the English; Lower Canada vs. Upper, Habs vs. Leafs; whichever expression of the battle one chooses it has, in many ways, defined Canada, both politically and in the sporting sense.

Despite the rundown of big matches this weekend, this match stands alone for its weight. True, Seattle and Portland dislike each other, but few wars have been fought over which craft beer tastes better or which version of plaid is more exemplary of a particular sort of grunge - apologies for the stereotyping.

With so much on the line, not to mention two sides having been more impressive than any could project, this should be a cracker.

A closer look at the Montreal Impact is in order.

The Lineup

While most of MLS was busying waving goodbyes and saying hellos, Montreal stood firm on what earned them success in their expansion season.

The only major change was in the managerial position. Jesse Marsch, the leader - or ceremonial American figurehead for the entry to MLS, depending on which stories one believes - leaves and in comes Marco Schallibaum.

A Swiss national, with a long resume of tenures at domestic clubs to his credit, takes the helm on a one-year contract. Montreal, with their ageing plethora of big names, is a club built to win today, not one with eyes on the future.

The MLS Cup is the goal and should the injury gods be kind, it could indeed be a possibility.

Schallibaum has slightly altered the 4-2-3-1 formation that served the club so well in 2012. This season, and through preseason as well, he has deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation. A subtle change, but one that can have a rather profound impact, pardon the pun.

Their projected lineup is as follows: Troy Perkins, acquired from Portland midseason last, in goal; across the back, from right to left - Hassoun Camara, the venerable Alessandro Nesta, Matteo Ferrari, and Jeb Brovsky; Patrice Bernier, the lone shield in front of the back-four; Andrea Pisanu, captain Davy Arnaud, Felipe, and Sanna Nyassi across the midfield, with Marco Di Vaio roaming at striker.

football formations

Justin Mapp, who would presumably feature on the left flank, is still listed as questionable on the most recent injury report. Argentinean attacker Andres Romero is still acclimating to the club - and the league - and has only made an appearance as a substitute thus far.

Second-year forward Andrew Wenger too will likely only feature from the bench and the likes of Callum Mallace, Dennis Iapichino, and Collen Warner will also probably be held in reserve.

Warner is an interesting case, a key component of last season's defensive core, positioned alongside Bernier in front of the back-four, he has been a casualty of the new formation. It is possible that some new creation of Schallibaum's, reverting to two holding midfielders at home to allow more reckless forward play from the attackers and full-backs, could make its debut on Saturday, but that is pure speculation.

Sinisa Ubiparipovic, who scored in the first MLS meeting between the clubs last season, is listed as injured, as is centre-back Nelson Rivas.

The Form

Montreal enters the match sitting confidently atop the Eastern Conference with six points from two matches, both on the road, both in the Pacific Northwest - at Seattle and Portland - no less.

It is not a surprise that with a proper preseason under their belt - and perhaps a new unified spirit inside the locker room - their defense has held strong thus far, but the extent to which they have performed is remarkable.

To call it Italian catenaccio of the Milanese old school is a stretch, but it does contain facets of the style - the bulwarkish defending paired with patience in exposing the gaps that open in the opponent.

The Seattle result, 0-1 to the Montreal, on opening Saturday caught the attention of the league; it was passed off as a curio, with the Sounders, shorn of the suspended Oswaldo Alonso, perhaps underestimating the Impact with Champions League progression on their minds.

Davy Arnaud scored the lone goal near the end of the first half, opening the clubs ledger for the season, as he did last year, via a lovely chipped ball from Felipe that was poke-volleyed over a stretching Michael Gspurning, and later hit the crossbar with another attempt.

Seattle had their chances throughout the second forty-five, striking the woodwork through Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans, but Montreal stood firm, banishing the trait of conceding late in matches that dogged them last season - they allowed seventeen goals in the final fifteen minutes of matches in 2012.

In Portland, two goals fifteen minutes either side of half-time, admittedly against the run of play, put Montreal in front - Camara's lanky bicycle kick and a clever bit of quick break play from Bernier, Romero, and Felipe springing for the second.

Portland grabbed one in consolation, when Ben Zemanski hit a lovely right-sided cross to the back-post for a sliding Ryan Johnson to touch in, and had their moments of pressure. Montreal bent, but did not break, and even had a few chances to add to their 2-1 win.

Needless to say they will be in high spirits for the visit of their Canadian rivals and their home opener in front of a rambunctious, if not fully capacity, Olympic Stadium.

The Tactics

Defend first and let the rest come could be the motto and with three of the best centre-backs in the league - when healthy; an important caveat - that alone should keep the Impact in a majority of matches.

Things get interesting when one moves up-field to Bernier. A defensive midfielder by slot, he offers so much more to the side, and in truth, they would have trouble functioning without him.

Not only a destroyer, he orchestrates from his deep position, beginning attacks with his excellent passing and reading of the game. Defensively he is stifling - if Kyle Bekker is thrown to him on Saturday; as a lamb to wolves - see his man of the match performance against Portland, limiting the flavour of the month, Diego Valeri to anonymity.

His role in home matches is unclear, as speculated above, the insertion of Warner would provide Bernier more freedom to move up-field, though should he feature as the lone option, he will still likely be given more license to roam forward as he did in the Disney Final against Columbus.

Even from deep he can shred defenses. Montreal's second goal in Portland bears witness to that ability.

From the centre-circle, one shimmy and one ball bypasses several defenders and makes the goal nearly a formality.

With only Di Vaio forward, late runners into the box, whether from the wide positions or from Arnaud and Felipe in the middle, are crucial to any success. That's not to marginalize the running of the savvy Italian shoulder-of-the-last-man poacher, his clever runs serve to stretch the defenders, keep them guessing and occupied to open up those spaces for the advanced midfielders to steal into. He prefers to operate on the left, drifting wide and pouncing with surprising alertness.

Di Vaio can also drop back to start attacks as he did in their goal in Seattle.

The striker drops and cuts in-field to allow time for the midfielders to surge up-field. In doing so, removing the focal point for the defense, who then fail to pick up the runs of the midfielders adequately. He then moves wide, the right this time, to further distress the sole defender left to deal with the runs of both Arnaud and himself.

Felipe lifts the ball over the static defenders, Arnaud settles with his right boot, and then pokes it over Gspurning with the same foot - lovely.

Set-pieces have been a useful tool; their first goal in Portland was a result of the big men getting forward to provide an aerial presence for a deep Pisanu free-kick. It is a little under-hit, but the ball is scrambled to Camara to improbably hammer a bicycle past a stunned Donovan Ricketts in the Portland goal.

Toronto must be aware of Di Vaio drifting off the end of the line at the back-post; he nearly opened the scoring early in Portland with this effort, ghosting off the shoulder of the last-man expertly.

Exploitation

The key to breaking down Montreal's defense is to move quickly. They are formidable at the back, but not as spritely as they once were.

The only goal they have conceded was the direct result of spraying a ball out wide and hitting a wonderful service into the box through that corridor of uncertainty.

Nesta, rushed to a decision, takes a slightly false step towards the service, which sails over him, he may have been able to head it clear had he dropped back a step, but a lurking Will Johnson may have gotten their first and the Italian probably made the safer decision. It still resulted in a goal against however.

Ryan Johnson did manage to get in front of Camara at the back-post and was first to the ball for a simple sliding finish.

Toronto will use the wide areas to attack, but must be more direct - and quick - in order to catch Montreal unorganized.

John Bostock's skill on the ball and a burgeoning partnership with his teammates should be interesting, as Brovsky, the defender he will likely confront, is the weak link in the back-four - defensively speaking.

Robert Earnshaw will relish the chance to test his skills against some of the best, but this partnership is not the raw blood-and-thunder of the Matt Besler - Aurelien Collin pairing that he devoured last weekend. He will need to be persistent

Defensively, Toronto must show the same organization that has thus far served them well. Di Vaio will do his best to disrupt the two banks of four - drawing outside-backs in and centre-backs wide - don't fall for those tricks. And the midfielders will need to track the runs of Arnaud and Felipe, as well as pressure Bernier when in possession.

Should be a great match; it has the makings of a classic.

Points of Interest

The clubs will meet four more times this season. Twice in the Voyageur's Cup - April 27th in Toronto and May 1st back in Montreal - before the Impact travel to Toronto on July 3rd and again for the final regular season match on October 26th.

As time is short, all records and reflections pertaining to past meetings and whatnot will be left to other posts and they are myriad.


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