The Writer's Starting XI: Who We Want To See In ATO's Home Opener

The Writer's Starting XI: Who We Want To See In ATO's Home Opener

On the eve of our home opener, we asked our writers to give us what they hope to see as their starting XI. Keep in mind these aren't predictions, simply what they WANT to see. Here is what they had to say:

Alexander Brazier Rymek (4-2-3-1):

In terms of formation, I went with one that I believe is the most flexible while also providing a good balance of attacking and defending. The only surprise along the back line is probably Walker over Singh: I think Singh is average at best, and Walker has a ton of upside that I hope will manifest itself beside Didic. Plus it’s always fun to have at least one youngster making consistent starts, especially as a defender. While I don’t enjoy Twardek at RB, he’s by far the best option there. 

In the midfield, I chose NOT to put Bassett on the wing, and benched Sissoko as a result. This season, Bassett will have to learn not to play hero ball, and that includes sticking to his assigned position at CAM - his BEST position, in case Gonzalez has forgotten. Sissoko is also a good option off the bench, as he can play multiple positions, but that spot beside/in front of Zapater will probably have a constant rotation of Aparicio and Sissoko to get them each enough game time. 

Up front, Salter over Del Campo might be a shock, however I think Salter will produce better results than last season with actual talent around him and the service that entails. However, if he fails to perform, Carlos Gonzalez should be quick to make a switch up top. As for the wingers, I put them in their most natural positions, with Tabla at LW and Dos Santos as RW. These two should be very fluid during the game anyway, and can easily be swapped if one or the other isn’t finding any joy.  

Jon Hopkins (4-3-3):

I went for a more unique approach in my Starting XI, with a focus on a more aggressive press and giving our young defenders a chance to shine. The kids are more than alright; I think we have some serious talent in the U-21 department. While Roy was sidelined most of last year due to injury, as our only natural Right Back I think he slots in well to this starting XI, especially if he can manage to show some of the talent we saw in 2022. Walker’s small sampling of pro games has shown a lot of promise, and while I think that promise will need some work to realise, lining him up with a strong veteran mentor like Didic at CB should help him grow and perform at his best. de Brienne has shown that he has adapted well defensively, and has a lot of pace on the wing, so allowing him some freedom on the left side will be key.

In the midfield, I have a solid trio of distributors: Zapater, Bassett, and Aparicio should be giving 5-star service to the boys up top, and all three have shown defensive acumen out of possession in order to keep the midfield silent for opposing sides. While this leaves Sissoko further afield, and Antinoro unfortunately on the bench as a super sub, though Gabriel is more likely in the forwards category I will touch on in a moment. 

Now for likely the most controversial section of my XI. With a focus on the press, Dos Santos and Twardek are easy picks. Both have a lot of pace and offensive prowess, and both of them should be good at pressing and forcing mistakes from opposing defences. A strong bench of Antinoro, Tabla, Salter and Del Campo have important roles in ensuring that as stamina drains and players tire, fresh legs are never far away. Now the big piece here will be Sissoko at a false 9 rather than a true 9 in Salter/Del Campo. Based on his pressing and positioning in the preseason game against Saint-Laurent, he has stolen my heart, even as a devout Balloutheran and member of the Sammy Salter Fan Club. 

Ben Ralph (3-4-2-1):

“Where's Dos Santos?” I hear you cry. “Where's Sissoko?” You plead. “Where’s Salter?” Ok, that one was just Christien. The truth is we have more players than places, and for the sake of conversation I think there are a few more names who deserve to be in the mix. But first, formation: the much-maligned three at the back. Sure, it takes a player away in the offensive third, but does it? With the offensive potential of Twardek and de Brienne in the wide spots — two players who occupy the liminal space of winger/wingback — I hardly see us losing an edge in attack. Plus the team is already steeped in back three. Singh and Didic will no doubt occupy two of the defensive positions, but a word certainly needs to be given to the impressive, if occasional performances we saw last season from Ottawa’s own Tyr Walker. Tyr stepped up big time in the occasional absence of Diego Espejo last season, and I think he deserves a chance to prove himself.

 Sure, I started Bassett in the right-wing position, but in my mind he would occupy the half-spaces as an inverted attacker rather than a toes-on-the-white-paint winger, allowing for Twardek to make the monstrous overlapping runs we saw from him last weekend. And who better to mop up those chances than….Sammy Salter! Rubén Del Campo! Alright, this one isn’t as defendable. But I’m a sucker for the Swiss striker, and think either striker has the chance at a great season. Rubén has been working hard and ended last season in as impressive a form as is possible for a player without an actual Atlético Ottawa goal. And it's undeniable the lad has aura.

Rhys Heading (4-2-3-1):

In a season full of attacking expectations I’ve gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation offering ample opportunity to create overloads and encourage creative freedom where possible.

With an emphasis on starting the season off on the right foot, I’ve purposely left out a few U21 names I expect to work their way into starting positions throughout the season, namely that of Tyr Walker at centre-back. Until then, the prospect of a Luke Singh & Amer Didic centre-half duo presents a physically opposing combination with plenty of aerial ability on set pieces, both for and against.

A midfield pivot of Manny Aparicio and Alberto Zapater would aid in promoting fluidity in attack, with the hopes of seeing Manny push up alongside Ollie Bassett when in possession. With such forward-thinking wing-backs I expect to see plenty of up & down from de Brienne and Twardek, allowing both Tabla and dos Santos to come inside and operate on their preferred foot.

Simply put, the 9 role is Salter’s to lose. Whilst I don’t believe he’s irreplaceable he’ll be a key man in triggering the high-press and winning the ball back high up the pitch.

Patrick Gibson (4-1-2-3):

This may seem ludicrous, but I’ve spent an entire offseason creating lineups in my head with the caveat that “it doesn’t matter who our striker is''. The logical conclusion then is, of course, take the striker out of the equation altogether. I’m confident in saying that neither Sam Salter nor Ruben Del Campo are among the three most talented attacking players in our roster, and employing Bassett as a false 9 provides a tactical element that will force teams out of their comfort zone.

The choice to play Tabla on the right is twofold. The first is that it alleviates some of my concerns about overcrowdedness down the right, as Tabla will look to get central regardless of where he is “positioned”. If Ollie is to continue his trend of shifting out to the right in possession, having Tabla come in to fill that space is more natural than say Jean-Aniel Assi or Carl Haworth, both of whom crowded that wing last year. 

Further, the true presence down either byline is going to come from the full-backs in this set-up. The ability to remain fluid from the attacking three, ie. comfortable switching positions, is going to be necessary with attack-minded full-backs like de Brienne and Twardek. They both have the pace to make up for venturing a bit up the park, but with a midfield that has experience in dropping back, and Zapater now functioning as an anchor with a three-man midfield, that concern won’t be as pressing.

Lastly, the choice to start Luke Singh over Tyr Walker comes down to one simple thing, distribution. We’ve seen Amer Didic’s ability to do so in spades in the CPL, and Luke’s biggest asset last year was finding those outlet passes. Yes, the height upfront might not be present in this lineup, but the pace is, and the ability to play accurate long balls both in transition and in possession has been the one consistent attacking fixture of the Carlos Gonzalez era, something I don’t foresee changing this year.

C.D. Girard (5-3-2):

In an attempt to force a change in our playing style from one that has customarily been more defensive to an attacking offence, I’ve gone with a 5-3-2. I believe this formation will suit the attacking talent we picked up in the offseason, though it will rely heavily on strong communication at the back.

I strongly contemplated starting Yesli, but as I mentioned, communication is going to be key in keeping the backline organized, which will rely heavily on trust and respect between players. For this reason, I’ve opted for an experienced backline with history, through Ingham, Tissot, and Singh. I’ve paired them with Didić in the middle, who is arguably the top centre-back in the league. While this leaves out another player I hope to see gain minutes this season, Tyr Duhaney-Walker, he will be a key substitution and essential to our U21 minutes. With de Brienne and Twardek playing further up the field, they are available to drop back, forcing Tissot or Singh into that centre-back position alongside Didić when pressed, while offering more pressure up top during our offensive plays.

Trust is important for my formation and I don’t trust that Basset won’t gravitate towards the right side of the field leaving the center vulnerable. What I do trust is the Bassett-Tabla connection, which will thrive on that attacking right side and result in stellar finishes.

I’m less confident about the left and originally placed Dos Santos in the 11 with Antinoro/Sacko sharing that midfield position and feeding our U21 minutes. However, I believe Del Campo will come into his own this season and we’ll see him execute incredible finishes worthy of the start up top.

To support the attack, Aparicio will be crucial in that centre-mid, but can be easily switched out for Sissoko when we choose a more defensive approach.

While unconventional, I believe this will serve us in our first game against York United who typically play in a 4-2-3-1, as it would allow us to overwhelm their back-line while providing a good mix of defensive and offensive play from a diverse mix of 2023 veterans and new signees.

Kevin Smith (4-4-2 Diamond):

Though I wanted to switch things up from what CarGo went with in the final preseason game, the back end seems straightforward. As much as I’d like to get Tyr Walker in there, he is still quite young, and the number of changes to the side (only four of my XI were with the team last season) suggest it'd be better to stick with the veteran [checks notes] 23-year-old Singh, alongside the obvious pick of Didic. Similarly, I'm not yet ready to go for Yesli over Ingham.

All CPL fans know what de Brienne can offer with his pace on the left, while Twardek stood out to me during that game, fast despite his size, frequently pushing up to get crosses in. Zapater of course will roam around the middle, shielding the centre-backs and providing cover where needed.

The debate generally starts to get interesting after that. I admit I have high hopes for Del Campo, but I fully recognize that he has yet to do more than look threatening, and I'm not yet sold on Salter, so I decided not to include either.

Aparicio seems a given on the left, but I'm honestly not really comfortable putting Bassett on the right. You might then wonder why I put Bassett on the right and Sissoko in the middle, rather than the other way around as Patrick did? Essentially, the game against CS Saint-Laurent made me wonder whether Sissoko has the potential to be the Firmino to Dos Santos and Tabla's Mane and Salah. His pressing was a lot of fun to watch, creating both offensive chances and forcing CS Saint-Laurent to rush their passes, preventing them from retaining possession. It might not work, but it also wouldn't be too difficult to switch him with Ollie or take him off to throw Del Campo or Salter farther up front.

In conclusion, while there are some common picks (All writers included the likes of Ingham, de Brienne, Twardek, Bassett, Aparicio, and Didic), this brief collection of ideas shows there are a number of options at CarGo’s disposal. Every writers' formation also tends towards a more aggressive game plan, one that fans have made clear they hope to see on Saturday. However, as reported in the Forward Press, Coach isn’t letting that distract from the fact that they must excel in every phase of the game. Whatever the formation, we hope to see you tomorrow for a festive kick-off to our 2024 campaign!

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