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Montréal Impact – Weekly Review: Positional Battles

Bernier eludes a Union defender in IMFC's 5-1 romp last weekend.
Bernier eludes a Union defender in IMFC's 5-1 romp last weekend.
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

After what was a thoroughly convincing win versus the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, the Montréal Impact regained a bit of the swagger they had lost over the last month or two. Mired in a slump that had seen them win just one game in their last eight, IMFC were due for a breakout game, and that is exactly what they got.

All sorts of conclusion usually get jumped to after a 5-1 win in football, especially when your best players play their best. Piatti and Drogba dominated the game, the midfield of Mallace and Bernier was as solid as ever, and the partnership of Camara and Cabrera looked completely in control throughout the encounter. Everything went almost as perfectly as one could have hoped for, even down to the newly signed Mancosu getting a garbage goal late on.

So what does it all mean? Not much really, not for me, anyway. Not getting too high and not getting too low is usually the best mantra to have as a professional athlete, but it’s also quite useful from a fan’s perspective.  My only takeaway from the game was the fact that Drogba finally got his mojo going, something IMFC will need to see more of if they want to compete for the MLS Cup.

If the results haven’t always been there this season, the talent of this team has never been in question. It’s always been a question of finding the right mix of players on the pitch, and that’s never easy to do when your roster is constantly littered with injuries.

Now that key players like Donny Toia and Marco Donadel are back fit, I expect the team to regain some of the defensive solidity it had lost since the beginning of the season. Other developments to get excited about are, in no special order, the first signs of form from Harry Shipp, Ambroise Oyongo and Nacho Piatti playing their best football, and the recent acquisitions of fullback Amadou Dia, striker Matteo Mancosu and central defensive midfielder Hernan Bernardello.

Having too many options at your disposal is never a bad thing in football, but now Mauro Biello has the task of finding the right mix of players for his starting XI.

CB battle: Cabrera vs Camara

This is a bit of a weird one because it’s hard to really pinpoint when Hassoun Camara fell out of a favor as a centreback for IMFC. Watching him play down the stretch for the team last year, and in spot start situations like we saw last week, one has to wonder why he doesn’t play there more often.

I suppose it goes back to losing his spot at CB due to the Nesta/Ferrari partnership in 2013, followed by a dearth of talent at RB that required Camara to fill in during the 2014 season. By the time the 2015 season rolled around, he seemed to be an afterthought as a potential CB starter, and the team decided to go out and buy Soumare and Cabrera.

In the end you have a player who has generally been solid for the Impact, but a victim too often of circumstance.

While Camara has the edge in both experience and physicality, Cabrera counters with maybe more feistiness and slightly better speed and tackling ability. I don’t really see an edge for either player, fitness-wise.

I give Camara the edge for a reason that should give the Cabrera’s fans some solace: It’s less about what’s wrong with Cabrera, and more about who fits better with Laurent Ciman.

Camara helps cover up Ciman’s slight deficiencies (aerial cover, physicality in the box), while Cabrera struggles with the same issues as Ciman. When you consider that IMFC struggle on a weekly basis with set piece defence, Biello and Co. should strongly consider a Ciman/Camara partnership, in my opinion.

Logjam in the center of the pitch

Whether they play a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, Mauro Biello is now blessed with a number of options at his disposal in midfield, from a personnel and formation standpoint. As of today, I only see one player, Ignacio Piatti, as a surefire starter each and every week.

That might come as a surprise to some, seeing as though Marco Donadel was so integral to the team’s success in the second half of last season. But that was last season. In 2016, Donadel has been injured and never really in form, and though one would assume he’ll regain his form eventually, there’s no telling when.

Enter Hernan Bernardello, Montréal’s fresh new signing who’ll also play in central midfield. The Argentinian plays a similar game to that of Donadel, so in a 4-2-3-1, one might argue that playing both of them together would be somewhat superfluous. There’s no way of knowing really where Bernardello best fits into the team until we see him on the pitch, but judging from his last foray with the club, he’s at his best when he’s playing closer to the back four.

Callum Mallace, who’s had a nice run of form in the last two contests, is decidedly the odd man out if both Donadel and Bernardello stay injury-free for the foreseeable future. Neither as good a tackler or clinical a passer as the aforementioned duo, Mallace will at least supply a solid defensive presence off the bench to close out games.

In front of the defensive midfield, you have three players that can make their mark in the CAM role: Harrison Shipp, Patrice Bernier and Lucas Ontivero.  All three have played a variety of positions this year, but are best suited, in my view, in a central offensive midfield role. This is an interesting battle because each player brings something different to the table.

Bernier plays a slower, more methodical style of football, more in line with a team that wants to keep possession of the ball than one that wants to play for the counter.  Bernier is coming off an excellent game versus the Philadelphia Union, where he proved he could be solid box-to-box player on his day. That said, he is 36 years old, and as much we’d like to believe he can play at this level every game, it’s probably not tenable. There is no question, though, that he deserves more playing time, and maybe even a run of starts to see how much he really has left in the tank.

Ontivero is more of that counter attack style player, a midfielder that wants to take players on 1 v 1, using his trickery and ball skills. Of the three players, Ontivero has the most quality on the ball, but on the flip side he has the most potential for making a mistake. He currently plays a bit too selfishly, which is why he has spent more time on the bench than on the pitch.

As for Shipp, he falls somewhere between Bernier and Ontivero. Not as calm on the ball as Bernier nor as flamboyant as Ontivero, Shipp is more mindful of his teammates, always looking to make the key pass that will open up the defence. Since scoring his first goal a couple of weeks ago, the American seems to have flipped the switch from a confidence and decision-making standpoint, and will probably see more regular playing-time because of it.

Right Wing/Midifeld: Salazar vs Oduro

I suppose people are throwing Ontivero into this debate, but again, I just don’t see him as a wide player in the way Biello has created his lineups to date. Generally the Impact coach has preferred an energy-type player on that wing, and so it really comes down to two options at the moment.

Michael Salazar made Cameron Porter expendable because he offers similar attributes like off-the-chart work rate and defensive responsibility, and has proven a heady player when he has the ball on the break. Unlike Kyle Bekker, who seemingly got worse the more he started games, Salazar has grown in confidence from one game to the next, making it harder and harder to take him out of the starting XI.

The very same thing could have been said about Dominic Oduro about 3 weeks ago, as the Ghanaian provided the Montreal Impact with his best football to date through the first 4 months of this season. Thing is with Oduro, he’s simply not a great player. Biello has to take his run of good form with a grain of salt, and understand that old adage of "form is temporary, class is permanent."

This particular positional battle has all the looks of being platoon situation, where Biello starts the player who is in the best form mentally, not just physically. At the moment it looks like that player is Salazar, but don’t be surprised if that switches in the near future.

As for the fans of Kyle Bekker and Johan Venegas, i apologize for leaving them out of the conversation. Neither seems a very good fit with the team at the moment, either due to a lack of talent and work-rate (Bekker), or down to not really being able to establish himself in any one position (Venegas). Each player probably has the ability to make his mark somewhere in this league, i just don't think it's going to happen with the Montréal Impact.