Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is Patrice Bernier Canada's missing midfield man?

After a disappointing start to his MLS season, Patrice Bernier's star is rising. He is now Montreal's goals leader with 5 (albeit 3 penalties), and joint lead in assists (5, tied with Felipe). Impact fans are pumping the tires for a Bernier all-star bid on the social media. 

Even if I had a horse in the MLS race, I wouldn't care a lick whether he makes the all-star game. Any sort of non-competitive match midseason is a waste. But of more relevance to all Canadian fans should be whether Bernier will, and whether he ought to, play any part in Canada's four remaining World Cup qualifying matches in 2012.

Should he have been in Canada's midfield already earlier this year?

I was mildly surprised when he was left off the roster for Canada's two earlier qualifiers and the friendly against the USA, but I think Stephen Hart got it right. To that point in the season Bernier had only featured in 7 of the Impact's 13 MLS matches (6 starts) and 8 of 15 overall, and was clearly in the bad books of boss Jesse Marsch. There simply was no argument to be made that he should start in Canada's midfield ahead of Atiba Hutchinson, Will Johnson, or Julian de Guzman.  

There's a big drop-off in quality after those 3 (though Nik Ledgerwood acquitted himself well enough) but a guy like Bernier, going on 33, doesn't come into a squad just to make up numbers in practice.

What does Bernier bring to the table?

I'll admit that I haven't watched a lot of Montreal's play this season. But I have seen some of the performances that have propelled Bernier into the all-star conversation. What I have noticed is that Marsch seems to allow him a fair degree of freedom to operate all over the midfield. That is, he pops up in often surprising positions, both defending and in attack.

Here's my summary of Bernier's skills and deficiencies:
  • He is confident on the ball and his more offensive vision than any Canadian midfielder not named Hutchinson.
  • He can shoot from range, and is a competent penalty-taker.
  • He is useful breaking up attacks, but is not always in the best defensive positions.
  • He is a bit wasteful of possession, with too many giveaways, though not often in dangerous positions.
  • He could probably stand to lose a few pounds or otherwise improve his stamina.
Bernier is not a perfect player but a guy with that profile definitely has something to offer to a flawed Canada squad.

Should Bernier be called up to the next Canada squad?

Whether Bernier is called in to the next Canada squad depends largely, for me, on when Canada's next match takes place. The only confirmed dates on the calendar are the two Panama qualifiers in early September. A friendly for August 15th has not been confirmed as such; the only evidence Canadian fans have to cling to is CSA president Victor Montagliani's remark that they are speaking to four different countries about a match in this hemisphere (ie: not in Europe).

If the CSA can book a friendly Bernier needs to be selected. Despite only having played three times for Canada in the last two and a half years he is an experienced national team player. Whatever you think of the system Stephen Hart has Canada playing (I don't think much of it) Bernier deserves a chance to show that he can fit in.

By now I think most Canada watchers would agree to the following:
  • Whether you call it a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3, Stephen Hart favours a lineup with three central midfielders.
  • Guys like Tosaint Ricketts, Iain Hume, Dwayne De Rosario, Josh Simpson (if he was healthy) and the like are wingers or forwards in such a set-up.
  • The only real candidates for central midfield roles are de Guzman, Hutchinson, Ledgerwood, Johnson, Pedro Pacheco, and Bernier, if he was selected.
  • Hutchinson is a cut above the rest of that back, and Pacheco and even Ledgerwood a step or two below.
To my mind that leaves Johnson, de Guzman, and Bernier competing for three spots. Thankfully, all three play in MLS and are in mid-season which makes at least superficial comparisons somewhat easy:

Player G GS Min G A YC RC
Patrice Bernier 13 12 995 5 5 3 0
Julian de Guzman 15 10 968 0 3 4 0
Will Johnson 16 15 1343 1 2 3 1
Johnson has been his usual consistent self while Bernier and de Guzman have both spent time in their respective coaches' doghouses. I'm not convinced new TFC boss man Paul Mariner has any sort of clue, but the fact that de Guzman has been sitting on the bench is a strike against him. Point Johnson.

MLS also calculates a highly flawed Castrol Index stat (I say highly flawed because TFC's Danny Koevermans currently tops the chart) but said index also doesn't think highly of de Guzman, who ranks 142nd overall. Bernier slots in at 64th, and Johnson at 84th. Point Bernier.

If you want to find a way to conjure up a point for de Guzman, it is this: Julian has been a national team fixture for years and tends to step up his game when he pulls on a Canada jersey. He does not (or is not allowed to) play with much creativity under Stephen Hart, but he also rarely puts his team in trouble by giving possession away cheaply.

The latter is my main worry with Bernier which is why I'd be wary about giving him the start against Panama without first having seen him fit into Hart's system under less dangerous conditions. If he replaces de Guzman (and if Hutchinson is healthy this is the only way I can see Bernier getting in to the starting eleven) then Hart will need to be sure that Bernier is ready for the defensive responsibilities, and knows how to keep the team's shape. With Dwayne De Rosario all but assured a starting spot on the wing, the team cannot afford another freewheeler.

The only other solution with a midfield 3 of Hutchinson, Bernier, and Johnson is to rotate the triangle and have Atiba play more defensively. Hutchinson is Canada's best player and would no doubt do well in that role (for me, he'd probably be the best guy at 3 or 4 of the positions) but you lose some attacking potential if he's not in behind the central striker.

If Canada can't get a friendly (given my experience as a Canada supporter I'd put the chances at about 50-50) then I don't see Bernier starting against Panama unless either: 1) de Guzman completely falls off the map for TFC, or 2) Atiba Hutchinson or one of the other midfielders isn't healthy. Neither of those two are that unlikely.

If all goes well, a friendly can be booked, Bernier can show he belongs and players are all healthy come September, than he's in my starting XI. Is he in yours?


Anonymous said...

Bernier's problem is inconsistency, even with his vast pro experience. When you don't expect much he tends to over deliver on his performance (Mexico WCQ in 2008 in Edmonton and the GC 09 stand out as such) but when you are expecting some key contributions he either underwhelms notably (wasn't impressed with his last outings vs SKC or TFC recently) or sh*ts the bed entirely (South Africa match, but that's a mulligan because that's awhile back). He's a squad guy for me, not a starter.

Ledgerwood is underrated in the ballwinning department and he gives you a Pozniak versatility in that he can also play in both FB spots so I don't have a problem with his inclusion in the squad. I think Pacheco flatters to deceive

De Guzman has the tight control and safe distribution skills you like from a guy playing in front of the back four in that holding role but I don't think he has the legs anymore for the defensive side of the game (despite his experience it was he who got the sub in the heat vs Cuba while the less skilled but younger and fitter Ledgerwood remained on when the team was down a man). I used to think that de Guzman was an absolute must in the starting XI for us but now I don't see him as such because I'm not seeing that all around game anymore.

A good discussion, jono. I always respect your viewpoints because you are thoughtful and not pulling stuff out of your *ss like some of the pretentious prats are read elsewhere

(actually, if I had a garage band I would call it, "Bearcat and the Pretentious Prats")

BearcatSA :)

J said...

My central midfield depth chart looks like this:

1. Atiba
2. Johnson
3. JDG
4. Bernier
5. Ledgerwood

I don't think de Guzman is far ahead of the other two, and it will be interesting to see what the move away from TFC does for him (right now it is hard not to see it as a positive).

I think Bernier's only chance of getting in the starting lineup is the not unlikely scenario of a Hutchinson injury. Place him higher in the midfield and his inconsistencies have a smaller chance of doing real damage.

As for Ledgerwood, his merit-worthy performances against USA, Cuba, and to a lesser extent Honduras came as a shock to most. It was surprise enough, at least, that I'm not convinced they can be repeated.

Of course all that really matters is what Hart thinks. And he's not the type to make drastic changes so if Bernier makes the squad it will be as a bench player, and he'll probably find a way to fit Ledgerwood in there (and as long as it's not at right back I won't complain too loudly).

Of course this is a debate that will have a short life span. If Canada does not advance to the Hex, I think you can safely call an end to the likes of Bernier, de Guzman, de Rosario, McKenna, Klukowski, Jazic, Friend, heck even Occean (35 at this point in the next WCQ cycle) playing meaningful matches for Canada.

And thanks for the kind words. You put more thought into what you write than the blog spamming bots that are responsible for most of the rest of the comments around here. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

We're a squad of role players (though I guess DeRo is considered "the man" at DC United), so for us to get through we need a wide range of selfless contributions from each member in his own way.


Anonymous said...

If the CSA does get a friendly in Aug, wouldn't that give Hart a perfect opportunity to give a line-up of N.American based players a run. Of course it'd be ideal to have the A-roster but our depth chart is weak and to field a MLS/NASL squad would certainly make for interesting fodder. Imagine testing a midfield of Bernier, Dunfield, JDG & Saiko?

As for Ledgerwood, it will be interesting to see him prove his worth in Sweden's second league (Superetta) with Stockholm team Hammarby. They have an American coach and play a physical style that will likely suit Nik.

Jamonty (in Sweden)

J said...

Ledgerwood to Hammarby? That move must have flown under my radar. I can't think of the last time we had a national team player in the Superettan. Garret Kusch?

I think we were all surprised to see Ledgerwood being such a useful player in the June matches, but it seems the rest of the football world did not take notice. Unless there is more to the story that I'm missing. Do Hammarby have major promotion aspirations?

Anonymous said...

Hammarby have been hard pressed in the Superetta since they were relegated 2010. They are one of the marquee teams that push for promotion every year but for whatever reason haven't found the right combo of players or coach to make it happen.
This year they're not really scoring (19 goals in 15 games). The season started with a hot streak of 5 games unbeaten but have since cooled dramatically.
At the season's midway point, Hammarby currently is in 5th place (6W-4D-5L) and are 11 pts out of 2nd. Atiba Hutchinson's old club, Ă–sters IF is running away with the league (14W-1D-0L).
Hammarby is a bit controversial in Swedish footies since it is owned by Anschutz (the same group that owns the LA Galaxy) and currently have an American coach (Gregg Berhalter) something that is rather unique in Europe. The club has always been known as the worker-class club of Stockholm and has a very strong supporter culture that has been critical of Anschutz's ownership.
I look forward to Ledgerwood's time there and hope he makes a big impact, not only for Canadian footie, but for Hammarby too.
-Jamie in Uppsala