CPL: Forge assistant Johan Albert on the modern GK, time at Nantes and Forge’s strength in goal

Ahead of Forge’s victory over Cavalry in the CPL Finals, we spoke to Forge goalkeeper Johan Albert. Having spent over 2 decades coaching in France, he brought some interesting insight to the Hamilton-based side, and he shared some of that with us here. 

It’s a position with demands unlike any other. 

Visually, they stand out right away. Dressed in a different kit than their 10 other teammates on the pitch, it’s hard to miss goalkeepers when they play, which is often why they bear the brunt of the criticism when defensive errors occur. On the other hand, they can single-handedly win games, making the position a volatile one. 

In the Canadian Premier League Finals, we saw a clash of two of the best that the CPL has to offer at the position, with Forge’s Triston Henry and Cavalry’s Marco Carducci putting up a battle worth watching over 180 minutes. From Henry keeping back-to-back clean sheets, while Carducci valiantly withstood the Forge storm in the 1st leg before keeping his team in the game in the 2nd, there was no shortage of excellence Between The Sticks in Calgary and Hamilton. 

Forge’s dynamic duo

Henry, who made some important stops in the 2nd leg to help Forge become champions, has been a revelation for Forge all season long. Despite being 26 years of age, this was his first-ever professional campaign, in which he capped with his impressive finals performance and lifting the ‘North Star Shield’. After being one of the best CPL had to offer all year, it was a triumphant end to a breakthrough 2019 campaign, one that has people excited heading into next season. 

While he didn’t get formally recognized for his work, as he didn’t even make the top 3 nominees for the GK of the year award, people have taken notice of what he has done. Along with fellow Forge goalkeeper, Quillan Roberts, it paved the way for Forge to have an excellent debut season. Even though the Hamilton-based side excelled on the defensive side of the game, having safety valves such as Henry and Roberts in goal helped pave the way for that excellence, and it showed. 

In the lead-up to the 2nd leg of the final, we had the chance to speak with Johan Albert, Forge’s assistant and goalkeeping coach, who gave us some good insight into what had helped them this season in goal. Albert is a seasoned coaching veteran, having coached for over 2 decades at French club Nantes, even winning a Ligue 1 title as an assistant on their squad, and he brought that pedigree right away to Forge. 

Having seen the ins and outs of the French footballing pyramid as he has, having his insight was invaluable for Forge. When you coach for that long, you tend to pick up lots of information, and Albert aimed to transfer as much of that over as he could. 

“I looked to bring them the little details that were missing or that they needed to rediscover, to help get to the highest level,” Albert told BTSVancity in French. “Q (Roberts) had been through some bigger clubs, while Triston’s highest level had been with Sigma, who is our academy, so for both of them it was a good process. I think they’re two goalkeepers that could be more than capable of handling themselves in Ligue 2 in France.”

From Nantes to Hamilton

At Nantes, he started out as a youth coach, before becoming an assistant coach that specialized in digital analysis and goalkeeping, a role he carried over to Forge. After his tenure in Nantes ended, he moved over to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a similar role, where he helped the African nation in their bid to reach the 2018 World Cup. Unsuccessful in that quest to make the world’s footballing party, he then moved onto Forge, joining them in time for the start of the 2019 season.

Over his time spent in those roles, he has had a chance to see and coach some quality goalkeepers, as France is often seen as a country that knows how to produce shot-stoppers. Having worked with players such as Mikael Landreau, the all-time leader in appearances in Ligue 1, to legend Fabien Barthez, winner of both the World Cup and Euros with France, Albert has seen some top talent in goal. 

But when he came to Canada, he was moderately surprised at the level shown by the CPL, not just by Forge but in the whole league. From the top-to-bottom, most teams had 1 or 2 good guys to run with, putting some quality shot-stopping on display, week in and week out. 

Considering that this was the inaugural season of the league, he believes that the league has built up a solid trove of good goalkeepers, and he was just happy to contribute to that through his experience. 

“The league has good goalkeepers, Calgary has good goalkeepers,” Albert said. “Through my time in France and in Ligue 1, I’ve been able to work with some really good goalkeepers like Mickael Landreau and Fabien Barthez, so I just tried to bring that this season to Triston (Henry) and Q (Roberts). We had lots of tools in France, and I just tried to bring the base of that to them.”

He later added: “It’s really interesting, I didn’t think coming here to Canada that I’d see such an interesting level of goalkeeper. With no professional league before, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the level of quality with these players, and to be honest, I was quite impressed right from the first week of training. From the beginning, when we had a couple of goalkeepers on trial, and throughout this first season, I saw that in fact there isn’t that much of a gap to what they do in Europe.”

The Modern goalkeeper

Henry speaks to Media shortly after lifting the ‘North Star Shield’ (Keveren Guillou)

Having spent as long as he has studying goalkeepers, Albert has a unique perspective on the development of the modern goalkeeper. Watching Forge play this year, their goalkeepers bought into some of those modern philosophies, as they were often very involved in the play. 

And with head coach Bobby Smyrniotis playing a high-tempo, possession-based style of play, they needed their last line of defence to be involved in the game. That meant being able to play with both feet, to be comfortable straying from their line, while also not being afraid to communicate and act like an 11th outfield player. 

It allowed Forge to hold an advantage over many of their opponents, as they often controlled play all over the pitch, starting attacking sequences from the back to the front. While much was made of Henry and Robert’s performances in terms of shot-stopping, with both goalkeepers saving Forge 6 goals versus what was expected of them in XGa (Expected Goals), the comfort they gave their teammates in terms of playing the ball forward was also huge. 

“We were lucky to have two goalkeepers who have good feet, both are more than capable of playing short, handling the ball and participating in the play offensively,” Albert said. “So for us as a team, it’s a huge tool to have at our disposition, to be able to ask them and play short instead of hitting long balls, as it’s part of the philosophy shown by Bobby (Smyrniotis). It really gave us an advantage to have that quality in their feet to help aid that philosophy, as we were able to play short all over the pitch.”

Long gone are the days of goalkeepers just being expected to lump the ball forward and remain separated from their teammates. As we’ve seen with Forge this year, and all over the world, goalkeepers are now expected to carry a polished base of all-around attributes, giving coaches flexibility to play how they want. 

Along with the importance they bring to the pitch communication-wise, as they are expected to help organize the backline, Albert believes that having goalkeepers like Roberts and Henry can go a long way for any coach. 

“The modern goalkeeper is a player that is a lot more involved in the play,” Albert said. “They get a lot closer than their defenders, they don’t just sit on the line, which is in part aided by the quality that they show with their feet. The modern goalkeeper must also be a guide, to help relay the coaches message on the field, as communication is one of the best tools that a goalkeeper can have.”

With Henry likely to return next year, it’ll give Albert and Smyrniotis a pillar to build from in the back. Along with their spine up the middle with David Edgar and Daniel Krutzen at centre-back, Kyle Bekker and Alexander Achnioti-Jonsson in the middle, and Anthony Novak up top, there’s no reason to not imagine them competing for silverware again next season.

While things could be subject to change, with star forward Tristan Borges a candidate to move on, while any of those aforementioned names could be set to join him on the way out if something materializes, they’ll have the experience from this year to look back on. After lifting the ‘North Star Shield’, as well as their good run in CONCACAF League, which they return to in 2020, they have every reason to believe that 2020 can be another strong campaign. 

If they do, look for Albert and his goalkeepers to play a big role in that process, as they build off a strong first season of the Canadian Premier League. 

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