An evaluation of Canada’s Men’s Soccer team’s midfield ahead of a crucial slate of games

Canada has some interesting midfield options. We try and assess some of them. 

As of late, Canada’s men’s national team has found themselves with a wealth of options in their midfield, turning it into a point of strength for the squad. Even with the potential retirement of longtime star midfielder and captain Atiba Hutchinson looming large, Canada seems to be well equipped to handle it, with an array of options to now draw themselves from at the position. 

The biggest question, however, is figuring out how to best align themselves to ensure that they take advantage of the talent available to them. During this past summer’s Gold Cup, national team manager John Herdman experimented with a couple of different ideas, each working out to varying levels of success. Due to injuries and other absences in different parts of the squad, Herdman had to get creative at times, with Hutchinson putting in a couple of shifts at centre back, while fellow midfielders Mark Anthony Kaye and Russell Teibert filled in a couple of times at left-back. 

Herdman has appeared to have learned from the mistakes of summer’s past, choosing to bring a more balanced squad for next week’s pair of games against Cuba, bringing 2 left-backs and 4 (5 if you include Kamal Miller, but he is listed as a left-back), a far cry from the 1 left-back and 3 centre backs he brought to the Gold Cup. Because of that, it means that midfielders such as Kaye, who is in the midst of an excellent campaign for MLS league-leaders LAFC, will get a chance to play in his natural position, which based on how he has performed this year, should surely benefit Canada. 

The Main Options:

In this squad, the midfielders called up are Mark Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Jonathan Osorio, Will Johnson, Russell Teibert and Liam Fraser, with mainstays Scott Arfield and Atiba Hutchinson staying home with what appear to be minor injuries. For now, these appear to be the main options for Canada to draw upon in the midfield, and it is certainly a pretty solid list all things considered. 

With that in mind, it leaves an all-important question: how does Herdman put all of this together? He has no shortage of options in deciding how to go about that, as the beauty of organizing a midfield is that there is no perfect way to go about doing it. You can put out 3 box-to-box machines together, you can go for 2 destroyers and a true 10 or you can go for 2 10s and a destroyer. The main goal is to accommodate as many of your top players as possible, while also attempting to best emulate the style of play that the team is trying to impose. It’s not easy at the National Team level, as coaches do not have the free range to buy the players that they want to bring into the team like they do at the club level, meaning that flexibility is key. 

But before we start to look at the best way to best align the midfield, it’s also important to understand the profile of the players within the squad. The three main profiles that we’ll look at are attacking midfielder, box-to-box midfielder and defensive midfielder, which are the basic profiles most people would consider within the midfield. While there are many variants of each profile, splitting players into those categories gives a good idea of their best attributes, making it easier to evaluate things after. 

Defensive midfielder (The Stopper)

Canada has not had to worry about this position much these past years, as Atiba Hutchinson has filled this role at a high level for over a decade, captaining Canada while he plied his trade in Europe. Luckily for Canada, they have a top replacement for Hutchinson in line, with Sam Piette looking like a strong candidate to fill his big shoes as their next 6. Hutchinson and Piette do not look similar off first glance, with Hutchinson being affectionately named the “Octopus” due to his lanky frame, while Piette is known as the “bulldog” for his stockier build. Despite that, they still share a lot of similar traits, as they both tackle, intercept and move the ball forward well, making them well-suited for this role. 

Box-to-box midfielder (The Engine)

Mark Anthony Kaye, Russell Teibert and Will Johnson headline Canada’s best at the position, with the trio of MLS players all showing good ability at attacking both boxes. Hutchinson has shown to be competent in this role, as well, but he is best served as a shield in front of the back 4. Jonathan Osorio and Liam Fraser also fill into this category to an extent, but we’ll cover them at the end due to their flexible positioning. 

Canada has some solid options in this role, as Kaye has been dominant at LAFC, scoring 4 goals, adding 8 assists, while still being solid defensively, Teibert leads Vancouver in assists and has put up good tackling and interception rates, and Johnson has shown to still be competent defensively and offensively despite his age and injury history, giving them 3 good options to pick from. With other names like Fraser, Osorio, Arfield and Hutchinson all able to fill in, Canada has more than enough depth to be strong in this department. 

Attacking midfielder (The Creator)

This position is always the most nuanced, as a true 10 is hard to come by, but Canada does have a few options for the position, even if they’re not true creators. The main options, Scott Arfield and Jonathan Osorio, are dangerous, with Arfield being a great goal scorer and creator, while still being useful defensively due to his good pressing ability, while Osorio is similar in his offensive abilities, operating dangerously around the edge of the box, just less effective defensively.

Hybrid midfielder (The best of the rest)

That leaves just one midfielder, Liam Fraser, who falls into our hybrid category. He is an interesting player, as he is very strong defensively, but is still competent offensively, making him a hybrid 6 and 8. Osorio (10 and 8), Arfield (10 and 8), Kaye (8 and 6) and Hutchinson (6 and 8) all fall into this category, but in their cases, it’s more evident what their best positions are. It’s useful that they can all move around, as it allows the coach more flexibility, but it’s greatest if the best midfielders find themselves in their most comfortable positions. 

Midfield Power Rankings:

Before we examine the way Canada could possibly line themselves up in the midfield, we will compile a (subjective) list of form heading into September, with a short justification underneath their positions. 

  • Mark Anthony Kaye

The engine of LAFC, he has been dominant offensively and defensively this year. Still only 24, he should be in the heart of the midfield for at least the next half-decade. 

  • Scott Arfield

The 30-year-old has yet to slow down, continuing to score goals and pick up assists for Rangers. He’s the kind of 10 Canada needs to feed their prolific forwards, while still bagging a few himself. 

  • Atiba Hutchinson

Despite his 36 years of age, he continues to shine at Besiktas. The strong tackler is a fan-favourite at the Turskish-based club. Defensively strong, he found some good offence last year. He is only ranked 3rd as he has yet to begin his season because of injury. 

  • Samuel Piette

Piette looks to be back after some injury woes, which is good news for Canada. Only 24, he has been in the national team fold for nearly 7 years. Has become the heart of the Montreal Impact, starting 51 consecutive games (!!!) at one point for them. 

  • Jonathan Osorio

Would have been higher after 2018, or even earlier this year. Still dangerous offensively, but his form has dipped. Injury trouble may have played a role. He should benefit from an injury-free offseason to train, and at 27 he still has a lot to give. 

  • Russell Teibert

Coaches dream. Works hard, never complains. He has turned himself into a useful bench piece for Canada and is a great rotational starter at the MLS level. 

  • Will Johnson 

Steady hand. While he is no longer as dominant as he used to be, he has continued to survive and start in MLS. Ready to fill in if needed. 

  • Liam Fraser

The future. At 21, he has shown he can hang at the MLS level, he is just stuck behind a stacked Toronto midfield. As he continues to grow, he will only get better, so don’t be surprised if he becomes the next big thing in the Canada midfield. 

The Profiles:

So based on those rankings, as well as what we said before, here are some possible alignments for the midfield. These are subjective, so if you have any better or preferred alignments, feel free to let us know. 

Balanced:

The standard alignment. Canada may be best served to use this one, as it gives them some defensive solidity through Piette/Hutchinson and Kaye, while Arfield and Kaye give them some punch going forward. 

Attacking:

Canada could go this route against smaller teams that will sit back against them, allowing them to control the game. Kaye gives them offensive presence as a 6, and both Arfield and Osorio add some punch to an already dangerous attack. 

Defensive:

Similar to the attacking midfield, this assembly would be used against a team that would be expected to really overrun Canada in the midfield, forcing them to go more defensive. In CONCACAF, there are no teams that Canada should go this route against, but if needed, they have the horses to do so. 

Looking Forward:

Without Arfield and Hutchinson for these games, we will miss out on seeing a complete picture of how Herdman expects his midfield to line up, but we do see how he rates some of the other guys. It should be good to see guys like Kaye, Piette, Osorio, Teibert, Fraser and the others perform, as many of them do project to be key short and long term pieces for the country. With this golden age of attacking talent, having a good midfield will be key for 2022, as they will be relied on to feed the attackers as well as shield the defence, and with the defence looking far from settled, they will be crucial in ensuring things remain airtight. 

What’s your preferred midfield alignment? Let us know!

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