Canada vs USA in-depth preview part 2: Analyzing tactical profiles

In this second part of our preview series ahead of the Canada vs US game, we bring the first of two tactical looks at both sides. We look at how both teams will try to play, and how that may look when pitted against each other, as both teams get set to do battle in exactly a week from today. 

Part 1: Breaking down the squads, storylines and key players

There are plenty of storylines heading into Canada vs USA next week, as Canada looks to get a huge boost in their quest towards World Cup 2022 with a victory, while the Americans look to build good habits as they look to avoid a meltdown like the one they had in their last qualifying cycle. With both teams playing each other for the first time in a competitive setting since 2011, many have dissected how these teams stack up, with Canada looking to win against their neighbours for the first time since 1985. 

One area that has been ignored, however, is how these sides may fare tactically when they face off in this game, with most of the focus staying on the good players at hand. With both sides still building up their tactical identities, as both managers continue to instill their respective philosophies into their players, it will be interesting to see who outwits the other in a battle of sideline mind games. The US’s identity is more well-known, with manager Gregg Berhalter deploying similar tactics to what he has done for most of his strong and lengthy MLS career, but Canada remains more of a wild card. 

Given that both teams have strong players in different areas of the pitch, the coach that can find a way to best maximize the talent at his disposal will certainly gain an advantage in the chase for 3 points at BMO Field. So, in this part, we attempted to break things down for both sides, analyzing the way they played during the last international window, enabling us to get an idea of how things may line up when these teams face off a week from now. Here is what we learned. 

Tactical breakdown:

Offensively:

Canada’s lethal forwards: Canada’s approach offensively has found some success so far under Herdman, but they’ll get their first big test against the US. No matter who he decides to choose, however, the framework he is expected to use is pretty straight forward. 

Canada attacks in a 4-3-3, with a traditional front three supported by a #10 and two other midfielders. The full-backs press high, with the ball-side full-back usually pressing up and hugging the touchline to allow the winger to cut in, while the other finds a soft spot in between the front line and defensive line on the other side of the pitch. 

Due to Canada having strong wingers, they usually try and start a lot of their attacks through them, as seen by the screenshot below. Alphonso Davies, who will likely start on the left against the US, cuts into the middle on this attack, and Kamal Miller flies up to support him to his left. Laryea, the right back in this clip, dropped back towards his defenders off-frame because he knows that if Canada loses the ball here, it’s not worth it to have him also stretched up the field. With right winger Junior Hoilett already stretched out into a good position on the bottom right of the screen, Laryea instead wisely stayed back, putting him in a good position when Canada did eventually lose the ball through Davies. 

Canada’s left winger, Davies, runs into the middle of the pitch with the ball against Cuba

While Miller had a solid game against Cuba, putting in a good shift up and down that left-hand side, Sam Adekugbe looks to be the favourite to slot in against the US. Miller is solid defensively, which is expected considering that he is a natural centre back, but the only thing is that he somewhat limits Canada offensively on the left side. As seen in that screenshot, Davies often attracts the attention of several defenders due to his excellent dribbling, so having Miller push up higher could have given Davies an outlet to push the ball to on the overlap.

Kamal Miller could have opened up space with an overlap

As seen in the second Cuba game, Adekugbe loves to make those kinds of overlapping runs, and given the chemistry he has shown with Davies in the past, he may prove to be the more viable option at left back for Herdman. 

The full-backs pushing up high also creates easier passing options for when Canada gets the ball in the middle. In the screenshot below, Laryea, who is at the complete bottom of the screen in the play bar, pushed up from his more defensive position to give Canada an option for a switch. Miller is pressed up on one side, given Canada had just tried to attack down that left-hand channel, which originally forced Laryea to back up. Sensing the switch, he jumped into action, pushing forward into a position that either forced Cuba to stretch out and open up the middle by trying to defend him, or leave him the acres of space as they did. And if Piette, who is about to receive the ball, messes up his touch or pass, Laryea is still in a good enough position to track back and help out defensively. 

With Piette about to received the ball in the top left, Laryea flew forward

Having Laryea and Adekugbe stretch out defensive lines will play a big role in Canada’s offensive success, as it allows their wingers to operate more centrally. Given that wing options Davies, Hoilett and Jonathan David all have good shooting ability, without mentioning strong dribbling and good passing ability as well, that will allow them the chance to operate in a dangerous channel between the opposing teams’ full-backs and centre backs, a channel that they have all shown to be efficient in. 

Take this next screenshot for example. Mark Anthony Kaye just passed the ball to Laryea in the bottom right of the frame, as the right-back stretched up that right side with Canada in possession, and almost immediately Hoilett jumped right into that channel between the full-back and centre back.

Laryea (bottom right) receives the ball before playing in Hoilett down the flank

They caught the full-back in no-man’s land with a textbook overload, unsure if he should stick with Hoilett or close down Laryea, allowing Laryea to take a touch and feed the ball into a wide-open Hoilett down that right flank. In this sequence, that opened up Hoilett to take on a centre back 1v1, and it nearly led to a goal, as Hoilett wisely cut the ball back through David and Jonathan Osorio to Davies. As outlined by the drawings below, David and Osorio sucked in their respective defenders with their runs, which thanks to the overload provided by Canada, led to an open Davies, who made a great run from his wide left spot in this sequence. While he missed the shot spectacularly, it was the kind of quick attacks that this team loves to create. 

A look at how Davies was able to get open for his shot

The biggest question for Canada, however, will be how to get their midfielders more involved offensively against the US. Laryea and Adekugbe should be very involved, making runs to open up space for the wingers, who in turn will open up space for the dangerous Lucas Cavallini at striker. Just like in the sequence above, they will be devastating when they catch the US in open space, but when the US gets a chance to settle down in their defensive set-up, Canada will need to find a way to utilize Piette, Kaye and the #10 better. No matter if that #10 is David, Scott Arfield or Jonathan Osorio, they need to make sure that whoever occupies that space gets the ball around the top of the box when possible, either opening up lanes to shoot or sucking in defenders in order to play in streaking wide players on runs. Against Cuba, they nearly exclusively played through wide areas, which can work, but they would be better served to make use of some of the midfielders at their disposal, both to score and open up teammates.

Osorio and Piette missed a chance to open up space for Hoilett (bottom right)

Take this screenshot, for example. Osorio gets the ball in a good position, but he gets closed down quickly. Because of that, he was unable to get the ball to Kaye, who made a great run and ended up behind the defensive line. In reaction to that, Osorio instead tried to play a ball back to Kamal Miller, who is off-screen further back down the left side, and it was easily picked off by Cuba. If Piette, with the yellow arrow beside him, could have instead made a run forward into space as shown, they could have been in great position, as Hoilett had made a good run into an empty space vacated by the Cubans.

While it could have also been a risky play, as Piette was the last man back in the midfield, it was the kind of offensive play through the middle that they were lacking against Cuba. Using the middle more would also benefit Canada’s strong wingers, as well, because if they start to move the ball around with efficiency in the middle between the half-line and the top of the US’s box, it will either leave them with space to penetrate into, or force the US to defend more compactly, which gives more space for Canada’s wingers and full-backs to operate in. 

Ultimately, Canada’s strengths in attack will live and die by their front three and full-backs, with Kaye and Piette likely playing more of a role as deeper creative hubs. With Kaye being an excellent passer, while Piette is an efficient recycler of the ball, they will both be key in getting Canada’s advanced players the ball. That means the #10 will have to play a big role in advancing play through the middle, as he will be expected to drop in between the opposing midfield and defensive lines, opening up space for teammates. Osorio can be good in that role, as he has shown with Toronto, but having Arfield, who is a master in that spot, and David, who has shown to be effective there for Gent, should give Canada someone who can make things happen. 

And if Canada can create overloads like this against the US, watch out. 

The US packs a punch: The Americans use a similar layout to the Canadians, setting up in a 4-2-3-1 of sorts, with the main differences being what they try to do within the setup. Much like a possession-based side, the US likes to play out of the back, which is why they usually go with a more passing #6 such as Michael Bradley or Will Trapp in the midfield. They operate as “Registas”, sitting back and jumpstarting the US’s attacks through long balls or short passes, with the Americans running a lot of their play through them. 

Will Trapp with the ball after a successful bit of play from the US

In the screenshot above, we find them in their most comfortable position offensively when playing out of the back, which is having their #6 on the ball in space. After some nice passes between centre back Walker Zimmerman and goalkeeper Zach Steffen, Steffen was able to slip a ball in between the Mexican press right to Trapp, who was in acres of space. When the US receives the ball in spaces like this, they launch forward immediately into their set-up, which means the full-backs fly up (as we can see on the top left of the shot near the score overlay), their other midfielders drop back a bit, and the wingers and striker push forward to try and back the opposing defensive line down. 

Here is an example of what they try to do, albeit in a different position on the pitch, with a different player. In this case, they surely wanted to get the #6 on the ball in between the centre backs, but Uruguay sensed that, pressing him into a pass. By doing that, however, they opened up space for another US midfielder to jump into the space between the forward line and the midfield line, and he immediately played a diagonal ball forward into the full-back, who flew up the pitch. When the ball arrives at Sergino Dest, the full-back in this case, we can see an immediate reaction from his teammates, who sprint into space to join him. 

The US love to open up play through these diagonal balls

The thing with playing out of the back in the way they do also opens them up to defensive vulnerabilities, which showed when they played Mexico last window. Take the screenshot below, for example, where the US got the ball into the midfield. They forced the midfielder, in this case Weston McKennie, onto the ball to try and open space up for Trapp, but Mexico pressed him hard, forcing the US into an eventual turnover. It was risky from Mexico, who left that whole right side open in doing so, but the US was unable to capitalize in part due to their stubbornness in playing out of the back. 

The US is a bit over-reliant on their playing out of the back at times, as Mexico was able to overload them here

Once the US does get the ball up to the wing, where they prefer to start their attacks, they usually kick into high gear, trying to create overloads all around the pitch. If the full-back receives the ball in space, and the defenders collapse, both he and the winger on that side will try to exploit that wide space by shooting forward into it. If the defence opens up to stop that, as in the clip below, they also love to switch things up by getting the ball into the middle to suck the defenders back in. In this case, they executed their move poorly, as the midfielder received the ball and had to chance to play in McKennie down the right side in the confusion caused by the quick overload, but he got stuck on the ball and missed the chance to. 

A great overload through the middle and in that wide area, but the US was unable to get the ball to a streaking McKennie

Interestingly enough, the US love to overload, but they like to do so in wide areas, as they stray away from the middle of the pitch. Take the clip above, for example. If you look at the way they all push forward, it leaves a huge gap right in the middle of the pitch, and they’re okay to attack like that. They try and create good low crossing opportunities for their wingers, and jam the box full of runners to try and pick up one-touch finishes on those crosses. Had McKennie received the ball in space as anticipated, he surely would have hit a low ball towards the two men at the back post, who would have steamed into the box with anticipation. They struggled to this against Mexico, who closed down their overloads nicely, but against Uruguay, they created a few good opportunities in this way. 

The big players in their offensive system are the goalkeeper, the #6, the full-backs and the two wingers. In this case, it means Steffen works with the #6 and the centre-backs to open up space in the middle for him to run into, so he can in turn feed the ball to the full-backs. From there, the wingers and a midfielder join him to try and create an overload, so they can either funnel the ball to the front line or down the wide area of the pitch. When they get the ball into those positions, they are good at either funnelling the ball in from out wide, or creating shot opportunities from the middle. The best way to stop them? As shown by Mexico, stopping them from even getting to those wide and middle areas appears to be the best way. 

Defensively: 

Canada to force the middle overload

Two simple lines to show Canada’s 4-4-2

Defensively, Canada defends in a 4-4-2, with the front 2 pressing high, while the other two lines judge the opposing team’s offensive formation and set themselves up accordingly. In the screenshot below, you get an idea of that, as Cuba tries to play out of the back, with striker Jonathan David right on the centre back with the ball, while the #10 Jonathan Osorio drops a bit in preparation to do the same when the ball gets moved over. With the Cuban midfielders dropping back to help, Canada’s block of 4 in the middle moved up in anticipation, ready to jump on the ball if moved into the next phase of play.

Canada put a strong emphasis on defending in wide areas, as seen by the next screenshot. In their 4-4-2, they were content to let the midfielders Kaye and Piette stay spread out in the middle, covering a good amount of ground, while the wingers Davies and Hoilett pushed right out onto the flanks. 

While Kaye pressed up a bit to mess up the 4, you can see how Canada looks to shut down the flanks here

With Canada’s full-backs and wingers being aggressive whenever Cuban wide players received the ball, it showed a clear intention from Canada, which was that they were going to try and narrow down the sides of the pitch. The front two pressed aggressively, which they will likely do when the US tries to build out of the back, while the wingers and full-backs stayed in a position to limit the possibility of wide players receiving the ball. It left Piette and Kaye alone to manage the middle, but they are more than capable enough defensively to do that, covering ground and closing down space well when Cuba did send the ball that way. Against Cuba’s woeful offence, it worked to a tee, as they were unable to get past the block of 4 in the middle very often. It also allowed Canada’s centre backs to sit back, as they sucked the forwards down by sitting a little deeper, creating separation in the lines of the Cuban attack. 

They attempt to force teams to overload down the middle, daring them to try and outman Kaye and Piette, who have so far been up to the task of taking care of that. And if teams actually do go that route, which the US has only shown tendencies to do closer to the opponent’s goal, expect the #10 to drop and add a 3rd body to help deal with that. In that case, that would only happen if the US overloaded Canada around the half-line, instead of closer to the top of the box as is their preference. Either way, Canada will retaliate, either dropping a frontman back if the US tries to overload around the half-line, while their centre backs will be ready if the US tries the overload at the top of the box.

US all about closing down space

The Americans also defend in a 4-4-2, albeit one that is a lot more aggressive than their northern counterparts. The 2 forwards get up the pitch quickly, getting ready to force the backline into passing towards one side, while their midfield bank of 4 pushes up in anticipation of the move. Take this screenshot from the beginning of the game against Mexico, for example, as the US immediately jumped up and set themselves up in their preferred shape. 

The US use a more staggered 4-4-2 in defence

When played properly, it has had devasting effects, as teams are often unable to think quickly enough to push the ball into the middle. Here against Mexico, CONCACAF’s best side, they forced them into a turnover by immediately putting their wingers on the full-backs when they receive the ball. It’s not completely shown by the screenshot, but Mexico had just passed the ball to the defender, who had the US winger right down his throat. Even though he had an option to play off of in the middle, he was unable to react in time, and the Americans won the ball back easily.  

The wingers in the 4-4-2 pressed up immediatley when Mexico got the ball, forcing a mistake here

The US attempt to close down space, especially in wide areas, which forces teams to play through the middle, much like Canada does. They are a lot more aggressive in doing so, however, which is shown by this clip from their friendly against Uruguay. Uruguay plays the ball around their backline, giving us a chance to contrast the different phases of the American’s approach. When the centre backs have it, just the US front two press hard, but the rest of the team stays in ready mode. As soon as the Uruguay wide players received it, the US swarmed them hard, forcing them to reset and pursue another avenue. 

Look how aggressive the US press gets when the ball goes out wide

The way to break that is by getting the ball through the middle, finding a way to get in between the line between US’s front 2 and midfielders. When successful in doing that, the Americans can break down easily, as shown by the screenshot below. 

Their aggressiveness is not without fault, however

In this case, the US pressed with too many men forward, and Uruguay was able to create a 5 on 3 only through a few smart passes up the middle. Despite being heavily outmanned, they sucked in the US just enough to open up a middle lane, and then they were off to the races. While they didn’t score in this case, they came really close, and it showed exactly the way to counter the Americans pressing high.

Matchups:

Can Canada’s offence run riot vs US defence?

It will be interesting to see how Canada’s style of play offensively lines up against the US’s defence. This is where Mark Anthony Kaye is going to have to be huge for Canada, as he will be relied on to get the ball forward in a hurry. Here is a diagram to demonstrate that, with Canada’s players (red dots) in possession, while the US (blue dots) set up in their press. Canada’s going to have to find a way to get him the ball in that pocket between the front 2 and the midfield 4, either through a slip pass into the middle, or by a pass to the full-back who quickly catches him in when he moves over to support him.

Canada’s numbers in red, whereas US is just set up to show their press, with the numbers being inaccurate (so that’s not Pulisic at left back!)

If they can get him the ball in that space, watch out, because as he has shown with LAFC this season, he is deadly with the ball there. He and the #10 (in this case Arfield) can use each other to open up space, creating overloads in the middle with Piette. If they can suck the US out of position and get the ball up to their speedy wingers, they should have plenty of fun offensively, with their full-backs having the green light to join and create wide overloads. 

As long as Canada can get the ball to their wingers, they should be able to capitalize on the US press. If that press proves to be too much to handle, they may have to resort to long balls, but as long as they have tidy interplay in the middle they’ll be able to avoid that for the most part. On the counter, they’ll be dangerous, as well, as the US has shown to commit plenty of men forward, especially in wide areas, which will leave a lot of space for fast wide men such as Davies, Hoilett and David to run into. The most intriguing battle will be how they find a way to break down the US when they get to set up, but when they do nick a counter, watch out. 

How will the US’s attack fare against Canada’s defensive set up?

This will be a huge test for the US offensive setup, as Canada’s defensive approach, at least on paper, looks like it may stifle their main plan to attack. With Canada’s 4-4-2 being very spread out, it will make it especially tough for the Americans to hit those diagonal balls to their full-backs and wingers, which will force them to play through the middle. Canada seem more than comfortable to just sit back and invite them to play around Kaye and Piette, knowing that the US will want to likely force play wide. Had Canada been playing a tiki-taka side, it would be dangerous, as Kaye and Piette would probably get destroyed by constant overloads in the middle, but it’s unsure if the US will have the weapons to go down that route. 

It means that the central players will have to be key for the Americans. Their midfielders will have to be comfortable with keeping things short and on the ground in the middle, while the wingers and strikers will have to drop back and operate more centrally to get more on the ball. If they do that, they may even be able to suck in Canada’s wider players into the middle, which in turn could open up more overlaps for the American full-backs to run into as is their preference. 

Another thing to watch will be how US’s #6, in this case expected to be Michael Bradley, handles the Canadian press. When Canada’s front 2 presses, one guy pushes forward, while the other shades back a bit, covering the exact space where Bradley will be expected to operate in. If that works out, it will be interesting to see what the US do to create offence, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of alternative passes Bradley plays forward if the main option, long wide diagonals into the full-backs and wingers, remain unavailable. 

Who will win the midfield battle?

Mark Anthony Kaye is going to have a huge role in this game

It means that this game will come down to who wins the midfield battle, as both defensive setups are meant to neutralize the various wide threats both teams have to offer, with both team’s relative strengths being in the wide areas of the pitch. 

For the Americans, that will mean increased responsibility on likely starting midfielders Sebastian Lletget and Weston McKennie to help out Bradley, both by offering him more short support on the ball, while being able to build up the play through the middle. If they are to create any offence, they’ll have to either find a way to generate more through central areas, or use the middle as a spot to suck in Canadian defenders to open up their preferred wide areas. 

For Canada, it will mean that they need big things to happen with Kaye and their #10, as Kaye will be expected to play a lot of slip passes and join the attack, forcing the American’s to push inside to stop he and Arfield, in turn opening up space wide for David and Davies. If the US decides they’d rather stop Davies, Hoilett and/or David out wide, which is perfectly understandable, Kaye and Arfield will have to make them pay for that decision, which they certainly have shown the capacity to do with their club play. And as long as Canada can provide good service to striker Lucas Cavallini, either from wide areas or into his feet up the middle, they should have the chances to shine offensively.

Looking forward:

In the next part, we’ll take a look at the individual tactical battles and players to watch, as we take a look at some of the battles and players that will shape the game. Based on how both teams play, as we have seen here, those battles will end up changing the course of the matchup, so it’ll be interesting to take a look at how that might turn out. 

Based on what you know, how do you think Canada will fare offensively? Will the US be able to create enough through the middle? Who will win that midfield battle? Let us know. 

Up Next: Individual tactical profile

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