Overloads, presses and quick passes: How Canada vs USA shaped up from a tactical standpoint

After Canada took out the US in a huge victory on Tuesday, we look at what happened to tactically to allow that to happen, as Canada managed to get a strategic upper-hand over their neighbours.

In a battle of what seemed like David vs Goliath, at least on paper, Canada showed the US they were closer to the latter than they are to the former, as they left BMO Field with a commanding 2-0 victory in CONCACAF Nations League play. While the Americans were not at their best during the evening, it was partly because the Canadians made sure that life was going to be difficult for them, as they came out with an astute tactical approach. 

With some extra preparation time ahead of this one, as Canada elected to just train instead of playing a friendly last week, it enabled them to come out both fresh and prepared. Against a US side that looked lost at times Tuesday, Canada was rewarded for their patience and tactical diligence, as they not only beat the US quite convincingly, but they did so by following the philosophies that head coach John Herdman had preached during the week. 

By doing so, Canada sent a message to their southern foes, as they both now prepare for a rematch in one months’ time. They showed that they have the talent to pull off these results, but also the preparation required to give themselves a chance at even doing so, as Herdman did well to quell some thoughts of him being overmatched tactically as a coach. While the US could easily pull one back with a new approach in Orlando, as there is still to figure out ahead of that one, Canada drew first blood here at BMO, and here is how it all unfolded. 

Shades of Guardiola:

In our tactical preview of this match, one key factor that we underlined was that the midfield was going to be key, as both teams had shown varying uses of it during recent games. For a Canada side who’s attack had mostly come from using their strength in wide areas, how they used the middle in this game was going to be key. Against an American side that preferred to attack by creating overloads in wide areas and deep in the final third, as well as press the opposition high when possible, controlling the middle was going to be the best way to grab control of this matchup. 

So when Herdman came out with a central-midfield laden lineup, inserting the quartet of Mark Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield into the middle of the park, it sent a strong message. By leaving attacking options such as Junior Hoilett and Lucas Cavallini on the bench, Herdman signalled that he understood well the positives Canada could gain from overloading the middle, and it showed right away. 

“Yeah, I thought the game would be won and lost in that midfield area, I felt we needed to add one more player in there, and we did, and it worked out for periods,” Herdman said. “But (for) the energy, it was just the effort. The work rate, the effort was what mattered most and again, we said we would out will them and I think that’s what it came down to, in many areas of the field, not just the midfield. I have to say the front two as well put a hell of a shift in, I mean that’s nearly 85 minutes of high pressing, constantly.”

Canada’s midfield 4, lined up in a box as shown, with the full-backs pressed high

While Canada didn’t necessarily fully emulate it, the tactic was reminiscent of the kind of thinking current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola became known for back in his FC Barcelona days, when they were on top of the world circa 2009-2011. It was known that Guardiola wanted an overload in the midfield, as his style always favoured having superiority in that area of the pitch, preaching a plus 1 philosophy. When the opposing number went with 4 in the middle, Guardiola would go for 5, and so on so forth, even prompting Guardiola to once go with a 7-man unit to counter a 6-man midfield thrown at him. 

So when the teamsheets came out and Canada had 4 of their best central midfielders on it at once, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it may have initially seemed. While it seemed strange to leave out some in-form attackers in exchange for that superiority, it started to make sense once the game got going, as Canada’s midfield dominance early on signalled that Herdman was onto something, as the US had no space to breathe in the middle of the pitch. It showed statistically, as Canada lead the US 25-14 in ground duals won at the break, as the Americans were only able to escape the relentless red wave in the middle on a few occasions. 

With midfield creator Michael Bradley carrying a shadow, as seen below, it made life miserable for the Americans. Not only were they unable to get play going through the middle, but they weren’t able to get their creative hub on the ball, as strikers David and Davies would drop onto him if the box was forced to drop low to complement the defensive line. 

David giving Bradley a nice shadow

In a sense, it was not that surprising to see Canada do so strong defensively in the midfield, but another big question mark was going to be how they were going to attack. By removing an in-form Cavallini, who can’t stop scoring goals at all levels this year, it left Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies on their own in a front 2, something we haven’t quite yet seen for Canada. 

And, almost surprisingly, they felt no ill-effects from that change in their attack. The midfield 4, who had done so well to keep the US quiet with their defensive effort, were also surprisingly lethal in transition. While they weren’t putting together staggering 25 pass moves, they were constantly drawing the US out of position with these little 5 or 6 pass sequences, opening up space for the likes of Arfield and Osorio to run into with the ball. With David and Davies pushing the US defensive line back, with the speed of both players causing plenty to worry about, it meant Canada had a lot of freedom in transition, and they capitalized. 

It meant for 90 minutes of frustration for Berhalter, as Canada’s midfield box was too much for them to handle, as Fraser and Piette defending along with Osorio and Arfield attacking made for a dangerous duo. With all of the four being flexible players, allowing them to exchange positions when needed, they played a part in dominating the game for Canada tonight. Couple that tactical astuteness with strong desire, a good work rate and solid stamina, and it was a recipe for a good performance from Les Rouges

“Well, we actually played with a box,” Herdman said. “That’s what we worked on all week. So, yeah, the box midfield, I’m not going to give too much more away, because we’ve got to play them in three or four weeks, and again you can beat them once but they’re the big task is going back to back. It’s the consistency, so I can’t talk too much about the tactics, I enjoyed the game. It was a hell of a match, and again just proud of the boys, they were ready to get on the front foot for 90 minutes. And we’ll have to adapt again, we’re going away from home against the US, and we’ll have something else up our sleeve for that much as well.”

Canada not allowing the US to breathe with the press

The US unable to cope with overloads:

On the flip side, the US struggled to handle Canada’s presence in the midfield, and they seemed to have no Plan B in their system when Plan A was shutdown. It’s no secret, the US love to attack through their #6 dropping deep and creating a backline overload, and Canada did a good job at stopping that. Canada always ensured that one of Scott Arfield or Jonathan David would always be within a couple of steps of the #6, in this case, Michael Bradley, and it limited his time on the ball. While he was still able to get involved, completing 60 passes at a 96% clip, they were rarely the kind of surging switches Berhalter would have hoped for. He was instead limited to searching pocket passes, which did well to reach teammates, but they often lost the ball when they received it in good positions, as Canada did well to limit the support. 

As seen above, an example of David shadowing Bradley

So with those preferred long, diagonal aerial balls now out of the picture, it meant that the US was going to have to find a new route to bypass Canada, as the midfield overload proved to be a lot for the Americans to handle. The US did find joy when they got past the midfield, as they were noticeably dangerous when the ball got to Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic out wide, but those moments often came off direct balls and sloppy midfield play. And when they did receive the ball, due to the way they were getting it, they would not receive the support needed. 

A couple of shots showing how the US found their joy, when through balls and diagonal passes to wide players opened up, or by going directly up the side

It was meant for a sloppy evening from the US, as they often gave away the ball on careless touches and poor dribbles. They did create a few good overloads, especially through Morris and DeAndre Yedlin on the right side when they got the chance, but they were too far and few between. With Canada dominating that middle overload, it was hard for the US to get the ball to the wide players in positions they wished, as for whatever reason they could just not find a way through when the ball was on the ground. 

“When I think about tonight, what stands out to me is just the sloppiness with the ball, too many mis-controlled touches, too many missed passes, too many easy things that we normally make that we weren’t making tonight,” Berhalter said. “And what they did with their midfielders they played a diamond, they were very compact in central spaces, and our idea was to move the ball from one side, find the free fullback on the opposite side of the field, penetrate, and do that again, and then we can start opening up that diamond.”

“When we did that, it was good, and we were able to gain ground and move them around the field. When we didn’t do that, due to lack of cleanliness on the ball or playing down the same side and letting that diamond shift over, we got trapped, and that hurt us from really developing nice buildups.”

For a team that had specialized on beating teams down through overloads, it was surprising to see them so hapless in front of Canada’s midfield trap, as they couldn’t break through with numbers, quality or individual moments. In transition, the US had a chance to find space behind the midfield 4, and they did on a few occasions, but ultimately they just couldn’t find a consistent avenue through. 

“So the game plan I could imagine for them was to keep the middle really tight,” Berhalter said. “Use the two boys up top to counter-attack, and that gave us trouble. We had some close calls in the first half, I felt it was relatively under control in the second half, we came out and started to get more control of the match. And then it was just that the middle wasn’t gonna be open any more, it was going to be about finding the wide spaces and exploiting that by getting them to shift. And we didn’t train that, so it was on the fly and we did it successfully sometimes and other times not so successfully.”

For US fans skeptical of Berhalter, it was that last line that will surely loom large, as he admitted his team was unprepared to shift Canada’s midfield to open up preferred wide areas. For a team that loves to play through those areas, it was surprising to see them struggle hard to make them happen, as they just couldn’t open Canada up. They could have done better at holding onto the ball in the middle, sucking in players to both shift them around and open them up, but they were just unable to cope with the Canadian pressure, which summed up the game, really. 

If the Berhalter project is going to have to work, they’ll need to find more ways to break opponents down, as their predictability killed them in a game like this. The return of Tyler Adams should help, as he will bring a quality that was lacking in the midfield, but the overall mentality was just not there. Weston McKennie, Bradley and Cristian Roldan are all quality midfielders, but they were just unable to impose themselves in this one. In a battle expected to be won in the midfield, the US were second-best in every way there, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fix that in the return fixture.  

Revisiting our key matchups and questions:

Scott Arfield played a huge role for Canada in this one (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

Before the match, we outlined some key battles to watch and key questions to answer. In a short blurb for each, here is how we thought things shaped up, and how it compared to what we were expecting. 

Can Canada’s offence run riot vs US defence?

We expected Canada to be good in transition, and they were, causing the US lots of problems there. We thought Kaye was going to be huge, but he left early, but all of Canada’s midfield was excellent at getting the ball to Davies and David. They showed that they can have a top midfield in the region, and it allowed freedom for Davies and David to do what they do best, and it showed in this game. They proved once again that they can score against bigger CONCACAF sides, as the new generation is certainly gaining credence that they can start to earn the ‘golden’ moniker. 

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

Canada pressed the exact way we thought, with a forward often dropping back to cover Michael Bradley, and they had 4 in the middle as expected (the alignment of the 4 being the surprise). We said the US was going to struggle to get their diagonals to wide areas, and that they were going to win the game by overloading the midfield with short and composed passes, which they were unable to do consistently. Bradley did good to send the ball into the middle, but McKennie and Roldan were unable to impose themselves in the game, as they were overrun by Canada’s 4 man set-up. The US’s wingers had joy in space, but their supply was limited, leaving their chances to come in small bunches. 

Who will win the midfield battle?

Canada nailed this, and they came out with a result likely on the back of it. They outmanned the US when the Americans were in possession, they were composed when they had the ball, and they just overall seemed to be better in every metric possible. The US attacking supply line was denied by Canada’s midfield, and it allowed them the Canadians to put less responsibility on their defenders, making it a rather quiet clean sheet bar one real five-alarm chance. 

USA’s#6 vs Canada’s #9+10

Bradley was allowed to get on the ball, but he was unable to do what his role in Berhalter’s system called for, as he was limited to simpler passes. With his teammates unable to do much in a deep sea of Canadian pressure, it nullified his impact. Canada’s forwards did well to help out the midfield when needed, pressing high, but dropping back when Bradley started to find room in between their attacking and midfield line. It’s close, but Canada gets a slight edge on this one. 

Canada’s wingers vs the US full-backs

The US had a strong full-back presence from Yedlin, who caused some headaches for Canada defensively down their left-hand side, while Daniel Lovitz was quiet on the other side. He often hung back, and as a result we was targeted by Davies, David and Laryea early on, as he wasn’t able to do much on either side of the ball. Canada’s goals didn’t really arise from winger vs full-back battles, as it was more careless defensive errors from US centre backs, so this chalks up as an even battle, especially considering that Canada’s lineup didn’t have much of a wing presence. 

Canada’s 2 man midfield vs the US

Herdman’s aggressive approach won him this battle. Instead of electing to stick in a traditional defensive 4-4-2, with 2 wingers and 2 central midfielders, his tactic of shifting to 4 pure central midfielders allowed for dominance, and it showed. The US, who needed to overload the middle to win, was just unable to do so, as both the numerical inferiority and the sloppiness of their play prevented them from doing so. It will be now interesting to see how Berhalter counters that in the next matchup, possibly electing to go more direct with the American’s play, as Canada will probably keep a similar midfielder block. But all things considered, score 1 for Canada in this battle, as they managed to boss the midfield areas. 

Looking Forward: 

It was quite interesting to see the tactical boxing match unfold at BMO Field on Tuesday, as both teams showed contrasting approaches to how they wanted to play, creating a tactical discrepancy on the field. Canada looked more prepared both to play and to counter what the US set out to do, and it showed, leaving lots of questions heading into the return leg. 

Before that game, we will try to set out and answer some of those questions, as well as put out a few of our own, as it will be an even bigger game in terms of Nations League and World Cup implications. With Canada needing at least a draw for security, as a loss leaves goal difference in play, it will be curious to see how they decide to approach the game in Orlando. With the US now having even more to prove, as they look to show that the Canada result was an anomaly and not the new norm, they’ll probably have plenty up their sleeve as well. 

Up Next: Canada vs USA, Friday, November 15th, 2019 (Exploria Field, Orlando)

Cover Photo by: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer