After a rocky defensive outing at this summer’s Gold Cup, where a meltdown against Haiti denied them an opportunity to take on Mexico, Canada has shown strong defensive improvements these past few months. What has changed? In this one, we set out to answer that question.
Defence wins championships.
It’s an age-old adage, but it is one that still holds value today, as defending remains an integral part of being successful in football. While teams can still run rampant with a high-flying offensive game, keeping a tidy backline goes a long way, especially against teams that can pack a punch going forward.
For the Canadian Men’s National Team, it’s a conundrum they have set out to solve, as their defence has been a big question mark for them this year. Despite having some top young attacking talent, they quite don’t have the same star power on the defensive end of the field, and it’s been cited as the reason that Canada struggled at the Gold Cup this past summer.
Bouncing back from the Gold Cup
It led to a tense couple of months for Canada Soccer, as questions loomed for this fall’s Nations League campaign, especially after it was announced that these games would have an impact on World Cup qualifying. After suffering a second-half defensive collapse in the Gold Cup quarter-finals against Haiti, many wondered how Canada would improve itself defensively ahead of these US games, especially after some unfortunate comments by Herdman in late July.
“We conceded three goals against Mexico, that’s never good enough,” Herdman said during a Toronto FC clash in late July. “And then three goals against Haiti, you start to look at where those errors occur and what are the challenges. In those games, we’re scoring goals, so there’s a real clarity now in what we have to fix”
“Some of it is around the tactical identity and just making sure that we bring more balance to either the midfield or the frontline that can support the back 4. Because, if you put in on paper, it’s a Tier 3 back four and a Tier 1 front four in CONCACAF.”
Those comments caused a bit of an uproar, understandably so, as it appeared that Herdman had thrown several of his players under his bus on TV for no good reason. While he later backed up those comments, clarifying that the tier system was based on the level the players played at, and not their individual abilities, it set a bad tone for this Nations League campaign.
“I’ve got a back 4 that doesn’t get regular minutes, that are young, and haven’t really made their mark on the international stage, or even domestic stage, yet” Herdman continued on that broadcast. “So that takes time. We have to buy that time”
“But you don’t get time at the international level. You’ve genuinely got to now try and find some ways of protecting some of those weaknesses and making sure that we can give those younger players the opportunity that they need.”
Recent defensive improvements
3 months and 3 games later, Canada sits on top of their group in Nations League play with 9 points, after beating Cuba home and away, before recently dispatching the US at home. Most impressive about their results were that they came on the back of a solid defensive record, as they are yet to concede a goal over 270 minutes.
While keeping clean sheets over Cuba was basically a given, considering their lack of offensive talent, shutting down the US was huge. Against attacking talents such as Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Jordan Morris, DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie, Canada limited them to only 3 shots on target, all part of a pretty impressive display from Les Rouges.
It was a proud moment for Herdman, as it took a complete team performance to achieve those results, showing that some of the work done by his team since his summer comments had paid off.
“I mean that’s the sort of pride when you think about what we put together out there, how strong they stood to keep a clean sheet,” Herdman said after the US victory. “And with this man (Milan Borjan) behind them, who stood up big in a big moment. I mean, it’s you’re buzzing as a coach when you see guys step into that next level of human performance and then binding them together as a group.”
“So I thought that it was an area we’ve been questioning and we’ve been questioned on, and those guys stepped forward. I think Kamal was still running around the dressing room, so it’s exciting for them,” he jokingly finished.
While their toughest tasks are yet to come, starting with this next game against the US, it showed that Canada can actually defend in big moments. After looking lifeless in the 2nd half against Haiti at the Gold Cup, they were commanding over the course of 90 minutes at BMO Field in October, resulting in a historic victory.
So what changed?
With that in mind, the easy question would be to ask: what actually changed? On paper, it appears that not much has, with Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry still playing a big role at centre back, while Milan Borjan remains the main man in goal. Richie Laryea and Kamal Miller have slotted in as the new full backs, and Steven Vitoria has entered the centre back rotation, but those changes weren’t seen as the kinds of moves that would revitalize the Canadian defensive line.
Yet they have. Despite Miller, Laryea, Cornelius and Henry all playing in MLS, while Vitoria plays for a mid-table 1st division Portuguese side, they have shown a heightened awareness when playing together. In front of Borjan, the experienced keeper still plugging away for a good Red Star Belgrade side, it seems that they have found a defensive recipe that works for them.
“Just the confidence, the confidence we have in each other, we’re communicating throughout the game,” Miller said of his team’s defensive performance after the US victory. “We all had each other’s back. The clean sheet is huge, throughout the week we’ve had meetings, just as all the defenders, in our backpack meetings, and we said clean sheets will win us these games, we know our front guys will get something, so we just got to do our part, and, and they’ll take care of business, so that’s what we did.”
And it’s been exactly that which has changed for Canada since the Gold Cup. After looking scrambly in defensive moments, they seemed to have improved their defensive posture, as they look a unit very-much bought into Herdman’s system. While they don’t have a star like still-eligible Fikayo Tomori in their ranks, the kind of player you build a defensive system around, they have found a way to play into their ‘strength in numbers’ mentality.
Along with their solid midfield, as Mark Anthony Kaye and Samuel Piette have emerged as a deadly 1-2 punch when playing together, along with good pressing from Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield, and it has given Canada a solid defensive base. And while the players have played a big part in asserting themselves defensively, credit to Herdman, who’s system didn’t take a hit despite Kaye leaving the game against the Americans early.
Even though Kaye hobbled off in the 8th minute with a hamstring problem, in stepped Liam Fraser, the young Toronto FC midfielder struggling for minutes at his club. Yet, despite his lack of recent minutes, he ended up being one of the best players on the pitch as he understood his role and played it to a tee. It showed that while the squad has barely changed in these past few months, there has been an increased understanding of how to defend better, which has been refreshing to see from top-to-bottom as this team prepares for bigger and better things.
Part of that comes to more players playing in natural positions, which has meant that experiments such as Kaye or Alphonso Davies playing at left back, or Atiba Hutchinson sliding in as a centre back, have been thrown out the door. Instead, Herdman has focused on putting 11 players in positions where they have shown to be able to succeed, building his system around comfort and the best attributes of his players, and it has shown with their improved defensive cohesion.
“Yeah, I know we try to focus a lot on us,” Derek Cornelius said when asked of his team’s defensive training ahead of the US game. “We know they’re a good team we know they’re good opposition, but I don’t want to get into too much detail about what they’re going to be bringing because we know we’re going to bring our best. And if we bring that, then we’ll be all right.”
So while Canada’s defensive improvements boosted them to a big victory against the US, their job is far from over. The next step? Continuing to build on the foundation they have laid so far, and the next step for that is to show it against the US on Friday. The blueprint has been laid out, they’ve got the players in the positions they need to succeed, so now it’s time to start building some of the things people have long expected to come from the men’s national team in this country.
As they enjoy the spoils so far yielded by having a generation of young attacking talent making waves abroad, it’ll be the work on the defensive end that defines this era, and so far, despite a rocky start, the reviews look positive. With a tough test against the US away from home looming, they’ll get another chance to rock the boat, as they look to finish this Nations League group stage with all 12 points in their pocket. If they are able to do that, it’ll give a big boost heading into 2020.
Defence wins titles, so if Canada keeps the ship steady, their future travels will be expected to have some big stopovers to look forward to.
Up Next: Canada vs USA, Friday, November 15th, 2019, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)
Cover Photo by: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer