With Canada’s 4-1 loss against the US now behind us, we take a step back and break down how the game went from a tactical standpoint, as the US bounced back nicely from Canada’s tactical dominance in October.
It was a sobering reality check for many.
After Canada pulled off the historic upset a month prior, things came crashing back to earth on Friday, as the US won handily down in the comfortable confines of Orlando. Despite Canada only needing a draw to advance to the CONCACAF Nations League, they came out aggressively, and it cost them, as they conceded a goal inside 2 minutes. Down 3-0 by half time, they then started to make a serious push towards a comeback, but it proved to be unsuccessful, as the US eventually won 4-1.
Their victory came down to an improved tactical approach by US head coach, Gregg Berhalter, who made amends after getting outwitted up in Toronto. Despite several key absences in important areas of the pitch, Berhalter elected to tweak some of the philosophies that make his approach successful, allowing the US to counter some of the measures installed by Canada to deny them space last time around.
For John Herdman, it was a tough blow to take, because after all the praise he received for nailing his tactics in the first game, his approach came into question once again in this one. The skepticism started early, when it was announced that Canada’s squad would feature Alphonso Davies at left back, as well as the reinsertion of Doneil Henry at centre back, and it continued into the game, especially after 3 backline mixups led to the three first-half goals.
Tactically, it actually ended up a closer game than the scoreline indicated, as Canada’s game plan did work to a certain extent, especially going forward, but the defensive changes Herdman made proved to be too costly to overcome.
Here is how the game shaped up for both teams:
Canada’s backline changes prove costly:
When Canada’s lineup was released, it prompted plenty of questions. How would it play? Who lined up where? What even was the formation?
It ended up being a 4-4-2, with Alphonso Davies at left back, allowing for the insertion of Lucas Cavallini at striker, giving Canada a target man to play off of. Given that they only needed a draw, and their success in a mid-to-low block at home, a similar approach to the 1st game was expected from the Reds.
Instead, they came out in an aggressive manner, electing to play on the front foot from the beginning of the game. They pressed high, which wasn’t a surprise, but they also elected to push their defensive line right up the field. With Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea bombing forward, it left Doneil Henry and Steven Vitoria as the lone options back, which was risky for a team that has struggled with defensive solidity.
It cost them early, as the US forced a turnover off Davies high up the pitch, and threw numbers forward, allowing them to run into the space left open with the full backs so high up the field. While they didn’t score on the initial opportunity, they won a corner, on which they capitalized by catching the Canadians sleeping on a second ball opportunity.
Canada continued to get burned by errors from the backline, as the US scored their second with Canada’s full backs pressed up the field, while the third was a result of sloppy set-piece defending. With Canada’s mid-to-high line, it was costing them in transition moments, as the US capitalized on Canada’s defenders struggling with pace and having to defend while turning. While that isn’t surprising, because as we stated before the game, Canada’s defenders play best with the game in front of them, but it was still hard to see it so ruthlessly exposed as it was.
As seen by the photo below, Canada’s defensive and midfield lines were a lot higher than they needed to be, giving the US transition moments that they were deadly in. Even down 1-0, that would have been a decent result for them, and they could have sat back to pounce on counter-attack opportunities, which they thrive in. Instead, it meant that in the rare opportunities the US did actually get the ball, they were deadly, as the game was perfectly suited for the players that they had on the pitch.
Ultimately, the failings of Canada’s back 4 came down to a couple of factors. Firstly, Canada being so aggressive going forward made them prone to transition moments, which proved to be deadly against their struggling defensive line. Secondly, having a rusty Doneil Henry in over Derek Cornelius, who looked good against the US last time, meant for some iffy moments at the back. Add in Alphonso Davies, who loved to push forward, as well as Richie Laryea, who did the same from the other full back position, and it was a recipe for a defensive disaster.
This clip probably best summarizes Canada’s defensive night, as it was when they conceded their second goal, which was a result of a comedy of errors out of the back.
It starts with a failed Milan Borjan kick, as he was unable to reach a Canadian player with his long ball, giving the US possession. It then resulted in a US counter-attack, as both Davies and Laryea were unable to react to the second ball, allowing the US to immediately attack the space vacated by the high Canadian full backs. Then to top it off, Doneil Henry and Steven Vitoria were unable to properly track the run by Gyasi Zardes, who snuck off the shoulder of Henry to nod home.
A couple of minor errors added up to a conceded goal, which is probably the best way to describe the Canadian defensive performance on a whole, as seen by that clip. Against the US the first time around, Derek Cornelius and Vitoria were solid in their understanding to command the box, Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea offered a balanced full back threat, while Milan Borjan was steady in his distribution. Given those performances, they probably should have stuck together for this game, as it was probably John Herdman’s biggest mistake to separate those who were responsible for the clean sheet in that last game.
The US mix successfully mixed things up:
After his style of play got shut down by Canada last time, credit to Gregg Berhalter, who smartly changed his tactics. After genuine concerns that he would be too stubborn to make some of the changes to avoid Canada jamming the middle, he proved to be flexible, and it helped them massively. He didn’t do it in the way we expected, which would have been to just flood bodies inside when in possession, but what he did do was effective nonetheless.
It wasn’t overly complicated, but it was in fact just shifting to a more direct style of playing the ball forward, ditching the methodic build-up play that Berhalter is known for. While they did try to play through the middle at times, Canada mostly shut down that route, but unlike the 1st time, the US actually had an answer for that Canadian block.
Take this clip below, for example.
This was probably the best example of how they built things up from the back. Faced with the press, John Brooks smartly elected to play the ball over the midfield wall, finding a teammate with a long ball. From there, the US managed to bring down the ball and immediately took advantage of a high Canadian line, forcing them to run back and create a good chance. While they were sloppy with the ball movement, nullifying what could have been an even better chance, they still generated a good opportunity nonetheless.
While their only successful example of this kind of long ball came in the 89th minute, as they took advantage of a really stretched out Canadian side to make it 4-1, it did allow them to get into those wide areas that they love to operate in. The US love to get the ball into positions like the one outlined in the photo below, and as seen by the clip above, they opted to be direct at times to get there.
All things considered, they were actually pretty disappointing offensively on paper, only generating 5 shots on goal, but it was impressive to see the change from how they usually play. With only a short 3 day turnaround for many of the US players (despite many MLS players being in camp for over a week), to see changes that quick was positive from Berhalter’s point of view. While their goals mostly came off Canada’s struggles with marking wide balls and in transition, they were ruthless to capitalize on them, hence a deserved result.
Where they really controlled the game, however, was defensively. After looking passive when they pressed the last game, they opted to be more aggressive when Canada tried to play out of the back, and it worked, as they smartly got Borjan to play the ball out as much as possible. In the 1st Canada game, centre back Cornelius and Vitoria had plenty of time to play the ball up to their midfielders and full backs, allowing them to have some nice moments of interplay up the middle of the pitch. This time, the centre backs Henry and Vitoria had little time to breathe, and it showed, as Canada was often forced into sloppy long balls like the one about to hit in the photo below.
Press aside, the US also found a way to be compact, as they made life difficult for Canada when they did get the ball past that aggressive press. While there were plenty of moments where Canada broke the US midfield block down (more on that later), when the Americans found a way to sit compact without possession, they mostly found success.
Part of what helped was the midfield solidity, as the US made sure to reinforce the middle of the park by playing in either a 4-5-1, or a 4-1-4-1, as seen below. By doing that, it limited space for Canada to play within the midfield, forcing them to operate in wide areas.
While Canada did have some moments where they played through the middle, partly through the fact that they could still overload that area of the pitch due to a 4 man midfield, they weren’t as dominant in that area of the pitch as they were last time.
Canada didn’t actually do that bad in certain areas:
Despite the scoreline, one thing became clear when watching the game back: Canada didn’t actually do that bad. They pressed high up the pitch, they once again limited the US in the midfield, and even put together some crisp passing moves, as seen in the clip below.
While they were unable to find the back of the net until it was far too late, they showed that they can still be a top offensive team, with their backline being the only thing that really limited them. They controlled a good chunk of that first half, goals aside, forcing a couple of US turnovers in good areas on the pitch.
Part of that came down to an effective 4-4-2 press, as Herdman and Canada stuck with what worked against the US last time. While the US was able to bypass that at times with long balls, as we saw earlier, they were often stifled when they tried to stick with building up slow, as Canada were relentless in their pressure.
Look at this sequence above, as an example. While it’s hard to exactly see, Canada was in an aggressive 4-4-2, with Jonathan David immediately pushing onto John Brooks. With Scott Arfield ready to pounce on a pass to the full back, and Mark Anthony Kaye sitting in the middle, it left the US to go long in this case, giving the ball right to the Canadian defenders.
They managed to press the US whenever they got the ball at the back, making life hard for the defenders, causing a few uncomfortable passes out of the back, such as the one below.
In this example, we see a high Canadian press once again, this time right from kick-off. Despite the fact that the US started with the ball, Canada’s forwards shot forward immediately, forcing a long ball that switched possession into Canada’s hands. There were several instances of that in the first half especially, as Canada kept up the pressure despite the early deficit, but they were just unable to pounce on some of those opportunities, as the US stood strong, even smartly fouling to stop counterattacks if needed.
Revisiting the key battles:
Before the game, we looked at some battles to watch, as we underlined 3 possible duels that would shape the game. Much like the 1st matchup, we stated that whoever won at least 2 of these battles would probably win the game, and alas, much to our surprise again, that formula proved to be true, with the US managing to come out on top in 2 of 3 battles Friday.
Here are those battles, and how they shaped up, in shortish blurbs for each point.
Midfield Showdown Part 2: Advantage Canada
After Canada thoroughly dominated proceedings in this area of the park last time around, it was unsure how the US would exactly react, as they seemed unable to have an answer for the relentless Canadian midfield press the 1st time around. To no one’s surprise, Canada stuck with their midfield 4, and they were effective, pressing smartly and playing the ball around nicely. 2 of the goals conceded early were off set-pieces, and the 3rd was a giveaway from the backline, so overall the Canadian midfielders didn’t do as bad as it originally looked from first viewing.
Credit to the US, on the other hand. While they didn’t win the battle, it was for strategic reasons, as they smartly bypassed the middle when possible. In most cases, that would have lost them the game, but considering how effective they were in the other two important areas of the pitch, it didn’t cost them at all, as evidenced by the scoreline.
The US defensively vs Canada in transition: Advantage USA
This was always going to be a swing battle between these teams. How high would the US press? Would they be able to cope with a Canadian transition threat that included speedsters Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies?
The answer to that second question would be a resounding yes for the US , as while they were helped by the fact that Davies was at left back, David and new running mate Lucas Cavallini were unable to take advantage of space in transition. With Canada coming out so aggressively, despite only needing a draw, it allowed the US to sit back and counter, which worked marvellously for them, as they took advantage of a struggling Canadian backline while also nullifying Canada’s transition threat.
US wingers vs Canada full backs: Advantage USA
Most importantly, winning the battle above allowed the US to thrive in this dual, which was getting Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris (along with Sergino Dest!) into space against Canada’s full backs. With Canada pushed so high up the pitch, it allowed the US wingers plenty of space to operate in, especially when Canada’s full backs got caught up the field on giveaways such as the one that led to the 2nd goal.
The US loves to get their wingers involved no matter the circumstance, so with Canada gifting them all that space to pounce into, it was no surprise to see them have the joy that they did on Friday. Canada shot themselves in a foot in that sense, and given that the US already loved to get the ball to the wing anyways, seeing an outcome like this was not overly shocking.
Before we wrap things up completely, here are some takeaways for Canada heading into 2020, a year that looks to be massive for their ‘road to 2022’. While this loss was a tough outcome, much like the Haiti game over the summer, Canada has an opportunity to derive the positive moments from this match. It hurts to have to go through these learning moments, especially with all that’s been at stake in these games, but teams do have to lose sometimes before they win, so hopefully they can take some of these things into their next camp.
Back-to-Front approach needed:
If anything is clear from these two US games, it’s that Canada absolutely needs to prioritize a back to front approach. They did so in the 1st game, and it worked marvellously, so seeing them change from that was quite the surprise.
While Canada can’t control that their defenders aren’t ‘top tier’, what they can control is how they deploy them, allowing them to play from positions of strength. What that means is that they need to employ a mid-to-low block, with a midfield shield allowing them to let the game come to them, instead of being forced to play in transition.
Steven Vitoria, Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry all play best when they get to set up well underneath the ball, so that should be absolutely prioritized over being on the front foot. Canada’s attackers and midfielders are talented enough to generate offence when sitting back, so they won’t be impacted by a change, and Canada will only benefit from setting up their defenders to succeed.
And unless the speedy Fikayo Tomori somehow commits to Canada by next year, there should be no reason to change that approach. They’ve been burned by the US and Haiti when playing high lines, so it’s just best that they return to a lower set-up, and things should get better in the long run.
Set-Pieces need work:
This is also a big piece of contention from the last game, as Canada was unable to deal with set-pieces, costing them big time. While they were good in the 1st game, and have been for the most part, they need to avoid switching off in games like this.
This picture perfectly encompasses what plagued them Friday. Despite the US having possession, Canada’s backline moved forward, despite many US players still being onside, due to Richie Laryea having to block that near-post cross. If they can continue to improve on this part of the game, it’ll go a long way, as many CONCACAF teams thrive off those wide balls and set-pieces as their main points of attack.
The attack is alright:
With Vitoria’s goal in the 2nd half, it meant that Canada had managed to score in every game in 2019, a pretty impressive feat. After offence had long been a point of struggle for Canada, they now carry a veritable offensive threat, with the lone problem remaining to sort out other aspects of their game.
Having now scored against Mexico, as well as in both games against the US, it shows that Canada has nothing to worry about offensively. They’ve scored out of the low block, they’ve scored in games where they dominate possession and have scored in games that are somewhere in between.
So if Canada properly prioritizes that back-to-front approach in supporting their backline, ensure that Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are played up front, things will be alright in terms of scoring goals going forward.
A long wait begins now for Canada, who don’t find themselves in action until March, barring a surprise January get together. Given that they rarely do those, don’t count on it, but it would be a nice Christmas gift to see happen.
So until then, keep an eye on the rest of the Nations Leagues games, as Canada still stands to be influenced massively by games such as USA-Cuba and El Salvador-Dominican Republic, so things aren’t completely underwater yet.
After that, it’s back to monitoring Canadian progress in club football, and preparing for a big 2020 year, where Canada is going to need to come up big. The ‘Road to 2022’ continues, with this speedbump now behind them, as they continue on towards their goal of that 2nd ever World Cup berth.
While Canada’s metaphorical bus took a hit, they just need to patch it up and make sure they now avoid that next speedbump, on what is expected to be a long and winding road.
Cover Photo: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer