CanMNT Chalkboard Talk: 3 tactical ideas Canada Soccer should carry over from 2019 to 2020

With Canada Soccer’s 2020 Men’s National team slate kicking off with a victory over Barbados this week, we look at some tactical ideas that they should carry over from 2019 to 2020, as they look to take the next step and join the elite of CONCACAF. 

In international football, tactics are a good way to offset deficiencies in talent throughout a team’s squad.

Over the course of 2019, the 2nd year of coach John Herdman’s tenure, Canada’s Men’s National Team started to develop a tactical identity, as they started to show signs of the team they’ll be going forward. Even though a lot of that development came against the likes of minnows Cuba, French Guiana and Martinique, those games gave us an idea of how they might set up in bigger games, and the tinkering has already started to pay off, at least in form of a memorable victory over CONCACAF giants, and rivals, the US, on October 15th at BMO Field. 

While they didn’t fare as well in other big games, falling to Mexico and Haiti in the Gold Cup, before losing the US rematch in Orlando on November 15th, they showed signs of a team that is starting to figure themselves out, which heading into World Cup qualifiers, is good news for supporters of the team. 

Although it would have been hoped the trio of aforementioned losses wouldn’t have made such a dent in those qualifying hopes, thanks to a system in which FIFA’s ranking system has been thrown in, they now loom large. They can still make the Hexagonal, the group of 6 teams granting a possible 3 2022 World Cup spots, by organizing friendly matches between now and June to make up the gap, but if they are unable to, the CONCACAF gauntlet looms. 

They are currently in the process of making up that gap, as they find themselves in the midst of a January camp, in which they’ll play 3 friendlies, giving them a chance to narrow the 15 point gap between them and El Salvador to 9. Ahead of the official FIFA windows in March and June, it would give them a very realistic chance at making up the gap, which would give them a chance of playing with Mexico, the US, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras in a very competitive setting in the fall. 

To get there, they’ll need to play several more huge games, because even though all the games Canada schedule between now and June will be friendlies, there’ll be nothing friendly about them, with each game representing a chance to win or lose crucial points. That’ll mean that Canada will need to bring their A-game night in and night out, be it against the likes of 39th-ranked Iceland, or 162nd-ranked Barbados, two of their opponents in this January camp. 

In order to ensure they’re successful in that endeavour, they will have to take some of what they learned tactically over the past year, as the time for experimenting is starting to come to an end. This team, although young, is starting to know who they are, so it’s now time for them to start growing into the team they want to be, as they look to become the 2nd Canadian men’s team to ever make the World Cup. 

So with experiments such as Alphonso Davies at left back, high defensive lines and playing midfielders out of position all out of the way, here are some tactical decisions done in 2019 that we want Canada to stick with, as they continue their quest towards making the 2022 World Cup. 

Deep Defensive Line

With Canada’s current defensive situation, seeing them come out against the likes of Haiti and the US, both teams with considerable pace in wide areas, with a high line, was certainly questionable both before and after the results. Despite seeing relative defensive success when setting up in a lower line, Canada insisted on going with a high defensive line in those games, and it cost them, in a pair of embarrassing defeats. 

When looking at their defensive personnel, their best centre backs, Derek Cornelius, Doneil Henry and Steven Vitoria, all play at their best when in a more cautious defensive set-up. While Cornelius can also play in an aggressive high line, Henry and Vitoria look at their best when the game comes to them, which is why staying conservative makes sense for Canada.

And then when you factor in Canada’s use of their aggressive full backs, who often push high up the pitch in support of the attackers, it cements the need of having the backline avoiding pushing too far up when Canada has the ball. While they’ll need to still push up at times, especially when Canada needs to recycle possession in chase of a new passing lane, they need to find a way to pick those spots better, avoiding wandering up when Canada isn’t in complete control of the play, such as in this clip below.

As seen when they beat the US the first time out, it is possible to defend deep and still put together composed passing moves, but it’ll just take tactical discipline. With their midfield and forwards being as strong as they are, the centre backs don’t have to push up so far when in possession, as they can instead take the time to sit back, preparing for transition moments such as the one above. 

If they can find that balance, as they did at BMO Field on October 15th, things should be less shaky on the defensive side. A new defensive saviour would help, preferably a mobile one, but until that comes, they’ll need to sit deep, and even if he does come one day, it’s hard to see Canada moving beyond a mid line, due to the use of their full backs.

One name to watch, amongst names in the fold, is Amer Didic, the hulking FC Edmonton man. He’s got the attributes John Herdman desires in a centre back, as he can play comfortably with the ball at his feet, but can still move despite his size, which would facilitate a shift towards a mid line. He’ll surely get a chance in this January camp, and with a possible move to MLS seeming possible, he could quickly throw his name into the starting hat with a strong performance or two in the coming weeks.

Elsewhere, Martin Amuz is another one to watch, as the 22-year-old Uruguayan and Canadian dual-national has started to make waves playing for Danube in Uruguay. At 6’1’’, he appears to be a rather mobile defender, one that could complement the left-footed Derek Cornelius nicely, with Amuz being a right-footed player.

Either way, the low-to-mid line should stay, no matter who slots in. In CONCACAF, a region bereft of fast tricky wide players, they’ll want to avoid getting torched like they did in the Haiti and US games, which Canada played directly into with their offensive strategies with their aggressive defensive mindset.  

Midfield Play

Part of what makes a low line feasible is Canada’s midfield situation, as they have one of the deepest midfield pools in all of CONCACAF. While it’s been a challenge for Herdman to find a way to use some of those midfielders, which led to experiments such as Mark Anthony Kaye at left back, along with Atiba Hutchinson at centre back, it appears they’ve started to find solutions to their conundrum. 

Besides just biting the bullet and leaving some quality midfielders to come off the bench when they play in a 4-3-3, one solution has been to play in a 4-4-2 with 4 central midfield players, a concept that was tested rather successfully against the US. Thanks to their numerical superiority, Canada’s quartet of midfielders were overwhelming that evening, helping will Canada to a 2-0 result. 

And even though it didn’t pan out as hoped in the 2nd US game, it wasn’t because of the midfield, who put in a solid shift, forcing the US to adapt their usual game plan. Had Canada not played the high defensive line with Alphonso Davies at left back, they could have limited some of the damage done to them in Orlando, at least avoiding the pain of a 4-1 scoreline.

By going with a 4 man midfield, it solidifies Canada defensively, as well, especially when they’re sat in that deeper line. Samuel Piette, Atiba Hutchinson and Stephen Eustaquio are all hungry ball winners, which gives Canada an extra edge defensively, as it gives much-needed support to their central defenders, especially when the full backs venture forward. 

At the same time, they’re still in good hands offensively, thanks to Mark Anthony Kaye, arguably one of Canada’s top performers in 2019. He uses his length very smartly to disrupt things defensively, but he also transitions the ball supremely well, as he has one of the best passing ranges in the squad. With Kaye’s backup, Liam Fraser, also proving to be a good option to fit in that role, while Stephen Eustaquio has also shown to be a good destroyer and transitional combo player, it gives Canada plenty of depth to ensure they keep defensive solidity, without sacrificing anything offensively.

Along with Scott Arfield and Jonathan Osorio, both two very active #10s, it reinforces Canada in the midfield from a defensive standpoint, with how both players press the ball being one of the best attributes they have in their lockers. You throw in Arfield’s ability to pick a killer pass, and Osorio’s strong shot-creation instincts, and they also make things happen offensively, complimenting the forwards nicely. 

While having Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David to round out the front two means no Lucas Cavallini, having the strong overlapping presence from the 2 full backs ensures the attack doesn’t suffer in numbers as a result of the bigger forward’s absence. With Davies and David both able to run from deep positions and play in possession, they are versatile enough to play in a front two, and at the same time, bringing in a hungry Cavallini to defenders already tired from dealing with the pace and shiftiness of Davies and David isn’t the worst option to have off of the bench. 

With Canada forced to come up with ways to offset their defensive woes, using the strength of their midfield is a good way to help that area of the pitch, while also keeping some tooth to their attack. With Davies, Kaye, David, Osorio and Arfield all being good transition players, it allows them to sit back and absorb pressure, but if needed, they can all play with the ball, allowing for versatility. 

When in possession, the shot below is an ideal picture of how you’d want them to set up. Full backs high, centre backs not too high, while the midfield stretches out the other team, with the forwards ready to pounce.

And then without the ball, it’s time to bunker up. 

The Press

Another way to ensure that the Canadian defenders remain well-protected is by continuing to press high, something Canada did quite well last year, as Davies, David, Hoilett and Cavallini can all press smartly from the front, while Arfield and Osorio are both excellent at being secondary press options. By pressing high, it forces the defenders to either play long, which usually benefits the defending team, or try to play around the back, which also helps the defenders, as it allows a team to return to a strong defensive posture after losing the ball. 

While there are also offensive benefits to pressing high, such as generating turnovers, the advantage Canada gains from it comes mostly on the defensive side. If they can limit turnovers too close to their own goal, which plagued them in Orlando, they have the personnel to press ferociously up the pitch, which can cause turnovers and protect their defenders. 

They’ll have to adapt how they press based on the team, as throwing 4 players forward when pressing a 4-2-4 might work against a Costa Rica, but could easily get destroyed against a Mexico, who have shown to play through high presses rather easily. 

Against a Costa Rica, who play well with the ball but don’t have the speed in transition to kill Canada, pressing high could force them to abandon their game plan and go long or overplay the ball, which benefits Canada, whereas only putting 2 against Mexico would be smart, as it would mostly be to allow Canada to reset themselves into staunch defensive positioning. 

But either way, don’t discount the importance pressing has for Canada, especially defensively. They have some excellent pressers of the ball, and as they’ve shown in games when they push up the field, it can give teams fits. You throw in the time it can quickly buy them in order to reset their defensive posture, along with the potential to catch a team out with a turnover, ensuring they continue to do it will be beneficial. 

And finding that balance will be key. In the first US game, they pressed high, and it worked, with the US trying so badly to build up from the back, as seen by the shot below.

But at the same time, they still adjusted in the 2nd US game, with the US attempting to stretch things out more. Instead of going full kamikaze again, Canada sent fewer numbers forward, and it worked, as they didn’t get caught out when the US had to start from the back. 

If they can find a way to limit those turnovers in the middle of the pitch, which against teams like the US and Haiti, killed them, they should be in better shape defensively. When teams have to play through their press and midfield, Canada has shown to be solid, but to avoid getting burned in transition, they’ll have to find a way to keep a conservative defensive approach, without sacrificing offensive support and limiting turnovers. 

Looking Forward

We’ll start to see how committed Canada is to these changes very soon, starting with the 2 games left in this January camp. While the first Barbados game wasn’t televised, it appeared they embraced some of these ideas, at least if their 4-4-2 set-up was to indicate anything. 

They have the pieces to compete in this region, they just need to now find a way to put it all together, which is going to come down to the coaching staff. After showing flashes last year, on top of the lessons they’ve endured, they now need to show that they learned from these mistakes, as they look to avoid being a cautionary tactical tale to recount in the future. 

In a big year for World Cup qualifying, the margin of error is slimming, at least for those teams wanting to make it that far. While Canada is set up for the longer term, with plenty of young faces in the team, they have as good as a short-term shot as they’ve had in recent memory to get that far, so they’ll want to avoid adding this team to the list of the ‘what-ifs?’ and ‘if only’s’ seen over the decades. 

As seen with the big victory against the US, they have the potential to make some noise, now they just got to find a way to make that noise on a more consistent basis, allowing them to wake up some of the giants of the CONCACAF region.

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Liza Rosales

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