After a strong start to their CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying campaign last Friday, Canada suffered through a frustrating 0-0 draw with Haiti on Monday, putting them at 4 points after 2 matchdays. Here’s what stood out from that one, as Canada will look to bounce back ahead of their final group stage game versus Honduras on Thursday.
On the back of a strong start to the tournament, they came back down to earth a bit in this one.
Riding the waves of a big 2-0 win over El Salvador in their opener of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers, Canada’s Men’s U23 National Team was hoping to make it 6 points from 6 to start this tournament versus Haiti on Monday.
But despite an early push from Les Rouges, they’d be forced to eventually settle for a draw in this one, leaving them with 4 points out of 6 so far for them down in Mexico.
And while they’ll feel satisfied heading into their third and final match of the group stage, as their destiny still remains firmly in their own hands, they’ll rue their missed opportunities in this one, especially given the fact that a win would’ve all but seen them qualify for the semi-finals of this tournament.
But to give credit to Haiti, they were excellent in this game, even despite being down to only 16 players (and no backup goalkeeper). They’re a team that knows how to bunker down deep and stifle their opposition, making it tough for opponents to break them down, and they did that on Monday.
So in a sense, it shouldn’t have been that surprising to see Canada struggle in this one, as they’re a team that thrives in transition, which is something that Haiti mostly made sure to deny them of at every opportunity.
Now, Canada will look to get back to the drawing board ahead of Thursday, when they’ll take on Honduras in a pivotal game down in Mexico, one where a win would guarantee that they would top the group ahead of the ‘win and you’re in’ semi-finals, where seeding is so pivotal.
Until then, however, they’ll be sure to look back at what stung them in this one, and make sure that they avoid making these same mistakes as their quest to make the Olympics continues this week.
For Canadian fans, you can’t help but feel a bit of ‘deja vu’ in this one, as Canada once again struggled against a Haiti side that famously shocked them at the senior level back in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Gold Cup.
While this game wasn’t as dramatic as in that one, where Haiti turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win, Haiti showed off a lot of the same tactical principles, as they were stout in defence and lethal in transition.
In the first half, Canada managed the Haitian storm quite well, but in the second half, when the heat and tired legs started to play a role, Haiti woke up and started to dominate the game, creating several five-alarm chances that James Pantemis had to be alert to in the Canadian goal.
You do wonder if the substitutes could’ve been better managed, with Canada only making 4 out of their 5 subs, as they could’ve used some fresh legs in the second half, but either way, you do have to give credit to Haiti for their late push. They’ve been undermanned this tournament, yet they’ve battled hard in both games, with the 1 point they’ve gotten so far definitely not indicative of their play as a whole.
It’s too early to say that Haiti’s a bogey team for Canada quite yet, as it’s only been two games at two different levels, but it’s more indicative of some systemic issues that need to be worked on by Canada, including their ability to break down low blocks, defend in transition and manage the heat.
Against El Salvador, they avoided those problems, scoring 2 early goals, allowing them to better manage the game, something they failed to do in this one. Yes, El Salvador doesn’t have the same threat in transition as Haiti, but it shows the importance of scoring an early goal, as it really allows you to dictate the game, something Canada did really well in their opener, but struggled to do in this one.
With a tough Honduras side up next, they’ll have to make sure to find a way to control proceedings early in that game, because they could be in for a long evening if they don’t.
A lack of pressure:
And a big reason why Canada struggled to control the game was because they didn’t apply enough pressure on Haiti, allowing the Caribbean side to be way too comfortable in possession.
Seeing Haiti’s shorthanded roster, Canada should’ve absolutely put more pressure on them via their press, which was mostly non-existent after being quite active versus El Salvador.
To be fair, Haiti was a lot more direct than El Salvador, making it harder to press them, but in the few moments Canada did initiate pressure, Haiti struggled to play through it, especially in the second half.
If they are to control play in future games, they’ll have to find a way to apply more pressure without the ball than they did in this one, forcing their opponents to adapt to their playstyle, instead of vice versa.
Possession without penetration:
But while Canada didn’t press as much as they maybe should’ve, they did still control 56% of the ball, so it’s not like they didn’t have a chance to take over the game offensively.
Much like they did against El Salvador, however, they failed to progress the ball forward consistently, and when they did, they often made the wrong decision in the final third.
What’s most frustrating about that is that Canada actually initiated some really nice sequences of play by going through the middle, but they’d follow that up by just lumping the ball forward the next time they got the ball, which is something that’s almost never going to work against a low block defensively.
Asked about his team’s possession struggles after the game, Biello mentioned that his team was trying to target the middle whenever possible, allowing them to move around Haiti’s defence.
So even though they didn’t do it as much as possible, at least it was something they recognized, and will want to do more of in future games.
“Yeah, I think in the first half, I think there was some good actions,” Biello said. “We were finding that we overloaded the middle and really tried to combine in the middle to find spaces out wide, got some good crosses and good opportunities from that, we just didn’t take our chances. I think they were extremely low, compact and athletic, right, so the spaces they closed really quick, but in the end, I think if we were a bit better in the final third, in that final cross or pass were finished. I think we could have deserved better.”
That possession play wasn’t without risk, as they gave up space in transition, however, which is something that Biello will be sure to focus on ahead of their next game.
“In the second half they grew,” he continued. “They were able to hurt us a little bit in transition in a couple moments, and we got stretched and kind of shifted the momentum in their favor for a bit, so these are things that happen in a tournament and we’ve just got to learn from it and collect the points and get ready for Honduras.”
But while Canada thought they played well through the middle, why did they try to play so many long balls forward?
It’s an interesting question, especially when you study the nature of those long balls.
With 6’4” Theo Bair on the field, you could’ve maybe understood a few long balls to him up top, allowing him to suck in defenders to open up space for a flick-on, but instead, most of the long balls went to Canada’s wide players such as Charles Andreas Brym and Tajon Buchanan.
As expected, with Haiti sitting deep, those didn’t really work, so you do have to wonder why Canada targeted that as a supposed Haitian weakness heading into this one.
“Sometimes, they had a high line and we wanted to create a double movement, one who receives the ball and one who reacts and plays off of him,” Biello said in French when asked about the tactic. “Unfortunately our quality of passes wasn’t there today, too many balls failed to find their targets, and we need to fix that.”
“We had a few moments where if our balls were better, we could’ve gotten Buchanan in behind with his movements, so it’s something we need to fix.”
So for Canada, the focus has to be now to work on turning their possession into quality chances, because if not, they’ll be in tough against Honduras on Thursday, as well as the US or Mexico on Sunday, if they make it that far.
Finish your chances:
Lack of quality chances aside, Canada did still have a few glorious opportunities to win this game, with none better than the 91st-minute attempt from Ballou Tabla, who was set up by Tajon Buchanan right in front of the goal, but he was denied by Haiti’s Alan Jerome in goal.
To give credit to the goalkeeper, it was an excellent save, but Tabla should’ve been shown more conviction with the attempt, burying the ball without too much thought.
Considering that they’re yet to concede through 2 games, they only seem to need 1 or 2 goals to snatch a result, so while it’d be good if they created more quality chances, it’s not like they need an egregious amount of goals to win.
For better or for worse, they’ve got a style of play that allows them to fight for these tight results, but with how fine the margins can be with a style of play like that, being more clinical with the chances that they do get could go a long way in the next game(s).
Pantemis saves the day:
But while a lot of the talk will be about Canada’s lack of offensive punch, it’s worth highlighting the play of the defence, as aside from a 10 minute period in the second half, they were solid once again in this one.
Leading the way, however, was James Pantemis in goal, as he was outstanding to close out this game, making 4 saves, all of them five-alarm ones.
Had they conceded a goal, they would’ve been in massive trouble, so credit to Pantemis for his performance in this one, allowing Canada to keep the tie.
Heading into this tournament, it wasn’t sure if he’d start in goal or not, but he’s quickly put those thoughts to rest, showcasing Canada’s improved depth in goal at all levels of their National Team program.
“Yeah, fantastic game for James,” Biello said of his goalkeeper. “He came up big for us in those moments, and that’s what all great goalkeepers do, is be able to make that key save and those right moments and today they had a couple of good chances that he was able to bail us out.”
“Credit to the other keeper, he made a couple of saves also on their end, but in terms of the program now we’ve got a good depth of goalkeepers in Canada at the moment, from the top to the bottom and it’s exciting for this country to see how many good keepers are coming up through the ranks.”
And while Pantemis will steal the headlines, and rightfully so, it’s worth highlighting the play of his two centre backs in front of him, as they were both pretty good for the most part.
Derek Cornelius finished with 2 tackles and 6 interceptions/aerial duels won, both highest on the team, while David Norman Jr, who’s a midfielder by trade, had 5 interceptions/aerial duels won.
Considering that Canada’s biggest struggles in these sorts of tournaments are usually on the defensive end of things, having Pantemis in goal, as well as rocks in front of him in Derek Cornelius and whoever he’s paired with, could give them an advantage in the bigger game(s) that await them.
“All-in-all I think it’s been great so far,” Pantemis said of his defenders after the game. “Everybody’s working hard, we’re all working for each other and that’s something that we’ve established at the back as a unit together to make sure we got our backs whether one makes a mistake, because it can happen, right.”
Until the players in front of them find a way to create more chances, they’ll have to be close to perfect for Canada to win, so it’ll be interesting to see if Pantemis and his defenders can continue to build off of the strong start they’ve had to this tournament.
Similar to what we did the last match, here are the stats that we tracked for this game, giving a better idea of where Canada was succeeding/struggling on Monday.
|Player||Saves||Goals||Assists||Key Pass||Tackles||Interceptions/Aerial Duels won||Blocks|
So now, Canada will try to get as much rest as they can in the next two days, before taking on Honduras on Friday, in what will be a massive game for them in their quest to make the Olympics.
Seeing that a win would give them that all-important top spot in their group, that has to be the focus for them heading into that one, knowing that it should give them an advantage in a theoretical semi-final matchup.
Having started strongly against El Salvador, they’ll want to return to how they played in that first game, showing that this Haiti game was a blip on the radar, not a sign of things to come.
It won’t be easy, as Honduras is never an easy opponent, but they’ll still be confident in their chances of doing so.
As long as they stick to their game plan, continue to defend as they have so far and find some more offence, there’s a recipe to compete with there.
Finding it is a whole other matter, but they’ve shown to have it in them in flashes, they just need to channel that into longer periods of sustained success, starting on Thursday.
Looking Forward: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, March 25th, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Guadalajara, Mexico)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer