Tactical Tinkering: 3 tactical tweaks for the CanMNT to focus on during their upcoming World Cup qualifiers

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team will take the field in a competitive setting for the first time in nearly 18 months later this week, as they get set to kick off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign. In this, we look at some tactical tweaks to focus on during these games, as they continue their quest to build their identity at the senior level. 

Seeing how long the road is, they’re going to have to be at their best to avoid any slip-ups. 

With CONCACAF’s 2022 Men’s World Cup qualifiers kicking off this week, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is looking to turn some heads during these games, as they look to return to the World Cup for the first time in 35+ years. 

To do that, they’re going to have to be at their very best, starting this week, as these qualifiers promise to be a grinding process. If they’re going to make the World Cup, they’ll have to play a minimum of 20 competitive qualifiers to get that far, winning a grand majority of them. 

But before they look too far ahead, that’ll mean that they’ll have to take things one step at a time, starting with these first two games. With this new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format, they currently find themselves in Round 1 of the process, in which they’ll need to top a 5-team group comprised of Bermuda, Suriname, Aruba and the Cayman Islands, allowing them to advance to Round 2, a two-legged series where a spot in the final round, the Octoganal, is on the line. 

Focusing on these first two games, however, Canada has two stiff tests in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands awaiting them, in which they’ll need to pick up 6 crucial points. They’re expected to win these games quite comfortably, especially when looking at their squad for these games, but on the other hand, if you know anything about CONCACAF, you’ll know that anything can happen in this region. 

So for Canada to win, they’ll have to be at their very best tactically, something that hasn’t always been the case for them in recent years under head coach John Herdman. They’ve had their moments of brilliance in that department, such as the near-flawless execution of their gameplan in a 2-0 win over the US in October of 2019, but they’ve also had their slip-ups, including their not-so-good game-planning in their rematch with the US in November of 2019.   

For a young team still finding its identity, it’s understandable that they haven’t quite yet found the consistency required to be one of the top teams in CONCACAF, but with the pieces that they have at their disposal, you hope that they find it soon. 

That’s why these games are very important in that regard. Not having played together competitively in nearly 18 months, Canada has plenty of catching up to do tactically over the next few windows, starting with their games this week, as they look to build up their identity. 

In this, we’ll look at a few tactics they should specifically focus on in their quest to find that identity, as they look to become a team that opponents fear when they come up against them. 

Invert the wingers and overlap the full backs: 

A big issue that Canada has faced tactically is their play in the final third of the field, as they’ve made a habit of struggling to break down teams that sit deep in a low block. 

Considering that they’re going to be facing a lot of those over the next few years, it’ll be important that they continue to work on ways to break them down when they do face them. 

One such way to do that would be by finding a way to mix up the way in which they attack low blocks, with the goal being to find ways to get defenders to overcommit, opening up space in certain pockets to operate in. 

With Canada having some pretty good midfielders, ones who can pick out passes, they need to find a way to get those players on the ball as close to the opponent’s net as possible, allowing them to pick out their teammates with passes. 

By tucking the wingers inside, while sending the full backs forward, that would free up plenty of that desired space in the middle. Canada has good attacking full backs, such as Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe, among others (Alphonso Davies included), so by getting them forward, teams would be forced to spread out in order to mitigate that threat. 

If they do that, space all of a sudden opens up in the midfield, which is great for Canada, as that’s what they wanted in the first place. 

Here is a quick example of how that could work. In the diagram below, Canada (in red) has the ball in their usual 4-3-3, with their opponents sitting in a low block.

For the opponents in the low block, their goal will be to keep their two banks as tight as possible, making it hard for Canada to break through the lines. 

So for Canada, their goal has to be to break through those lines wherever possible. The best option is to play forward if possible, but if a team is well set-up, that’s easier said than done. 

In that case, the goal then has to be to move the ball laterally, forcing the lines to shift, possibly opening up space in between them. That’s where the wingers tucking in and the full backs overlapping comes in, as it gives the defenders more to focus on. 

Here’s an example, as Canada’s #11 cuts in, while their left back overlaps, receiving the ball in front of him. 

It might not look like it, but space just opened up in the middle of the park, but now they just need to exploit it. 

A quick pass to #11 could do the trick, as he could either take on the defender 1v1, flick the ball back to the now-open #8, or maybe even try a shot. If not, the full back could pass back to their centre back, allowing them to quickly switch and overlap through the other full back, who will have space opening up for him after this sequence. Lastly, the #10 could quickly drop into space and receive the ball, allowing him to quickly play the ball to the #8 in that pocket of space in the midfield. 

Plus, those are just the options that involve releasing the ball. If open, the full back could also just either attack the defender 1v1 or whip in a cross, taking advantage of the 3v3 that was created at the back post by this sequence. 

There are risks in this sort of attacking play, as it can leave teams vulnerable on the counter-attack, but to combat that the defensive midfielder would drop back in between the centre backs if needed, while only one full back would push forward at a time. 

And from a personnel-related perspective, it makes sense for Canada to do this. Canada has plenty of wingers who prefer to tuck inside, such as Junior Hoilett, Alphonso Davies, and even Cyle Larin, who’s a striker by trade but has been playing as an inverted winger/inside forward of sorts for Besiktas this season. You add in someone who isn’t even in this camp like Jonathan David, who can also play as an inverted winger, and it really shows Canada’s depth there.

Along with those attacking-minded full backs, who will provide the width that the inverted wingers will no longer offer when they cut in, and there should be a formula for this to work. 

With all of the talent that Canada has up front, in midfield and at full back, they need to find a way to play through them as much as possible offensively, and this is one such way that they can do that. 

The famed mid-to-low block: 

But as mentioned earlier, there are risks to throwing bodies forward, especially defensively. 

For Canada, that is a bit of worry, as they don’t have the most speed at centre back, sometimes leaving them open to get beat on the counter. 

To make up for that, they need to find a way to employ a mid-to-low block, one that allows them both to be cautious and aggressive defensively depending on where the ball is. 

And by mid-to-low block, here’s what that means. 

First, we have the mid-block, which is employed when the opponents are deeper in their own half with the ball, such as in the diagram below. Since Canada defends in a 4-4-2, that is the shape they’re in here.  

In that case, since Canada are able to press with both strikers (and the wingers if needed), the defensive line can be slightly more aggressive, as it’d be nearly impossible for them to be caught out with a ball over the top here. 

But if the ball is progressed over to someone who can play that ball, that’s where they need to drop back, such as in the diagram below. 

By shifting between those two lines depending on where the ball is, Canada can still press certain areas of the field, while also being wary of that ball over the top. 

This obviously doesn’t cover what happens when Canada is in possession and loses the ball, which is a worry as Canada’s defenders would still be high up the field, but in the instances where that does happen, Canada’s midfielders and forwards would just have to counter-press hard enough to buy time for their defensive line to recover. 

Plus, considering that most goals in games are actually scored in those few moments after losses of possession, the onus there would be more on making sure Canada doesn’t lose the ball in dangerous areas, instead of how they necessarily defend in transition, as that’s something teams at all levels struggle with. 

But what they need to work on eliminating is cheap goals wherever possible, and the best such way to do that would be by employing a mid-to-low block as soon as they lose possession. 

By doing that, they’d be playing to the strengths of most of their centre backs in their player pool, and considering that it’s probably the biggest area of weakness in their squad, it’s the one position that they have to put the most work into maximizing. 

Build-up play is crucial: 

Lastly, Canada will want to work on their play in terms of how they build things up from the back, as it’s something they’ve spent a lot of time working on under Herdman, and is something that they’ll probably continue to work on considering how big of a role it’s starting to play in the modern game. 

Especially now with the rule change from a few years ago that allows defenders to go into their own box on goal kicks, teams are insistent on being able to build up through the back, electing to maintain possession instead of just launching the ball up for a 50/50 further up the pitch. 

There are risks to doing so, of course, as one mistake in building things up from the back and the ball is probably in the back of your net, but considering that it can also be a way to suck in opponents in order to free up your players up the field, it’s a high-risk, high reward proposition. 

So for Canada, they need to find a way to continue and work on that, especially considering the speed that they can employ on the wings and up front. 

One key player in terms of helping them do this has to be Mark Anthony Kaye, as he does a lot of this for LAFC at the club level already, so Canada will need to find a way to play through him, allowing him to progress the ball both through his dribbling and passing. 

From there, if they can find Kaye in the pockets between their opponents’ press, they should be able to get into some dangerous areas on the break, allowing them to create chances. With someone like Alphonso Davies on the wing, if Kaye can find him in transition when building up from the back, Canada will more often than not profit from that sort of move.

It’s all going to be easier said than done, but given the pieces that Canada has at their disposal, they need to get their players such as Davies on the ball in transition moments whenever possible, and this is one such way to do that.

Considering that they won’t be really able to press as feverishly due to their defensive situation, this will probably be one of the best ways for them to do that aside from sitting deep and bunkering, which they’ll probably only have to do against a handful of CONCACAF teams. 

Getting Alphonso Davies on the ball has to be a priority for Canada. Building up play through the back is one such way to do that (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

Looking Forward: 

So look for them to try and instill these philosophies in these upcoming games against Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Given that both teams are more known for sitting back and absorbing pressure, Canada will be given plenty of opportunities to keep the ball and try to break them down, allowing them to work both on playing out of the back and playing through a deep block. 

At the same time, they’ll also be able to continue and work on their defensive play, especially against Bermuda, who can offer up a threat on the transition. 

They probably won’t be tested defensively that much right away, but any sort of work they do now in that area will pay off in the long term, where stiffer opposition awaits them. 

As they look to build a tactical identity, they’ll have to take any opportunity possible to work on such philosophies, starting with these matches. 

Looking at their roster, they’ve got the potential to be a team that keeps possession, breaks down teams and torches teams on transition, but to do that, they’ve also got to make sure that they’re solid defensively, hence the mid-to-low block. 

Herdman seems to recognize this, having worked on these things during the last time Canada played games at the senior level, so it’ll be interesting to see how much focus they put on these things during these two games and beyond. 

Up Next: Canada vs Bermuda, Thursday, April 25th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT (Exploria Stadium, Orlando) 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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