Building Blocks: Breaking down Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team’s new tactical identity under Bev Priestman after April friendlies

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team continued their quest to find a new identity under head coach Bev Priestman earlier this month, as they convened for a pair of UK Friendlies against Wales and England, which they won 3-0 and 2-0, respectively. In this, we look at what stood out tactically for Canada in these games, as well as who stood out individually. 

As far as National Team camps can go, it went pretty much to plan and then some. 

Obviously, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team entered the April international break with the aspiration to win both of their scheduled friendlies in their camp, which came against Wales and England. They knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but winning was certainly a goal they had going in, and it was one they definitely wanted to live up to.

More importantly, however, they wanted to continue to grow their identity under new head coach Bev Priestman, who was only heading into her second camp in charge of this Canadian team, after having gotten a first chance to helm the ship during her team’s participation at She Believes Cup back in February. 

So while chasing all 6 points was a goal, the main hope was for Canada to take another step forward tactically during these games, continuing to build off of what their coach had started to put in place at She Believes Cup. 

Well, looking back, it’s safe to say Canada surpassed expectations this camp and then some, as not only did they win both of their games by a combined score of 5-0, but they also played some pretty good football along the way, making this camp a win-win for them. 

Heading into an Olympic year, it wasn’t quite sure where this Canadian team stood after having only hired Priestman in October of last year, making these preparatory games even more valuable. Yes, she came into the Canadian fold boldly promising to podium at that tournament, as any coach of a team the size of Canada would say, but would she actually be able to mould a team that had stagnated in recent years into a side that could medal for the third consecutive Olympic tournament in a row?

From what we’ve seen so far, the answer has quickly become a resounding yes. The Olympics are still a few months away, of course, but Canada already looks like a new team in the few months they’ve had to work under their new coach, making their 5-Ring aspirations look a little more realistic now than they did a few months back. 

They’re playing nice possession-based soccer, pressing high up the pitch and defending tightly and compactly as a unit, allowing them to do something at this April camp that they’d failed to do in over 2 years – win a game against a tier one team, something they finally accomplished when they beat 6th-ranked England in Stoke on April 13th. 

Heading into an Olympic tournament pretty much only filled with tier one teams, Canada was going to have to snap their slump at some point or another to dream of medalling, but for them to get that monkey off of their back well beforehand has to be seen as a positive sign. 

Now, they’ve still got one last opportunity to prepare for Tokyo, as there is an international window in June, one you’d fully expect a team needing some last-minute preparation to take advantage of. It’ll be important for a multitude of reasons, as Priestman needs to slowly start to figure out who her 18 best players (16 outfielders and 2 goalkeepers) are at the moment ahead of the summer, while also continuing to stamp her identity on this team. 

But based on what we saw in this April camp, you’d have to feel confident in her ability to do that, especially after seeing Canada’s play against Wales and England, where we finally started to see the confident Canada of old that had started to become a forgotten memory. 

Here’s some of what stood out from those games, including the tactics that Priestman tinkered with, as well as a look at some of the most impressive Canadian players from these games, highlighting what Canada did so well during their time in the United Kingdom. 

Tactical Breakdown:

Tactically, it was fascinating to see Canada’s shape in both games, as they continued to work with Priestman’s preferred 4-3-3, something that they’d started working on at She Believes Cup. 

Against Wales, it was a very aggressive 4-3-3, as they often flooded bodies forward in possession to make it a 3-4-3, but they also maintained a good defensive base when they lost the ball, often sitting with one bank of 4 in front of their goalkeeper, with two further banks of 3 sitting in front of them higher up the pitch. 

The front 3 would then press high up the pitch, while the middle 3 would shift in behind them, based on where their opponents passed the ball to. 

In the England game, which we’ll analyze because we saw more of what the team might look like in Tokyo, they played the same 4-3-3, but it was slightly more cautious in possession, and understandably so, especially considering the opponent. 

They still attacked in a sort of 3-4-3 whenever possible, but the off-ball runners made more calculated risks, as a result, instead of just flying forward at every opportunity. Without the ball, they continued to press pretty aggressively, but they sometimes shifted from the 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2, a move designed to block English midfielders Georgia Stanway and Jordan Nobbs from getting on the ball while facing the Canadian goal. 

To get a visual example of what both tactics looked like, here’s how Canada’s 4-3-3 would press when England had the ball at the back.

And here’s how it turned into a 4-3-1-2 when England tried to feed the ball into their midfielders, as striker Evelyne Viens would tuck back to sit in between Canada’s midfield trio and their two wingers, pouncing at any opportunity to make life tough for Stanway and Nobbs.

Here’s how it looked in motion.

Lastly, we also saw Canada’s full backs play an aggressive role in the press, which happened whenever England tried to play down the flanks, as Ashley Lawrence and Allysha Chapman would push forward to meet the onrushing winger whenever possible. 

Here’s a shot of Chapman doing just that, as she immediately stepped up to meet the ball carrier at the top of the screen, forcing England to eventually recycle possession.

That sort of play from Chapman actually allowed Canada to get their first goal, as a good read from her forced England to restart one of their possessions. From there, Canada continued to press, won back the ball, and then buried their opener after a bit of good awareness from Viens. 

Elsewhere, we just saw Canada be overall more aggressive whenever England got the ball at the back, and there was no better example than that on their second goal.  

Despite losing control of a long ball, Nichelle Prince pressed England’s defenders deep into their box, before catching goalkeeper Karen Bardsley by surprise with a quick slide tackle to double Canada’s lead. 

Long-term, you wouldn’t expect Canada to rely on those sorts of opportunities to consistently win them games, but they’re good examples of what a bit of pressure can do to opponents, so it’s good that they’re starting to be more aggressive high up the field whenever possible. 

As for their offensive game, they went for a much more straightforward approach, as they played in a sort of 3-4-3, one that had the freedom to sometimes become a 2-4-4 when the right moments presented themselves. 

Here’s an example of how they started possession, in a 3-4-3, as Quinn would drop between the centre backs, while the full backs would push up.

And here’s what it would morph into as they’d move up the field, as Quinn would return to midfield, while Jessie Fleming would roam, turning it into a sort of 2-4-4 or 2-5-3, depending on where Fleming chose to go. 

In this case, it turned into more of the latter, but there were several opportunities where it also turned into the former. 

All-in-all, there was overall a lot of flexibility in Priestman’s tactics at both ends of the field, and that should pay off in games going forward, as it’ll be easier for her to tinker with things based on the opponent. 

Against England, a team that’s good through the midfield, Canada looked to stifle that area of the game, but against a team that prefers to profit through wider areas, they could easily shift to a 4-4-2 if the wingers dropped back and Fleming pushed forward, and of course, they still have their 4-3-3, if needed. 

At the other end of the pitch, they’ll be less change tactically, and understandably so, but there are still little tweaks to be made there as well, both in terms of deployment of personnel and where players line up, which will also fluctuate based on the opponent. 

And in the modern game, that’s exactly the sort of thing you want to see from this team, so it’s good to see Canada implement this flexible 4-3-3, which is a big change from the rigid 4-4-2 fans got used to seeing under Kenneth Heiner-Moller. 

Canada’s Shelina Zadorsky and Vanessa Gilles in action against England (Will Palmer/Canada Soccer)

Standout Performers: 

But while Canada’s tactics were fascinating to keep an eye on, there were also a few individual players that really stood out over the course of this camp, which considering that the Olympics are coming up, comes at a great time for them. 

Here are 3 that really stood out, in particular, helping Canada snatch these pair of victories. 

Quinn:

To start off we’ve got Quinn, who was everywhere for Canada in both UK friendlies, making their presence felt on the field in both games. 

After missing the last two games of She Believes Cup due to an injury, it was good to see Quinn return into the fold this camp, and boy did they ever live up to expectations, and then some, with their strong play in both games. 

And for Canada, that was huge, as Quinn continued to establish themself as a key player under Priestman. For a team that has struggled to find a good balance in midfield in recent years, Quinn’s two-way ability has given a big boost to this team, as their impact has been felt on both sides of the ball. 

Defensively, Quinn plays an important role as a #6/#8 of sorts, not necessarily destroying attackers, but still shepherding them into good areas for teammates to pounce.

Offensively, though, is where Quinn really helped Canada out, as their transitional ability ended up giving a big boost to the Canadian attack. 

To get an idea, here are some of Quinn’s best offensive actions from against England. 

First, we got a good turn and long ball to Deanne Rose that created a decent offensive chance. 

Then, we have a fantastic bit of transitional play, as Quinn turned out of trouble nicely before playing a nice ball for Evelyne Viens to work with.

Not long after that, we saw some vintage Quinn body feints, followed by a vintage Quinn progressive pass, one that Viens probably should’ve done a bit better with. 

Continuing on a strong first half, we then got this great progressive pass to open up one of Canada’s best sequences of the game, as Quinn did well to find Jessie Fleming in space. 

From there, they flew forward and got into a good offensive position, doing well to get a good shot on target off of the volley.

Lastly, we saw some more vintage Quinn, breaking lines in the England midfield before playing a good one-two with some teammates. 

And those were just a few among countless examples of Quinn doing that all game, and it proved to be huge for Canada, as Quinn played a big role in their team’s improved transitional play during this camp. 

On top of a big assist in the Wales game on what proved to be the winning goal, it was overall a solid camp for Quinn, who continued a good run of form for their country as of late. 

If Quinn continues to play like this for Canada, it’d be a massive surprise not to see them make the trip to Tokyo, as they’ve quickly proven to be a very important player to make Priestman ball tick. 

Considering that there’s no one else that can offer what Quinn can offer on both sides of the ball in midfield, it’s going to be very hard to knock them out of Canada’s squad at the moment, which for Priestman, is a great thing. 

Jessie Fleming:

And a big part of Quinn’s play that makes them so indispensable is the freedom that it then allowed Jessie Fleming to play with, as Fleming showed why she is arguably Canada’s most important player at the moment in this camp. 

Having made a big move to current WSL leaders Chelsea in 2020, we’re really starting to see the difference that playing at a big club like that can do for a player, as she continues to take some big steps forward in her game. 

She was always a very skilled player, ever since she made her National Team debut at 15, but she’s starting to now find some polish in her game, which can certainly be credited to the pro environment that she now finds herself in. 

That was on full display during this camp for Canada, as Fleming left her mark on both games, impressing onlookers with both the skill and confidence that she played with. 

To get an idea of how confident she’s feeling at the moment, just look at this screamer she scored in the Wales game. 

And although she didn’t have that game-defining moment against England, she did a lot of dirty work for Canada on both sides of the ball, allowing them to snatch that result. 

Not many players on Canada can consistently make passes like this, aside from Quinn, Shelina Zadorsky and Janine Beckie, and considering Fleming’s role as a #8/#10, it was good to see her jumpstart attacks like this.

And just to get an idea of where her confidence is at right now, this touch and turn in a tight space tells you everything you need to know about Fleming at the moment, as she certainly seems to be enjoying her football. 

Overall, it was just another good camp in a long line of them for Fleming, and hopefully she can continue to build off of this heading into the Olympics. 

If Canada is going to do well at that tournament, a confident Fleming would certainly likely play a big role in that success, as we saw in the UK, so hopefully she can both translate this into more minutes at the club level and into further success at the National Team level. 

Evelyne Viens: 

Lastly, to round off our look at the standout performers, we’ve got Viens, who continued a strong 2021 calendar year with two big goals during this camp. 

After there were many calls for Canada to bring her into the fold as far back as 2 years ago, where she was in the midst of a run that saw her score 73 goals in 77 games for South Florida at the college level, she’s become a regular under Priestman, and she’s relished being part of this squad. 

Having dipped her toes into the water at She Believes Cup, where she made 3 relatively tame appearances off of the bench, she dove right into the deep end this time around, playing over 100 minutes across both games, scoring 2 vital goals along the way (it’s also worth noting that those 2 goals were her first tallies for her country, as well). 

And while it’s good to see Viens scoring goals, it’s how she scores them that stands out, as she has this aggressive edge to her whenever the opportunity to pounce presents itself, with her two goals being a great example of that. 

To get an idea of what that looks like, here’s her first goal from this camp, which came against Wales. 

After some good build-up play from Canada, Viens remained very patient up top, before launching herself forward right at the end, getting onto the end of a great Janine Beckie cross, one she finished confidently with one touch. 

At the moment, there are not many other Canadian strikers who consistently do that, and that’s what’s allowed Viens to really make her mark under Priestman, who has seemed to be quite enamoured with the striker. 

There’s no better example of Viens desire to score than her second goal of the camp, the match-winner against England.

After the play seemed dead and gone, Viens didn’t stop running, running right at England’s Demi Stokes after a misplaced pass from Beckie, and she was well rewarded for her efforts, as she dispossessed Stokes before slotting home. 

Most other strikers would’ve probably just retreated after Stokes got the ball, focusing right away on their defensive duties, but not Viens, who sensed an opportunity to pounce, and rightfully delivered on that instinct. 

And it’s that hunger to win back the ball that may give Viens the edge in the battle to make the Olympic squad, as she made sure to work as hard defensively as she did offensively, making life tough for the English defenders.

As we saw earlier, playing in a hybrid role where she had to drop and cover the midfielders defensively, she played that role to perfection, making life tough for England through the middle of the park. 

Along with creative little turns like this one, which allowed her to win a bit of space in a congested midfield, she was doing a lot of the little things really well for Canada against England, showing her versatility as a player.

Overall, it ended up being a pretty good camp for Viens, who certainly put a good account of herself out there, one that Priestman will certainly be quite pleased with. 

With the competition for spots at Tokyo being so fierce, especially at striker, Viens’ strong performances for both club and for country are now making it increasingly harder for Canada to not bring her along to the Olympics, which seeing her form, can only be seen as good news for this team. 

From what we saw at this camp, she certainly looks ready and deserving of that honour, so it now feels like it’d be a surprise if we saw her anywhere but in Tokyo come July. 

As she continues to score the goals for her club, having bagged 11 in 14 for Paris FC on loan before scoring in her first game of the season back with Gotham in the NWSL, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore her for Tokyo, with this camp serving as one in a list of countless examples why Canada should have her in their squad. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, it’ll be very interesting to see what Canada’s plans end up being for the June window, as Preistman will probably want to get one last look at her players before making any final decisions for Tokyo. 

Based on what we saw at this camp, though, things are looking pretty good for her and her staff at the moment, but now it’s all about continuing that momentum into the rest of this year. 

It’s going to prove to be a monumental task if Canada are going to indeed win a medal this summer, but it’s not an impossible one, and the hard work towards making that possible only continued this camp. 

As they look to return to the conversation for being one of the top 5 teams in the world, it’s important that they build off of what they showed this camp, using it as a springboard for what’s to come in the rest of this year. 

From what we’ve seen so far, their mission is well on its way, but there is still plenty of work to be done before it’s considered a success. 

On the other hand, it’s hard to finish well if you don’t start well, so job done there for Canada, now it’s just time to keep up that momentum heading into the pivotal summer that now awaits this team. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Will Palmer

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