Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team drew Great Britain 1-1 in their Group E Olympic finale on Tuesday. Here’s what stood out to us from that game.
In their last tune-up before the big show, things went relatively to plan.
For Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team, their last game of Group E action at the 2021 Olympics was always going to be about rotating their team and keeping everyone healthy, especially after they all but clinched their qualification to the final round a few days prior, but at the same time, they still hoped to finish with a bang.
Facing off against Group E leaders, Great Britain, who had picked up 6 points from 6 through the first 2 matchdays of Olympic action, Canada had a chance to go 1st in the group with a win, theoretically giving them an easier path to the knockout stages.
The margins were fine, though, as a draw or loss would not be enough to finish 1st, leaving them to chase a victory or be left with a gauntlet of a knockout stage path.
So to see Canada draw Great Britain 1-1 was tough, especially considering that Les Rouges went up 1-0 over their Great British foes via a well-worked Adriana Leon goal in the 55th minute, before a late Nichelle Prince own goal in the 85th minute forced both teams to split the spoils.
Because of that, Canada instead finished 2nd in their group, setting up a date with 7th-ranked Brazil in the quarter-finals this coming Friday, with a spot in the semi-finals (and a shot at an Olympic Medal) on the line for the winner.
Winless in their last 4 games against Brazil (2L-2D), Canada will be in tough against their South American foes, but having drawn their most recent clash with the Seleção 0-0 back in June, they’ll have the belief that they can overturn their fortunes against them as of late.
Despite finishing 2nd in the group, this Canadian side is still undefeated in Olympic play, having drawn against their hosts, 10th-ranked Japan, in their opening game, before beating 37th-placed Chile ahead of their finale with Great Britain.
Plus, they’re also undefeated in 7 games dating back to February, as well, so even though Canada has struggled to pick up wins as of late, with 4 of those 7 games being draws, that’s not the worst thing in the world right now.
With it being the knockout stages, as long as you can be proficient from spot-kicks, drawing games is no longer a disastrous proposition, meaning that as it stands, Canada is in a good position to make a decent run.
There are still things to clean up before then, such as their recent propensity to give up leads, but overall, this Canadian team is in good shape to bust their slump against Brazil, allowing them to return to the semi-finals for their 3rd straight Olympic tournament.
Before then, however, they’ve got plenty to reflect upon from their group stage play, including their recent draw with Great Britain.
With that in mind, here’s some of what stood out to us from that particular clash with Great Britain, in what was Canada’s last dress rehearsal before the big show that is the knockout stages.
Leon’s big goal:
And to start, it’s worth noting that for the 3rd game in a row, Canada got out to a good start on Tuesday, as they’d actually go up 1-0 at the 55th minute against Great Britain.
After a slow first half that both sides might be best to forget, Canada came out strong in the 2nd stanza, putting pressure on their opponents.
That would pay off just 10 minutes into the half, as Ashley Lawrence made a bursting run down the left flank from full back, before whipping in a tantalizing low ball, one that slid through the box, just begging for someone to get on the end of it.
From there, up popped Adriana Leon, who calmly slotted home at the edge of the box on her left foot, sticking the ball into the top corner to give her team the lead.
In just her 2nd Olympic appearance, it would be her first goal at the competition, and it couldn’t come at a better time for Canada, who seemingly had the lead that would put them atop of the group.
For Leon, it’s just the latest accomplishment in what has been a long and winding journey to this point, as despite making her debut in 2012, she missed out on making the Olympic roster in 2016, even though she made Canada’s World Cup squads in both 2015 and 2019.
So for her to make Canada’s Olympic squad as one of the original 18 players (before that number was later amended to 22 with a late rule change) was a big achievement for the 28-year-old Leon, for whom the honours were certainly overdue.
And even more impressively, she did so after an early-season injury scare, recovering in time for Canada’s June camp, where she showed enough to be in Canada’s Bev Priestman’s plans for this tournament.
But in a sense, maybe this shouldn’t be that surprising. Leon has proven to be a clutch goalscorer over her 2 seasons with West Ham, and did score an impressive 4 goals at the 2020 CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers, helping Canada reach this tournament, so it’s not as if she doesn’t have that in her locker.
For a Canadian team always looking for more offence beyond their usual suspects such as Christine Sinclair and now Janine Beckie, it couldn’t have come at a better time for them, either, especially with Sinclair sitting completely outside the 18 for this Great Britain game to rest up for the knockout stages.
So although Leon might not start Canada’s knockout game, this will certainly put her in the discussion to come off of the bench, helping give Canada some more offensive firepower, if needed.
Uncharacteristic habits remain present:
But having gone up 1-0, the question then remained – could Canada hold on for the next 35 minutes?
Having given up an 84th-minute equalizer against Japan after having gone up 1-0 in their opening game, before nearly doing the same in their 2nd game against Chile, only getting bailed out by a late crossbar, Canada has had their struggles in defending leads this tournament.
So to see them then give up an 85th-minute equalizer to Great Britain had to hurt, especially based on how it happened.
Off of what seemed like a harmless Caroline Weir strike from distance, the ball seemed destined to go wide, but it instead struck the head of an unaware Nichelle Prince, before guiding itself into the far corner, slipping past a wrong-footed Stephanie Labbe in goal.
But alas, it’s been that kind of tournament for Canada, who have had their fair share of struggles defensively.
After entering the Olympics riding a run of 4 straight games without conceding a goal, to then give up goals in 3 consecutive games (4, if you include their unofficial friendly against the Netherlands from before the tournament) has to hurt, as Canada’s bread and butter for this competition was supposed to be their defence.
At the same time, although the goals were mostly quite unlucky, they’ve come via Canada’s undoing, so the good news is that the solution to their problem lies in their own hands.
First, they’ve got to avoid committing some of the rash challenges that have seen them concede 2 penalties in 3 games, as being undisciplined like that can only cost them in the big games.
Secondly, they’ve got to avoid leaving gaps between their defensive lines, as they’ve given some opponents much more space than they might’ve become typically accustomed against a usually stingy Canadian team.
Lastly, they’ve got to avoid sitting too deep when they score the first goal, as they’ve actually started all 3 games out quite well defensively, before uncharacteristically loosening up when they went up a goal.
The good news is that they avoided doing those things for most of the year, so it’s not as if doing those sorts of things would be unrealistic for Canada, as these problems have more just cropped up as of late.
If they can do that, they’ll have every chance of beating Brazil, but if not, they might be forced to head home much earlier than expected, especially as the defending back-to-back bronze medallists.
Roster questions up in the air for Brazil:
Otherwise, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of intel that Priestman gleams from their game against Great Britain, as she ended up rotating her squad quite heavily on Tuesday.
With 7 new players in the starting XI compared to the Chile game, Priestman really went for more of an experimental team, both choosing to rest some key players while also trying out a few others.
It obviously helped that Great Britain chose to do the same, with both teams both pretty secured in their status in the knockout stages (GB had guaranteed qualification the match prior), but at the same time, with a chance to go top of the group, Priestman could’ve easily stuck with her main players.
But with this tournament seeing teams play games every 2 days, any sort of opportunity for rest can be seen as a luxury for coaches, so she took that opportunity and ran with it.
And to be fair, that sort of willingness to use her whole squad has presented her with some fascinating roster dilemmas.
With 21 out of 22 players in her squad seeing the field at some point during these 3 games, with the lone holdout being 3rd string goalkeeper Erin McLeod, she’s done a good job at using her depth while still chasing a result, which is an art that some managers do struggle with.
Because of that, it’s opened up some interesting roster questions ahead of their clash with Brazil.
For example, what does she do in goal, having split minutes between Kailen Sheridan and Stephanie Labbe in these first 3 games? Obviously, Labbe picking up an injury in the 1st game before returning for this Great Britain clash didn’t help, but with both goalkeepers seemingly healthy for the knockout stages, who might Priestman pick to hold the fort Between The Sticks?
Otherwise, could Vanessa Gilles supplant Shelina Zadorsky at centre back? Might Jayde Riviere take out Allysha Chapman at full back? Could Julia Grosso earn a start in midfield over Desiree Scott? Can Evelyne Viens or Adriana Leon slot in up front?
Thanks to strong play from those aforementioned names, Priestman is able to have those discussions with her staff, giving her plenty to ponder when choosing her best XI for their Brazil clash.
She doesn’t need to make changes just for the sake of making changes, but she certainly has the option to, allowing her to potentially get creative with her team for Friday.
Lastly, it’s interesting to note that despite their rotation, Canada stuck with the same system from the last few games, trying to keep consistency across their squad.
Offensively, that meant playing a 4-3-1-2, a formation that seemed to get a lot out of Sinclair the last few games, giving her freedom to roam as a false-#9.
Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same impact on her replacement, Viens, who got too isolated in the pocket in that false-#9 role, leaving her to starve for service.
Despite that, she had some good flashes when she did get the ball, but those flashes came too far and few between due to the lack of service.
Otherwise, it didn’t help that Deanne Rose had an uncharacteristically sloppy game up front, as her touch just wasn’t as polished as it usually is, making it hard for Canada to get the sort of verticality that someone like Nichelle Prince usually provides.
Along with the experiment of playing Janine Beckie out of position as a central midfielder, leaving Quinn and Sophie Schmidt to have to shoulder a lot of the load in that area of the park, the 4-3-1-2 just didn’t have the same impact as it did the last 2 games, leading to a slow start.
The good news, though? Once Canada brought in Jessie Fleming to shore up the midfield at halftime, Canada looked a lot better, as it’s no coincidence that they opened the scoring just a few minutes after that change.
Against Brazil, they’ll definitely start 3 of Fleming, Grosso, Quinn or Desiree Scott, so that shouldn’t be a problem, meaning that their offensive woes were more personnel-related than due to tactics.
As for the defence, as mentioned, they’ve just got to tighten up their set-up and tweak their instructions in key moments, as they actually defended quite well until the goal.
In the 4-3-1-2, they’ve found a good balance between pressing and closing down space between the lines, at least until they score the first goal, that is.
So if they can keep doing that, but for the whole game, they should be in a good position to stop leaking some of the uncharacteristic goals they’ve let in as of late.
Overall, though, there aren’t too many overall concerns tactically with the 4-3-1-2, as the combination of a back 4, a midfield trio, Sinclair as a false-#9 and two pressing forwards has given the team good balance at both ends for the most part.
Now, Canada will get a few days to sort out those wrinkles before taking on Brazil on Friday, kicking off the knockout stages.
As seen through the group stages, although Canada has a few flaws to work on, they’re still a good team, one that can compete with any team on their day.
So although they find themselves on the tough side of the bracket, with the usually dangerous Brazil, along with the two 2019 World Cup finalists, the US and the Netherlands, they have every chance of making it to their first major tournament final if they clean out those flaws.
It’s a big if, no doubt, but this Canadian team always has a way of finding an extra gear in these Olympic tournaments, so if there’s ever a time for them to do that once again, that’ll be for this Brazil game.
Plus, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Canada now has a great opportunity to do just that, starting with this clash against Brazil.
With some recent history to reverse, they’ll have every reason to be up for that clash, continuing their propensity to make good things happen at this tournament.
Up Next: Canada vs Brazil, Friday, July 30th, 2021, 1:00 AM PDT, 4:00 AM PDT (Miyagi Stadium, Rifu)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Daniela Porcelli