“There were a lot of positives”: CanWNT/CanXNT runs out of steam in Spain loss to close out otherwise solid showing at Arnold Clark Cup

The CanWNT/CanXNT finished the Arnold Clark Cup with a clash against Spain on Wednesday. Here’s our match report from that one. 

You just knew that a stiff test awaited them in this last game. 

Yet, at the same time, you also harboured hope that the CanWNT/CanXNT could find a way to come out strong against a difficult Spain side as they got set to tackle their third and final game of the Arnold Clark Cup on Wednesday. 

Considering that heading into this game, they topped the table with 4 points from their first two matches, they also had a chance to pick up some silverware with a win and maybe even a draw, only putting the cherry on top of what had already been a strong tournament for them. 

But all of that was unfortunately not meant to be for Canada, who despite a strong effort, were left to succumb to their first defeat of this competition, falling to Spain 1-0. 

They certainly made the game as close as they could, coming out with a strong start before Spain found the net in the 21st minute, and finished strongly after that as they chased an equalizer, but their luck just ran out for them in this game, as they were left to rue some missed opportunities. 

At the same time, though, they’ve got a lot to be proud of from their effort here. In their third game in 6 days, facing off against one of the brightest lights in the international game right now, they put out a very good account of themselves, playing with no fear despite the grandeur of the occasion that lay in front of them. 

And that’s key. While this team will certainly be smarting that they let silverware just escape their grasp, this tournament was always about growth and their overall performances, and looking back at the 270 minutes they played in England, they did well to show good things in both of those areas. 

Other than 45 minutes against England, and 25 minutes in this Spain game, they played some very solid soccer over the past week, and showed that they’re not just here to compete with the top teams, but also control parts of these games, too. 

“I definitely feel like the group are moving forward,” Canada’s head coach, Bev Priestman, said after the match. “I’m relatively happy with the second-half performance, I thought Spain showed their quality, and maybe we let them in the game a bit too much in the first half, but our team, they never say die.”

Of course, as the defending gold medallists, that was expected from them, but there is certainly belief among some factions that Canada might be over-reliance on luck against big teams. 

But with every game they play, they continue to disprove that myth, and this game was just the latest example of that, as they proved that they’re one of the top teams in the world for a reason. 

So although they’ll wish that they could’ve gotten a victory to show for it in this last game, they’ve got no reason to leave England with their heads down, as they put up a very good account of themselves, especially considering some of the circumstances that they dealt with. 

And with all of that in mind, here’s a look back at what we learned from Canada in this game, as they showed plenty of positives against a solid Spain side, result aside. 

Golden moment from Spain spoils strong Canada start:

Heading into this match, there was a lot of talk about the skill of Spain, and rightfully so. 

One of the fastest-rising teams in world soccer, they’ve taken the international scene by storm as of late with their high-flying possession-based style of play, as well as their talented roster. 

Because of that, this was expected to be a stiff test for Canada, especially as Spain decided to go with more of a full-strength lineup for this game, letting all of their big guns out for Canada to worry about. 

Especially considering that Canada had decided to rotate a bit, getting some new faces into the lineup, including debutant Marie Yasmine Alidou, it really felt like this game could be too big of a challenge for Canada to handle. 

Yet, it didn’t really feel that way to start, as Canada came out with no fear, taking the game to Spain. 

In fact, they nearly came out with a goal right within the first minute, as Deanne Rose managed to get in behind the backline, where she whipped in a great ball to Janine Beckie, who then laid it off for Jordyn Huitema, but Huitema’s half-volley attempt was deflected just wide. 

Right after, Beckie then had a good look of her own in the 7th minute, as she stepped up to take a free kick in a dangerous position that was won by Huitema, but her powerful shot would be easily stopped by Lola Gallardo in the Spanish goal. 

So even though they were left wanting a bit more after both chances, they certainly had to be encouraged that they weren’t just sticking with Spain through the early stages, but had shown signs of being able to take control of the game, too. 

And as the half went on, it was hard to suggest anything to the contrary, either, as Canada remained very much in the fight through the first 20 minutes. Spain were holding a lot of possession, yes, but Canada were arguably finding themselves with the more dangerous flashes, looking lethal in transition, at least up until the final ball. 

But then, in the 21st minute, Spain delivered their first blow, and it would be a big one.

After a sloppy Canada turnover, Spain decided to ramp things up, as they fashioned together a quick passing move, one that finished with the ball rolling to Alexia Putellas in the box, and there, the current Ballon D’Or winner made no mistake with her one-timed finish. 

It was a tough blow for Canada, no doubt, but it just showed the quality that Spain had in their midst, and they found a way to show it right at the perfect moment. 

That was bad news for Les Rouges, as they still had a lot still left to play for in this one, making it seem like a tough hill to climb, leaving many to wonder if they’d be able to do it. 

And the good news is that Canada certainly looked capable, as Huitema then hit the crossbar off of a nice wide set-piece delivery from Janine Beckie in the 27th minute, but with the score still 1-0, Canada needed to find a way to turn one of those flashes into a concrete chance before it was too late. 

Canada’s depth helps late push:

So as they neared the second half, you could only wonder what sort of aces Canada might have up their sleeve here, as they looked to make something out of this game. 

Down a goal, you knew that they’d certainly try to attack, but the question would be how they’d adjust to try and do that, be it tactically or personnel-wise. 

And it turned out to be through the personnel, as Priestman emptied the bench, bringing on Quinn, Sabrina D’Angelo, Julia Grosso, Gabrielle Carle, Nichelle Prince and Cloe Lacasse in the second half, giving Canada all sorts of fresh legs at different positions. 

Which proved to be an astute move, because Canada found a whole other level in the second half. 

They’d be unable to fashion up much in terms of concrete chances to show for it, other than a Cloe Lacasse sighter in the 79th minute that forced a decent save, and an 84th minute Nichelle Prince header that went just over the bar, but there was a lot to like with Canada’s overall play. 

After sitting deep for much of the first half, choosing to inflict damage on the counter, we saw a new side to Canada’s game in that second half, as they really tried to control more of the match than we’re used to seeing from them. 

And to the surprise of most, they actually did a pretty good job at doing that. The possession finished 51-49 to Spain, which was actually the least amount of possession that Spain held in this tournament by a long shot, showing Canada’s ability to hold onto the ball in that second half.

So although Canada has a lot of work to do in terms of turning that possession into high-quality chances, and then finishing said chances, there’s a lot to like with that. 

For a team that has mostly looked at their scariest when sitting deep and countering, they showed a bit of a new side with their changes, demonstrating that they might have a new dimension to show to that side of their game going forward. 

It’s something that they’ve long talked about doing more of, and they finally showed that side of their game in that second half, which considering the level of opposition, you have to be intrigued about. 

They just need to build off of that, of course, but it was a good sign of growth, which is what this tournament was all about in the first place. 

Bright debut for Alidou:

Otherwise, it’s worth diving into the performance of one specific individual on this Canadian team, and that’s the play of Alidou, who was mentioned earlier, was a surprise starter for Canada heading into this game. 

Despite being uncapped for Canada, and facing one of the best midfields in the world, Priestman saw enough from her new charge to throw her into the fire against Spain, which was a decision that many wondered about in the lead-up to the match. 

But then, to everyone’s surprise, Alidou responded strongly to the challenge, passing this test with flying colours. 

She might not have made much space on the ball, as Spain really tried to impose their dominance in midfield with their aggressive pressure, but despite that, Alidou looked like she’d been on this Canadian team for years. 

With her ability to play with both feet, her passing range made a big difference for Canada in midfield, as her teammates were able to trust her enough to give her some difficult passes, knowing that she’d be able to either play it to someone one touch, or be patient enough to take that extra touch to open up space for others if needed. Plus, if she was given extra space, she’d take it a step forward and really play some carving passes, helping Canada to break on the counter-attack. 

As a result of that, some of Canada’s best attacks in that first half that she played came through her feet, showing her skill as a progressive midfielder. 

So considering that she played just 45 minutes, and didn’t actually get that many touches, she made the most of what she got, showing very well in her debut. 

Which for Canada, was nice to see. One question mark on this team right now is their depth in midfield, as beyond their usual starters, there looks to be a drop-off in quality on paper, but a performance like this from Alidou just shows that drop-off isn’t actually as apparent as thought. 

She’ll obviously need to build off of this performance, of course, as this was just 45 minutes in her debut, but seeing the calibre of opposition that she was up against, and what she showed, there were a lot of encouraging signs from her. 

Because of all that, expect to see more of her in the Canadian fold going forward. Priestman clearly trusts her a lot already if she’s going to thrust her into a game of this magnitude, so if this is just the start of what’s to come from her, you have to be excited, giving Canada another option at a position where they were looking for new names to step up. 

Alidou in action for Canada against Spain (Canada Soccer/Daniela Porcelli)

Tactics:

Tactically, if there were questions about what Canada’s identity might be heading into the tournament, those were certainly answered throughout the three games, with this Spain match just being another example of what to expect from this Canadian team going forward. 

Much as in the other games this tournament, Canada stuck with what we’ve been used to seeing from them under Priestman since the Olympics, which is a solid 4-3-3, one that morphs into a 4-3-1-2 at times, depending on where Canada finds itself on and off the ball. 

And that’s not really too much of a surprise. Defensively, it has left Canada very solid, as they’ve conceded more than 1 goal in a game just once since April of 2021, and that came when Canada experimented with a back 3 in a 2-1 loss to Mexico last November. 

There are some questions to be asked offensively, of course, as Canada remains a mixed-bag in that area of their game, but you certainly don’t want to sacrifice that defensive solidity in chase of that offence. 

Which is the question that Canada will look to continue to try and answer going forward, as they head into World Cup (and Olympic) qualifiers this year. 

The good news from this game, though? We saw some glimpses of what that could look like. 

Interestingly, as she chased a late win, Bev Priestman decided to try some new things from within Canada’s usual set-up, and we got to see flashes of what Canada’s potential offensive solution could look like. 

For example, one change we saw was in midfield, where we saw the use of a trio of Quinn, Jessie Fleming and Julia Grosso for the first time. And as expected, it gave Canada a lot of fluidity in possession, giving them the sort of flexibility that they just haven’t had there before, which was nice to see. 

Thanks to that, it allowed them to really give Spain a run for their money as they chased an equalizer, giving them the sort of control that they just didn’t have in the first half, where they did most of their work in transition. Because of that, it really allowed them to even out the possession, which as seen earlier, was a lot closer than anyone would’ve ever expected heading into this. 

Obviously, it hurt a bit not to have the defensive solidity of Desiree Scott there, but Quinn showed to be pretty capable of filling in the shoes of ‘The Destroyer’, making one wonder if Canada could run with that set-up more often. 

Otherwise, one change that was interesting to see was the use of a front three of Deanne Rose, Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie (before Cloe Lacasse came in for her at the end), which much like the midfield trio, gave Canada a lot more fluidity in the attack. 

They might have lost the sort of outlet that having a true #9 up top can give them, as neither of Rose, Prince, Beckie or Lacasse are true #9s, but it did give them more fluidity in their build-up play when attacking, allowing them to really put Spain under pressure. 

So while there was a lack of finish at times (something having a pure #9 helps), the fact that Canada was able to generate more chances with that change is something to ponder, for sure. 

Because of all of that, it will certainly now be intriguing to see if Canada builds off of those changes going forward. 

Obviously, as we saw throughout the tournament, the formation isn’t going anywhere (although a back 3 has been teased by Priestman), so if that’s going to be the case, the bigger changes are going to be within the set-up, both in terms of tactics and personnel. 

And as seen in this game, those tweaks can be dangerous, so you have to imagine that Canada will want to be doing more of that, building off of what they showed in the second half of this game. 

Looking Forward:

So overall, there was a lot to like in this game for Canada. 

Of course, the end of the first half wasn’t great, and that ended up deciding the game, but you have to be otherwise encouraged by what you saw, especially considering the calibre of opposition, the state of the Canadian roster and that this was their third game in 6 days. 

Heading into the tournament, if someone told you that Canada grabbed 4 points, and only allowed 2 goals, you’d be happy with that, so although they’ll be disappointed that they scored just 2 goals to go with that, they showed a lot of flashes offensively, too. 

And as they get set for a busy 2022 schedule, that sets the table for what’s to come, as they showed that they can not only hang with the best, but impose themselves for spells, too. 

“I think this team, across this tournament, have shown moments of greatness,” Priestman said. “They just need to do it across 90 minutes, but it’s a reality of where we’re at in terms of being able to physically compete across 90 minutes, but there were a lot of positives.”

Now, the goal is to turn those spells into long sustained periods of play, but that will come with time, especially as this Canadian team finds their legs again. 

As they begin their journey towards 2023 World Cup glory and a repeat at the 2024 Olympics, it was a positive beginning, and now they’ll just look to ensure that they keep on pushing to a higher level ahead of the big competitions that lie ahead in their future. 

“I’m so glad that we attended this tournament,” Priestman finished. “We’ve had some massive learnings, and saw some players really step up.”

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Daniela Porcelli

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