Canada produced a stunning display to defeat their southern neighbours for the first time in over three decades, and while the effort on display deserves a lot of the praise there were also multiple tactical decisions that led Canada to a more than deserving victory.
John Herdman abandons 4-3-3 for a narrow 4-4-2
Herdman has shown a natural disposition to playing a 4-3-3, both with his time with the men’s national team and the women’s side, but against the visiting Americans he opted for a narrow 4-4-2 that he referred to as a “box” after the match.
This surprising shape had a lot of different effects on the match. First, it opened up the wings for both sides. The United States had only one player providing width in right back DeAndre Yedlin, and while he got forward often, his crosses were dealt with easily by Canada. Daniel Lovitz rarely got forward, while Christian Pulisic often came inside. Jordan Morris was not playing on an inverted wing as he is right footed, but the nature of his game is so direct that in practice he did play as an inverted winger.
For Canada, they also had their width supplied by their right back, Richie Laryea. Laryea also got forward often, but he was much more reluctant to send in crosses and tried to combine with the forwards. Kamal Miller ventured forward at times, but played much more defensively.
Canada in attack
Where Canada got their joy in attack was when they were able to get their strikers isolated with the American’s centre backs. Aaron Long is a decent defender in space, but Tim Ream simply doesn’t have the legs to deal with Alphonso Davies or Jonathan David when asked to defend high up the pitch. When the opportunity arose, Canada would ping the ball into a channel and ask one of their strikers to beat the opposition centre back, most notably when Davies tracked down a long ball after spotting the American defender a five metre head start, before cutting back and earning his side a corner. It was a simple play that was able to be executed because of the way the sides lined up.
When the USA retreated in their shape and began their press, Canada was forced to go long. Their outball here was, in fact, winning the second ball. Neither Davies nor David were going to win the initial header, but often Canada would be first to pick up the scraps. While it certainly looked like Canada were up for this match moreso than their more illustrious counterparts, they also had more players around the second ball because of the way they lined up. Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield were constantly in position to either pick up the second ball or challenge for it, and that directly led to both of Canada’s goals.
Canada in defense
Herdman’s shape allowed Canada to clog up the middle when they did have to retreat into their shape. It allowed all four of their midfielders to be in position to press and win the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch if the US became loose with the ball. This was only effective because of Osorio and Arfield, Canada’s two smartest team pressers. Both players know where and when to press, and both had important roles in defending not only the middle of the pitch but also wide areas.
Canada pressed effectively for the most part. It was clear that one of David or Davies, whoever happened to be closer, was tasked with picking up Michael Bradley when the US had the ball. One of the US’s simplest forays forward was when neither Canadian striker picked up Bradley, and the American midfielder received a simple ball and was allowed to stride forward 30 odd metres untouched, deep into Canada’s half.
Another tactic Canada used was to have their forwards press the American’s centre backs, while Samuel Piette or Liam Fraser would simultaneously step up to press Bradley. This also caused a problem for Canada once when it was not executed correctly — the players were late to switch up their press and the US exploited it for a dangerous ball in behind.
That being said, the home side’s press was definitely an effective tactic. However, these examples illustrate how dependent on each other the Canadians are. To be fair, the best pressing teams must press as a team, and an individual pressing outside the system is ineffective, but Herdman’s strategy is so ambitious that one small mistake can easily lead to a dangerous chance.
The best chance for the visitors actually came from winning a rare long ball from Zack Steffen, and Gregg Berhalter has to decide how pragmatic he wants his side to be. Wanting to keep the ball and calmly pass through a high pressing team is laudable, but it takes time to learn how to do so as a team which is a luxury that international sides do not have. Frankly, it is uncertain if the US have the talent to do so, even against so called weaker CONCACAF sides let alone top international teams.
USA cannot answer, Herdman makes effective subs but doesn’t need to change game plan
Canada was the better side throughout the match and Berhalter simply did not have the personnel to get his side into the game. The truth is that his eleven contained multiple limited players, and the substitutes he brought on were well below the level required to impact the game. Herdman muzzled the opposition and put his players in a position to succeed, and Berhalter could not change the players or the tactics to get his side going.
Herdman’s decisions, from who he started, to who he subbed in, to how they lined up and how they pressed, were all correct. He is known as a meticulous planner and his initial tactics are always thought out and his plan is clear. This is a positive thing, but we have seen in the past that he can be late to switch things up mid-match. Herdman did make three brave substitutions that all turned out, but he never really had to change the team’s style because they were always on top. He should not be penalized for a brilliant Plan A, but the question is does he have an effective Plan B when the initial tactic doesn’t work? Canadian fans are hoping that they won’t have to find out anytime soon.