Canada posted an impressive looking 4-0 result over former bogey side Martinique to open their Gold Cup campaign. In truth it was John Herdman’s first real test as manager of the men’s national team, and Canada was pushed in the first half before outclassing the Caribbean side in the second. There is a danger in over-extrapolating from one match, especially against a side nowhere near the levels of Mexico, the U.S.A, Costa Rica, or Jamaica, but there were some interesting tidbits from the match.
Canada a classic 4-3-3 with the ball
The first thing to note about Canada was their shape. When they had the ball, they were in a (what is now considered a standard) 4-3-3 shape with Samuel Piette regularly dropping between the centre backs to give the full backs the opportunity to push forward. This gave Canada three relatively good passers out the back in Piette, Derek Cornelius, and Atiba Hutchinson. All three are extremely capable of breaking lines, sometimes multiple in one pass. Mark-Anthony Kaye did so a couple times from his left back position as well, which is not wholly surprising considering he is naturally a central midfielder. Even Milan Borjan played forward central passes at times to break Martinique’s press. When everything was flowing, it was working well, though there were a couple times Canada was nearly caught out in a manner similar to how Jonathan David scored the opener.
While Piette was acting as a first function midfielder, being the initial outlet and spearheading attacks when in possession, Scott Arfield and Jonathan Osorio were playing as clear second and third function midfielders, respectively. There is a logical, archetypal balance to this midfield trio from Canada. Piette stays back and plays smart passes forward, Arfield runs and connects lines, and Osorio combines high in tight spaces with forwards, wingers, and overlapping full backs. This is not to say that Canada were fluid for 90 minutes and had no problem breaking down Martinique, but the plan is obvious and should work against sides of this caliber.
Finally, the attack was lead by Jonathan David who got the start ahead of Lucas Cavallini. There is a decent chance that David got the start because Cavallini was being rested for Mexico, but the Belgian-based attacker constantly dropped into pockets between defence and midfield to cause problems for Martinique. Often deployed as an attacking midfielder at club level, David has no problem finding space to meet the ball, while also having preternatural composure in front of goal for a teenager. His ability to play as a sort of nine-and-a-half or on the wing makes him invaluable for Canada, especially in a tournament setting where depth is paramount.
Canada press with a 4-4-2 without the ball
Teams who deploy a 4-3-3 will often drop into a 4-1-4-1 without the ball when the opposition resets. However, Canada often looked like a 4-4-2 when Martinique had possession among their back line. Piette would push up beside Arfield to form a bank of four while Osorio pushed up high, often in line with David. The first goal for Canada was off a turnover just outside the box; though it wasn’t a direct result of Canada’s pressing, it was a good example of high Osorio and David started their wall.
Osorio has improved dramatically over the past five years, perhaps most impressively his pressing and work rate. Whether that should be attributed to increased experience, stamina, or confidence (or most likely, a mixture of all three), the fact is that he is much more playable in any situation than he was in the past. The Toronto Raptors just won their first NBA Championship by creating a roster of versatile players that, even if they were having an off night offensively, could still contribute defensively and stay on the floor. Osorio, along with other central midfield options like Kaye and Russell Teibert, are all able to effectively press when in structure. Again, there is an easy to see inherent logic to the creation of the squad.
Defensively, Canada did have lapses, especially in the first half. Most of these lapses could be considered individual rather than structural. Marcus Godinho and Piette underhit back passes, Kaye was caught out, and Hutchinson was unceremoniously turned near half. Digging a little deeper, however, one has to wonder if Kaye and Hutchinson’s mistakes can be considered anomalies, or if they are they likely to be a trend if they are continued to be deployed out of position.
Kaye did some interesting thing going forward and even almost scored a goal. However, he looked unsure or uninterested a few times while defending. Hutchinson looked ok for the most part when completing traditional defensive tasks, but to be caught out against Kevin Parsemain which lead directly to a break away is a cardinal mistake. The questions are: 1) Is that a mistake that Hutchinson will continue to make?; and 2) Are all the fires Hutchinson puts out with his intelligence reading the game and calmness in possession a net benefit? Hutchinson does a lot of positive things that a lot of centre backs simply can’t do; the issue is, they are less salient. Against a weaker side it doesn’t really matter and his ability to keep the ball and start attacks is a fairly obvious boon. Against stronger sides it has to be asked what style Canada will play and where players like Kaye, Hutchinson, Osorio, and David fit.
Individual player decisions against Mexico
Cavallini looks poised to start against Mexico which makes sense on the surface: he is more experienced than David and plays in the Mexican league. But Cavallini is less mobile than David; he is a less effective presser and is virtually no threat to run in behind a high Mexican line. One virtue Cavallini has against a high line, and this was seen last Gold Cup versus French Guiana, is that he can be an effective post player. Recall how he pinned down the French Guiana defender before rolling the ball into the path of Alphonso Davies for the winger’s first goal. It may seem overly simplistic, but Cavallini being a left footed post player is perfectly positioned to receive long balls into feet and play in Canada’s left winger on the counter attack.
This means that a goal scoring threat on the left wing is ideal, and Davies fits the bill the best as a counter attacker. While David and Junior Hoilett would offer inverted options on that side, neither is as quick or powerful as Davies (which is impressive, considering how quick they are). The idea of playing Davies as a left back completely neuters him. While we have seen attacking full backs pin back wingers and help dominate a flank, the fact is that Canada will see so little of the ball against Mexico that such a tactic is untenable. Many people have wondered how Canada can get their best eleven players on the pitch, but that isn’t always a rule you need to follow. However, one rule that should always be followed is that you should put your biggest goal threat in an attacking position.
While Osorio played as a second forward presser against Martinique, it doesn’t seem prudent for Herdman to play so progressively against Mexico. Look for Canada to play more of a 4-1-4-1 when defending. Osorio may very well start, but it would also make sense to start either Kaye or Hutchinson in midfield and go with more natural defenders in the back four. While Mexico is traditionally thought of as a quick, mobile, and technical side, they have a powerful and predatory striker in Raul Jimenez who seems like a better match up for someone like Doneil Henry.
This is Herdman’s first real test and our first real opportunity to see how his Canada will play going forward. Things will change and evolve going forward based on player form and availability, but how Herdman approaches Martinique versus how he approaches Mexico will give us a glimpse of how progressive he wants to be. While a bunker and counter style makes sense, if Canada truly believes they are a different side to the ones that came before then maybe they are expansive and play with Mexico. With a match against lowly Cuba next, perhaps this is the time to see just how good they are.