Canada 2 – 3 Haiti: Individual mistakes compounded by Herdman’s rigid planning

Canada stormed out to a 2-0 lead before half time and looked a safe bet to advance to their first Gold Cup semi final since 2007. Haiti kept the faith in the second half and punished a lackluster Canadian side to keep their improbable run alive.

Canada continue with their 4-3-3/4-4-2, but with Hutchinson in midfield

John Herdman started with Atiba Hutchinson in the defensive midfield role and Alphonso Davies at left back. The rest of the squad was as expected. They played the same shape as they did against Martinique and Cuba, and against Mexico after the second half substitutions.

This shape has three distinctly different functioning central midfielders. Hutchinson was the first function midfielder, dropping between the centre backs in possession and forming a bank of four in midfield when out of possession. Scott Arfield was the second function midfielder, driving from deep with the ball from his inside right position and connecting the midfield with the forwards in transition, while lining up alongside Hutchinson when defending. Jonathan Osorio was the third function midfielder, trying to get involved in the final attacking move and pressing the Haitian centre backs high from his inside left position.

After a shaky opening ten minutes, Canada began to dominate. Haiti was pressing high but Canada began to deal with it, and Haiti’s high line was exposed multiple times. Lucas Cavallini was even able to somehow get in behind a comical offside trap to extend Canada’s lead. Herdman’s side also gained a lot of joy from counter pressing the Haitians, as they had multiple players high up the pitch to try and win the ball back when they lost it. Canada went into the half up two, and looked the much more likely side to score the third goal of the match.

Kaye comes on for Osorio and Canada sits back

Canada started the second half well, but Milan Borjan’s error breathed life into Haiti. Herdman responded with what seemed like a planned substitution for this scenario, as Mark-Anthony Kaye came on for Osorio and Canada switched to a 4-1-4-1 without the ball. Kaye sat back and didn’t press the Haitian centre back, preferring to create a bank of four ahead of Hutchinson.

This substitution changed the game for the worse for Canada. No longer were they in a position to press and counter press effectively. Haiti had time to pick out long diagonal balls, which was their game plan both in transition and in possession. Osorio had been one of Canada’s most dangerous players, and Canada should have been looking to step on Haiti’s throats in the second half. It also isolated Cavallini more, who was frankly miscast in this match despite scoring a goal. He wasn’t  huge threat to run in behind, and when Canada did sustain intricate moves around the box, they often died on his boot.

Herdman too systematic

Another egregious individual error, this time from a long diagonal ball, leveled the match. A third quick attack that could have been stopped by better individual defending gave Haiti the lead. Herdman responded by bringing on Ashtone Morgan for Cavallini, a tacit admission that the Mexico based striker was not clicking with the rest of the side, and going back to the high pressing 4-4-2.

Herdman has often been described as meticulous and well prepared. These are positive adjectives, but in the quarter final it was apparent that those traits can lead you to being too rigid. The first example was the Kaye sub for Osorio. In a vacuum such a substitution makes sense; the opposition has gotten within one goal so you bring on a more defensive midfielder for an attacking one and move to a defensive shape. But the first Haitian goal was scored against the run of play, there was no real pattern to it, and the so called attacking midfielder that was subbed off was very effective defensively by pressing high and stopping attacks before they started. The switch to the low pressing 4-1-4-1 seemed like Herdman was running the “only up one goal with 30 minutes left” program without looking at the game itself.

The other example was how the side lined up when chasing the game with 15 minutes left. As they switched back to the high pressing 4-4-2, Arfield took up the Osorio role as the attacking midfielder. That makes sense, but he did it from the same inside left position as Osorio while Kaye went into the inside right position that Arfield vacated. Both players were in inverted positions and not as comfortable. To be unable to play a more flexible and natural formation depending on which players are out there is a sign that the strategy is too rigid, and strategies that are too rigid are extremely vulnerable when Plan A fails.

Conclusion

This is a devastating loss for Canada, but they were well on top for most of the match. Two calamitous individual errors got Haiti level, and from there the changes by Herdman compounded those errors. Questions need to be answered, the two most obvious ones being: 1) Should Davies play left back? and 2) Does Cavallini fit the style Canada want to play? If the answer to both, as they appeared to be against Haiti, is “no”, then an obvious solution exists.

The other big consideration is, how flexible is John Herdman? His side were clearly well drilled, and the players were very willing to complete their given assignments. It was obvious with and without the ball, on throw ins and on set pieces, that each player had a plan to execute. But when the game script gets away from Canada, especially after one change has already been made, is there an effective Plan B?

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