After what has felt like an eternity spent waiting, the 2019 edition of the Gold Cup is finally about to kick off. For the 15th time in history, CONCACAF’s finest will battle it out, with one team being left standing, champions of North and Central America. For Canada, they are aiming to be that team for the second time in their history, after having triumphed for the first time back in 2000. With a collection of talent that looks like strong candidates to become the best Canada team in history, they are looking to seize their first true opportunity to fulfill some of the potential they have shown on paper, as they finally get a chance to play some of the stiffest opposition in the year or so under manager John Herdman.
Herdman will be heavily scrutinized this tournament, as his charges are among favourites to bring home the trophy come July. While many will mistake this scrutiny as pressure, there is zero chance Herdman gets fired if Canada performs badly this tournament, but make no mistake, how he deploys his squad and how they play in the big matches will give a true indication of how close they are to be able to qualify and compete for the 2022 and 2026 World Cups.
In order to do that, the first big step is the squad he puts on the pitch, which is a big question mark heading into the opening day of the tournament. While there is no doubt he has brought along a fine assembly of 23 players, (Check out our review on these 23 here https://thethirdsub.ca/2019/06/03/rating-canadas-gold-cup-squad-by-surprise-rating/) how he effectively deploys them remains the biggest question mark on what is a great squad.
Looking at the squad, there are a few things that remain clear. Firstly, they are extremely top-heavy, with a lot of their top players being of the offensive variety. Scott Arfield, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Lucas Cavallini all coming into this one in great form, as well as the ever-dangerous Cyle Larin and Premier League veteran Junior Hoilett, not to mention the growing Liam Millar, giving them a deadly line of options that should give opposing defences something to worry about. Secondly, they are set in goal, with Milan Borjan coming off a great season, and Max Crepeau in the middle of a great one himself, solidifying things Between The Sticks (™). Lastly, they are very versatile, with many of the aforementioned names being extremely adaptable, as well as other well known swiss-army knives such as Mark-Anthony Kaye, Sam Piette, Russell Teibert and Atiba Hutchinson, giving Herdman a chance to be flexible with his deployment.
What to do?
But, despite all these positive traits, there are a few things that need to be sorted by the time the knockout matches roll around. While they will able to get by without them, they will go a long way to making sure they can dictate results, instead of scraping by and relying on moments of brilliance as they have in the past, as they continue their slow transition to becoming one of the world’s best.
Firstly, they need to figure out how to get as many of their best players on the pitch, even if they do not necessarily find themselves in their best positions. While it may mean some uncomfortable decisions, including Alphonso Davies slotting in at left-back, it will be crucial if they are able to hang with deeper lineups such as that of Mexico or the USA, who have been hit hard by injuries but are still bringing good squads to this tournament. While it may be uncomfortable to have players out of position at first, the squad will be better off as they avoid leaving easily exploitable positions on the pitch, making their team more of a feared unit, and allowing for more offensive creativity. While it may mean some growing pains on the defensive side of things, the reward on the offensive end, as well as room for growth on the defensive side, will allow for it to be a viable strategy in the long-term.
Secondly, they need to ensure that they are able to get the best out of their players, especially on the offensive side of things. Defensively, they appear to be sound, with a projected back 4 likely being (as of the last two games) Kaye, Cornelius, Henry/ Hutchinson (if Henry’s injury ends up holding him back) and Zachary Brault-Guillard, with Borjan holding the fort in goal. With the bulldog Piette looking to be a shield for the back 4, the question is how to get the most out of the offensive talent, especially Hoilett, David, Davies and Arfield, who should all find a way to get on the pitch as much as possible. If they are put in positions to succeed, they will likely repay with some great tournaments, giving Canada a good as a shot as anyone to win this tournament.
Lastly, they need to make sure they leave no weak spots on the pitch, especially at full back. While it ties into the first point, the fact remains that full back is one of the most slept on positions in international play. While it’s not a life and death situation, often teams that end up underperforming can write it down due to underwhelming play from the position. Most teams in the world are lucky to have one, let alone two dangerous full backs, so finding players who can plug in is key, as in many cases the best natural option isn’t the most viable. This is the case for Canada at left back, with their only natural player called up being Ashtone Morgan, a veteran that has struggled to get consistent starting time in MLS, despite his team being putrid for many of his seasons there, bar 3 exceptional ones thanks to Sebastian Giovinco and company. While Canada is set on the other side, with the 20-year-old Brault-Guillard looking ready to handle the load, and Marcus Godinho being a more than competent replacement, making sure their left back position is sound is a key priority, which is why Alphonso Davies and Mark-Anthony Kaye have both been tried there in previous call-ups.
How to tie it all together?
Luckily for Canada, these are questions being asked of many top national teams around the world, as they end up being 3 of the biggest things a team needs to sort out if they are to ensure success. Look no further than last years World Cup final between France and Croatia, two prime examples of what we are looking at here. For Croatia to succeed, they got their best players on the pitch, got the best out of their key players Mandzukic, Perisic, Rakitic and Modric, and had two good full backs in Vrsalko and Strnic, allowing for them to make a surprising run in the tournament. For France, they were able to get all of their best talent together on the pitch, got the best out of stars Mbappe, Griezmann and Pogba, and ensured that at full back they were set, with Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard in, despite both often playing at centre back for their clubs.
So, for Canada, we have created a couple of potential lineups, with slight changes to deployment, allowing for all of these things to happen. Here they are:
In the case of the first lineup, they are able to get all of their best players out, while maintaining a bit of stability in the middle of the park. While it leaves Davies in a more defensive role, his overlapping runs would be deadly. If they want him further forward, they could go with something like the second lineup, where they get all their best players, but leave Arfield in more of a hybrid role, which might task him with more of a defensive role. It might end up backfiring, but he has shown to be versatile, so it may be possible he does do some duty in that role. They could also do a hybrid, which is the last lineup, where they leave Davies at left back, but push Arfield back, giving Jonathan Osorio a shot, as he has had a great last few seasons for Toronto. You could also put in Larin, but that might leave Canada quite exposed defensively. Obviously, they could leave some players out, giving them depth off the bench, but that will depend on the approach Herdman looks to bring to certain matches.
While it is hard to read what Herdman is truly thinking in the leadup to this tournament, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for tomorrow’s match, as well as the crucial midweek tie against Mexico. It’s our first chance to see him in a tournament setting, and after having done well with the Canadian women in them during his tenure there, it’ll be interesting to see how he leads this outfit. He has a lot of pieces to the puzzle, which he will have to put together in time as the stern tests loom. While it would be nice to see him maximize every top player in the squad, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David coming off the bench might not be the worst thing in the world to see against a Mexico, so possibilities are endless for Les Rouges heading into this one.