Switching it up: Looking at why the CanWNT should consider a switch to the 3-5-2 formation ahead of the Olympics

Canada started off the Bev Priestman era decently well down in Orlando at She Believes Cup, battling well throughout the 3 games that they played. Despite that, however, they showcased a few flaws in their games. In this, we look at how a formation change could help limit those flaws, as Canada looks to find a recipe for success ahead of the Olympics this summer. 

While they didn’t get the results they wanted, they showed a lot of promise over the course of 270 minutes. 

In their first set of games under new head coach Bev Priestman, Canada’s Women’s National Team put up a pretty good account of themselves at She Believes Cup last month, as their new coach’s impact on their play was noticeable from the get-go. 

Defensively, they only allowed 3 goals over the course of those 3 games, 2 of them coming in a 25-minute spell against Brazil where they shut off mentally, backing up the idea that they defended well as a whole. Offensively, they only scored 1 goal, coming via a set-piece, but they created a lot more than they were before Priestman had come in, so you feel like they took a step forward in that regard, despite the concerning goal total. 

Heading into the Olympics later this year, this tournament gave fans a good idea of what to expect from Canada over in Tokyo. They’ll be a team that will fight to the bitter end, and will defend like their lives depend on it, knowing that they’ll have to be opportunistic in the final third in order to win. 

And with all of that coming despite being short a few regulars to start the tournament, before continuing to lose bodies as the games went along, leaving them with a young lineup in which they fielded 8 players aged 26 or under during the last game against Brazil, it shows that there is still more to come from this team. 

With it being early days under Priestman, there is a lot still to come tactically, as well, which is understandable considering that she’s only really had 3 weeks to actually work and train with this team, which as we mentioned, was short a bunch of regulars. 

But while a lot of the work Priestman did was good during this tournament, and Canada looked quite organized in their 4-3-3, there is one change she should consider looking at before the Olympic games this summer: switching to the 3-5-2. 

It’s a bold experiment, one that could either pay off or fall flat on its face, but it could be one worth exploring for this team, as they look to get the most out of their players in what is going to be a massive tournament for them, for a myriad of reasons. 

Given that these Olympics may end up being the last for many of the core players that led this team to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, this could be their last opportunity to change that colour of the medal in 2021, something that Priestman has stated is a goal. 

To do that, however, they’re going to need to step up and find a way to beat some pretty good teams, something they’ve struggled with in recent years. With a record of 0W-8L-2D in their last 10 games against teams in the top 10 of the FIFA Rankings, it won’t be easy, especially considering that there will be 7 other top 10 teams in Tokyo. 

That’s where Canada are going to need to find an extra gear in order to win, and on paper, the 3-5-2 could provide that. Here’s why. 

It’s all about maximizing your best players: 

Firstly, when put into a role as a National Team manager, the toughest thing that you have to deal with is the fact that your team construction is mostly pre-decided, to a certain extent. 

It’s not like club football, where the manager can bring in anyone they want, and anyone that is deemed surplus to requirements can be sent away. The manager has to build around what’s available, which is tough, because that means that you’re not always able to impose the tactics that you want to try. 

So when getting put in charge of a team, it’s important to look at a team’s strengths, and build around them. 

For Canada, when looking at the makeup of their squad, they have some really good goalkeepers, centre backs, full backs and strikers. They lack wingers, however, and lack game-breaking transitional players in the midfield aside from Jessie Fleming, something they make up for with the presence of some really solid defensive mids.

Expanding on that from more of an individualistic perspective, if you had to pick their 5 most important players, in no particular order, you’d probably pick Christine Sinclair, Kadeisha Buchanan, Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence and Janine Beckie. That’s 1 striker, 1 centre back, 1 full back, 1 midfielder and 1 winger, which is pretty balanced and allows you to fit them into pretty much any formation, at least if you’re building around them. 

With that in mind, you’d probably select the 4-3-3, allowing those players to play in their natural positions, which wouldn’t be the worst option, as we’ve seen over the years. 

If you dive deeper, however, there are a few factors that make a 3-5-2 more of a possibility. 

First, there’s the presence of Sinclair, scorer of 186 international goals, the most in soccer history. At 37 years of age, she hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down, especially if her play in NWSL last year is any indication. 

Given that Canada’s biggest issues as of late has been scoring goals, you’d absolutely focus on her as the centrepiece towards your plans, which we’ll do here. At this age, she might not be able to run around as she once did, but if you get her the ball in the box, the ball usually ends up in the back of the net, so that should absolutely be something for Canada to emphasize. 

The problem, however, is she doesn’t have the legs to both press and drop back consistently, as the lone striker in a 4-3-3 might be expected to do. In games where she’s had to do that for Canada, she gets taken out of the game, which is not ideal for this team.

At her age, she needs a striker to play off of who can do a lot of that dirty work, such as a Jordyn Huitema, Adriana Leon, Evelyne Viens or a Janine Beckie, as an example. In a 2 striker system, Sinclair would be able to pick her spots more when pressing and dropping back, allowing her to focus on what she does best, which is scoring goals. 

But as some may suggest, Canada doesn’t need a 3-5-2 to do that, do they? Why not just try the traditional 4-4-2 and go from there? 

And there are two reasons why the 3-5-2 would be preferable between the two – Ashley Lawrence and the midfield. 

In a 4 at the back, Lawrence’s main preoccupation would be defending, which she’s good at, but the 2019 Canada Soccer player of the year is also pretty darn good at attacking, which she’d get to do a lot of as a full back in a 3-5-2. 

As for the midfield, they seem to be at their best in a 3-player set-up, of which they’d keep in a 3-5-2, allowing them to play 2 more defensive players, such as Desiree Scott and Quinn, for example, with Fleming in front of them playing the role of a creator. 

Canada’s biggest issue stems from transitioning the ball from their defenders up to their attackers, a problem that mostly arises from the midfield, where they’ve often lacked the sort of transitional players needed to progress the ball. They took steps forward towards fixing that at She Believes Cup, as Quinn and Fleming did a good job in that area, but it has been such a problem that we’ve even seen Lawrence get minutes in midfield to try and fix it. 

In a 3-5-2, however, they’d still have the 3 players in the middle of the park, whose job would be to break up the play and send it forward, but with the 2 attacking full backs, who could be Lawrence and Jayde Riviere, as an example, that’d add another layer to their transition game. 

Even in a 4 at the back, Lawrence and Riviere have shown to be very good progressors of the ball, so you’d have to imagine that if they were left free to burst forward in a 3-5-2, they could really make some things happen offensively. 

But while there are all sorts of potential offensive benefits to be had with this formation, as people know, the big question, obviously, is what about the defence? 

And to be fair, it’s a very valid concern. The last 3 times Canada tried a 3-5-2 against top opposition, which was against Japan and Brazil in 2019, as well as against the US last year at Olympic qualifiers, things didn’t go well. They didn’t score a goal and lost by a combined score of 11-0, which is far from an ideal result for a team of this calibre. 

Some things have changed since then, however. One, is the emergence of Vanessa Gilles as a veritable centre back option, giving Canada 3 legit centre backs to trot out in a back 3, something that wasn’t the case before. In those losses, they usually either played a midfielder out of position at centre back, such as Quinn or Sophie Schmidt, or a centre back who wasn’t really suited to a back 3, such as Shannon Woeller. 

But with a back 3 of Gilles, Zadorsky and Buchanan, Canada would have 3 high-quality centre backs suited to this sort of active defensive system. 

You could put Buchanan, the 4-time Champions League winner, as the central defender due to her mobility and passing ability, the left-footed Zadorsky at left centre back to play as a ball-playing centre back, and Gilles as the right centre back, where she can use her athleticism and ability to read the game to cause problems. 

Instead of rotating through whoever is most in-form between Zadorsky and Gilles to play alongside Buchanan, as would be the case in a 4 at the back formation, you could put all 3 of them together in a 3-5-2, giving Canada a centre back trio that would certainly give most attackers fits. 

Along with a defensive stopper in the middle such as Scott or Quinn, Canada wouldn’t be caught out by the fact that their full backs would have full license to fly forward, either, giving them even further defensive solidity. 

So all-in-all, there are lots of positives to this formation. 

Canada would be solid at the back, have the ability to transition the ball forward, and be able to trot out two strikers up front, possibly helping them solve their recent goalscoring woes. They could bunker down if needed, or press high as well, depending on the opposition and the personnel available in their squad, giving them flexibility. 

Considering that the formation would both maximize the abilities of some of their best players, while also fixing some of their biggest current tactical limitations, it would be a win-win, which is why they should consider trying it out. 

Canada celebrates a late Sarah Stratagakis winner over Argentina at She Believes Cup (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

Potential Limitations: 

But while there are a lot of positives to trying out the 3-5-2, there are some limitations, as comes with every formation. If we’re going to float the idea of trying out this formation, it only seems fair to point those out ahead of time, allowing for proper risk evaluation. 

First, there is the reality that while Canada would probably get a lot out of Sinclair, they’d take away spots for some really capable attackers. In a 3-5-2, there’s probably only room for maybe 3 of Sinclair, Beckie, Huitema, Leon, Viens, Deanne Rose and Nichelle Prince, with Sinclair and Beckie the likely favourites. 

For a team blessed with attacking talent, you’d like to see them use some of those players, which to be fair, could be done with a 3-4-3, but that’d mean sacrificing a body in midfield, which Canada probably wouldn’t be able to get away with against most top teams. 

And speaking of Beckie, whose best position is as an inverted winger, there isn’t much of a natural fit for her in a 3-5-2. She could play full back against teams that sit deeper, up front with Sinclair or even as a #10 underneath Sinclair and a partner, but her best role is when she’s attacking the channel between opposition full backs and centre backs. 

She could do still do that in any of those 3 roles, to be fair, but seeing that she’s usually best when she receives the ball on the run in that channel, it’d be hard to consistently replicate that in this formation. 

That’s not to say she can’t thrive in this formation, as she is flexible and adaptable enough to make things work, but it’s just worth noting that there’s the possibility that you limit her impact if things go wrong. 

Moving to the defensive end, there’s also the idea that Canada may still be just as susceptible to getting hit on the break as before, which considering that problem usually stemmed from their sloppiness at building from the back, is a valid concern. While this formation may offer them more options to build from the back with, they’d still have to practice using those outlets, which may contribute to the problems possibly persisting, especially in the short-term. 

Lastly, there’s also the fact that despite the formation change, we would still see a lot of the same Canadian players on the pitch, which would suggest that it’s entirely possible that the same problems those players face now would continue. 

The early improvement under Priestman shows that these players respond well to change, but it’s worth noting the youth of the team that she had to work with at this tournament, which could change things. Maybe an introduction of the veterans actually makes it harder for Canada to play the 3-5-2, forcing a return to the 4-3-3 that Priestman started with in Orlando. 

You’ll never really know what would happen until you try it, however, so it could prove to be a trial-by-fire sort of affair with the 3-5-2, one that could prove to be a high-risk, high-reward sort of proposition. 

A risk worth taking: 

When sitting back and looking, however, there’s no better time than now to try things. Canada should have at least a handful of games before the Olympics to prepare, so it’s not like a formation change would see them trying things on the fly during a tournament, which would be less than ideal. 

Something needs to give for this team to start creating more offensively, but that needs to happen without sacrificing the stingy defensive philosophies that they’ve been able to instill in themselves over the last few years. 

The 3-5-2, while risky, could certainly provide that if done properly, so why not give it a go and see what ends up being made of it? 

Heading into the Olympics, Canada will want to avoid a repeat of 2019, where they crashed out of the World Cup in the Round of 16 having scored a paltry 4 goals, despite only conceding 3. 

While defence wins championships, if you don’t give your defenders run support, a lot of strong work in the defensive end can be put to waste, just like that. 

Blessed with the world’s all-time leading international goalscorer, Sinclair, this is one of Canada’s last chances to win any major silverware with her still in the fold, so it’s important that they give her a platform in order to succeed. 

Based on what we’ve seen, that could be leading the line with a partner in a 3-5-2, allowing Canada to embrace the philosophy that has slowly started to gain popularity around the footballing world due to its tactical flexibility. 

Looking Forward:

And at the very least, if they do entertain this switch in formations, they don’t have to be married to the 3-5-2. With a few tactical tweaks, it can easily be a 3-4-3 or a 4-3-3, and teams usually do work on multiple formations to be able to adapt to different opponents in certain instances. 

While the goal is usually to get the most out of your team before worrying about your opponents, having that sort of flexibility allows you to try other formations, knowing that you’ll be able to switch things around if needed. 

Either way, the goal should be for Canada to start building a long-term identity, one that can persist even after the likes of Sinclair and Schmidt have retired. Canada may be focused on the Olympics, and rightly so, but they have the players to also start thinking about making some noise at the World Cup in 2023, of which preparation for starts now, in a sense. 

They could do that in a 4-4-2, a 3-4-3, a 4-1-3-2 or even a 5-2-3, but at the very least, given the pieces they currently have, it seems to make a lot of sense to build off of the 3-5-2. 

Anyways, no matter what they do end up doing, it’ll be curious to see how this team progresses under Priestman going forward, starting with their matchup against England next month. 

There is a lot of potential in this team, but they haven’t always found a way to make the most of it, so at the very least, that should be the main goal going forward, no matter what they end up doing. 

But based on what we’ve seen, at least, if they choose a 3-5-2, it could prove to be beneficial for them going forward, so here’s to hoping that it’s considered. 

Cover photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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