Xs and Os: An in-depth breakdown of the tactical framework and standout individuals from Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team’s dominant start to World Cup qualifiers

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team wrapped up a successful start to round 1 of World Cup qualifiers this past week, winning both of their games over Bermuda and the Cayman Islands by a combined score of 16-1, setting them up well for the rest of this first round. In this, we dive deeper into the tactics used, as well as break down the play of a few individuals that played a big role for Canada in these games. 

After a long time away, they were all just happy to be back together. 

Nearly 500 days after they last played a competitive game, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team finally found themselves back together last week, as they kickstarted their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign down in Florida.

They may have been short a few faces, for reasons ranging from quarantine laws to personal absences, but for the most part, Canada got a chance to kickstart their road to 2022 with most of their best players on board the bus, as well.

And what a start it proved to be. 

Their bus proved to be quite unstoppable in these games, as they rolled over Bermuda and the Cayman Islands by a combined score of 16-1, giving them 6 points out of 6 in their quest to progress past the first round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying process. 

To be fair, that was expected of Canada, who are the favourites to progress from their group, which also includes Suriname and Aruba, the two teams they’ll face next window. On the other hand, Canada has rarely imposed itself in games like this ever before, cruising to a 5-1 win over a very solid Bermudan side, before steamrolling the Cayman Islands 11-0, setting their all-time record for biggest victory in the process. 

If you’ve followed the Canadian Men’s National Team for a long time, you’ll know that they rarely make things easy for themselves in these sort of games, so it was good to see them do what they needed to and some, showing a ruthless persona that most fans certainly weren’t used to seeing out of them before. 

The quality of opposition can certainly be questioned, no doubt, but the fact of the matter is that Canada has historically participated in similar matchups where they made things a lot harder on themselves, so you can’t fault the cold approach. 

Now, the stiffer tests await in the next window, however, with a clash versus Suriname on matchday 4 of this first-round looming large as the biggest matchup of the group. Given that only 1 team will progress from this group to the second round, the margin for error is small, especially considering that each team will only play each other once, making each match crucial. 

With Suriname and Canada both currently sitting with 6 points out of 6, you’d expect them to pick up all 3 points in their next game, which come versus Bermuda and Aruba, respectively, making their last game essentially a ‘win and you’re in’ type game. 

That’s why Canada ran up the score in these games, as goal difference could be pivotal in that last game, given that the team with the better differential will be able to progress with a draw, forcing the other side to attack and open themselves up on the counter. 

As they look to get to the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers for the first time this century, something that will happen if they progress past a two-legged series in the second round (if they make it out of this first round), they’ll believe that they’re on track to something special thanks to this strong start.

It’s a long road, one that’ll be a grind to overcome, but with the nature of this format, coming out of the gates strong is paramount, and Canada did that here. 

Even though the games were tough to judge based on the quality of opposition, as we mentioned earlier, there were plenty of good things to take away from their games other than the scores, as well. 

So here’s a deep-dive into what to take away after this past week, as Canada set themselves up nicely for the rest of round one with their play down in Florida. 

Trap avoided:

But while you certainly would’ve hoped that Canada could’ve played stronger opposition, there’s a reason why cliches such as the ‘taking things one game at a time’ exist, and that’s because there is a certain level of credence to them. 

As Canada’s head coach John Herdman said after the Cayman Islands drubbing, all that you can ask from your team is to bring their best to every game, no matter how strong the opposition. 

“You can only play the team in front of you,” Herdman said after that game. “Happy with the level of professionalism that the guys showed tonight, they had a clear mindset of being ruthless which would lead to the outcome of making history.”

And if you look around at the rest of the first round of qualifiers, not every team was able to do that. One such example in CONCACAF was El Salvador, ranked 70th in the world, who drew 183rd ranked Montserrat, putting a dent in their World Cup qualifying quest. 

Considering that 73rd-ranked Canada had to face 169th-ranked Bermuda and 193rd-ranked Cayman Islands this window, they easily could’ve fallen into a similar trap to El Salvador, dropping needless points to lower-ranked opposition. 

If anything, it also shows how ridiculous CONCACAF’s original World Cup qualifying format for this cycle was, as El Salvador was a pandemic away from being gifted a spot in the final round, but it also shows that in general, World Cup Qualifiers are never to be taken lightly. Just look at Europe, as an example, where there were upsets galore across the continent this past week, with the most famous one probably being North Macedonia’s 2-1 upset of 2014 World Cup champions Germany on Wednesday. 

So while it’s hard to judge how well Canada actually played in these games, their ruthless mentality can only be applauded, as they kept themselves from falling into a trap that a lot of teams find themselves caught in. 

That’s all anyone could’ve asked for from them ahead of these games, and they did that, which was positive to see. 

Tactical framework continues to grow:

And although it’s hard to judge how well a team played in games like these, they’re not completely useless from an analytical standpoint, either. 

Weaker opposition may make some players look a bit better than they usually are, but from a tactical standpoint, a team’s approach can transfer from these sorts of games to bigger clashes. 

Just look at one such example from 2019, when Canada practiced certain tactics in a pair of September games against Cuba to prepare for a clash with the US in October, a match they ended up winning mostly through their excellent tactical plan. 

So from a tactical standpoint, it was positive to see Canada work on several of the same philosophies that they’d started to instill back in 2019, while also adding a new few wrinkles to their game. 

Their set-up remains rather similar from the get-go, as they continue to set up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, depending on the opponent, with the biggest changes being in how they attack their opponents. 

In the first game against Bermuda, they went for their more cautious set-up, using a 4-4-2 for the 6th game in a row. That’s the sort of set-up Canada will probably use against Suriname, as they most famously introduced it in that win over the US, so there’s no surprise they used it against a plucky Bermudan side as a test-run of sorts. 

Defensively, the set-up remains a 4-4-2, one with a traditional back 4, which in this case consisted of Sam Adekugbe, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria and Richie Laryea. The personnel may change, but the goal remains for them to get behind the ball in a compact mid-to-low block, when out of position, with the height of their defensive line based on where the opponent has the ball.

Here’s an example of that, as Canada’s line sat deep when the ball was sent forward by Bermuda, with the midfield dropping to join them when they realized that. 

(To learn more about how the defensive line might shift, here’s a piece we did before the Bermuda game looking at how Canada might set up, something they actually ended up making a reality with their system).

In front of the defensive line, the block of 4 in midfield tries to sit not too far in front of them, like what happened in the above shot, which is also something that happens in the photo below, as Canada’s midfield 4 made sure to drop as soon as Bermuda bypassed Canada’s front two pressers. 

And speaking of Canada’s frontmen, they were charged with pressing their opponents to certain areas of the pitch, allowing their defence to get set up behind them. 

Here’s a shot demonstrating the sort of two-man pressing that they’ll typically try to do. 

It’s a pretty routine defensive set-up, one they’ve mostly stuck with since those Cuba games, with the biggest tweaks being in terms of how high they keep their line, as they’ve shifted from a higher line to that aforementioned mid-to-low block. 

Offensively, however, is where we saw plenty of changes, as they elected to attack in more of a 3-4-3 with Alphonso Davies being the centrepiece of the attacking system as the wide left player in the block of 4, allowing him to emulate the sort of attacking runs he makes as a left back for Bayern. 

Here’s a shot showing where Davies primarily set himself up, hugging the touchline as that wide midfielder, finding himself just off-screen around where the arrow is (apologies for the quality of the photo). 

With Adekugbe behind him, he didn’t have to actually play as a left back, but he wasn’t a forward, either, leaving him to make runs from deeper positions, which is something he excels at (more on that in a bit). 

On the other side of the pitch, Laryea played a big role by pushing forward whenever possible, filling in the wide right position in the middle 4, but unlike Davies, he was tasked with covering the whole flank. 

What was unique about this 3-4-3 was how staggered it was, however, mostly depending on where Davies ended up on his runs. If he cut inside, Adekugbe pushed up and overlapped him, leaving one of Atiba Hutchinson or Stephen Eustaquio to drop into the back 3 to compensate for him missing, but if Davies stayed wide, Adekugbe sort of stuck back as part of the back 3. 

Here’s an example of Adekugbe sticking back as part of the defensive 3, allowing Canada’s midfielders to play further forward in the 3-4-3. 

And here’s a clip of Adekugbe overlapping when Davies cut inside, allowing Canada to keep their width in attack. 

Up front, Lucas Cavallini played as the nominal forward, while Cyle Larin dropped into a deeper forward role, allowing him to run onto crosses from deeper positions, something he does a lot of with Besiktas (more on that later).

In this shot, here’s an example of Larin dropping down and receiving the ball, freeing up space for his teammates to run ahead of him into. 

And in this example, Larin gets set up to make one of those famous deep runs, leaving Cavallini and Hoilett to push the defenders back, freeing up space for him to run onto a cross. 

On the right flank, Junior Hoilett alternated between cutting inside to allow Laryea to overlap him and staying wide and allowing Laryea to underlap him, giving Canada plenty of bodies both centrally and out wide. 

Then, moving onto the game against the Cayman Islands, the defensive set-up mostly stayed the same, but with their opponents offering much less in transition, there were few instances where Canada actually had to drop into their 4-4-2, as they’d often win the ball back before then. 

Offensively, their tactics were similar despite rotating in 9 new starters, with the lone holdovers being Larin and Davies. Davies was actually deployed as a left back against the Cayman Islands, but much like against Bermuda, he had full license to roam down the left side. He didn’t have the cover of Adekugbe, though, and he didn’t really need it, but just in case, the more defensive Samuel Piette dropped back to give Canada a back 3 whenever Davies and fellow full back, Alistair Johnston, pushed forward, giving them that extra body defensively.

So if anything, the lone change versus the Cayman Islands was that Canada played more of a traditional and symmetrical 3-4-3 in that game, slightly shifting away from the one that was heavily slanted towards Davies on the left side from the Bermuda game. 

By putting a midfield triangle of Piette, Mark Anthony Kaye and David Wotherspoon, that left the two aforementioned names to push forward while Piette sat back, while a front three of Larin, Liam Millar and Theo Corbeanu saw Corbeanu and Millar act as nominal wingers, while Larin did his thing by running onto balls from deep.

In this example, here’s a look at how Canada’s 3-4-3 looked against the Cayman Islands, with Piette tucked in between the centre backs, plus Davies and Johnston as the wide players in the midfield 4, making it very symmetrical.

(Apologies once again for the blurry image).

And in this next shot, here’s another look of it further up the pitch, with Davies in possession in a wide area. 

This gives you an idea of how even though Davies was listed as a left back, he played nearly the same position as he did against Bermuda, with the lone difference being that he had no cover beneath him in Sam Adekugbe, as Herdman elected to go with that extra body in midfield to help break down the Cayman Islands deep block.

Ultimately, the plan was to unleash Davies on the break in both games, hence the little tweaks, and considering he had 2 goals, 3 assists and 10 key passes in two games, mission accomplished, there. 

He’s their best player, and Canada knows that, so it was interesting to see Canada find a way to emulate the system at Bayern that allows him to thrive offensively, while also offering some backup plans to keep him from having to do too much defensive work. 

The only personnel change that could possibly be suggested in hindsight would’ve been to bring in someone like Mark Anthony Kaye in midfield for someone like Hoilett, who didn’t get that much service against Bermuda, giving Canada more transitional threat in that area of the pitch. 

Aside from that, however, there wasn’t too much to nitpick about in terms of the players who were there, with the more interesting discussions being about fitting in players who weren’t actually there. 

But considering that the two biggest players missing were Jonathan David and Scott Arfield, two of Canada’s most flexible players tactically, you’re not too worried about fitting them in at the moment, as you’ll be sure to find a way to get them into this very flexible offensive system. 

3 individual player storylines to highlight tactically:

Moving on from the collective, however, we’ll use this section to look at a few individuals that offered up intriguing performances at their position, as these players found a way to make a big impact from within Herdman’s system. 

There were many players we could’ve looked at in this section, but with the Bermuda game offering up more of a first-choice lineup and a higher calibre of opposition, we prioritized performances in that game to highlight here. 

Alphonso Davies: 

And in that case, it only feels right to start off with Davies, who we sort of highlighted a bit in the tactical section, but we’ll use this section to dive a little deeper into his efforts for Canada this window. 

As mentioned earlier, he led the way for Canada offensively, putting up 2 goals, 3 assists and 10 key passes, while also adding 16 successful dribbles on 21 attempts. He took nearly every set piece for Canada, as well, be it corners, free kicks and even a penalty, plus was involved in most attacks, just overall showing the sort of star power that he has to offer to this Canadian team.

Defensively, he was no slouch, either, winning 23 of 39 of his ground duels, adding 2 tackles and 2 interceptions, as well, showing off the ways in which his game has diversified ever since he’s moved to Bayern. 

This Canadian side is truly Davies’s team now, and he really showed that for the first time this window, showing that he’s comfortable with the spotlight that being a star player has to offer. 

It’s going to be curious to see how he performs against top-level opposition, but just to see him impose his superiority in these games is a good first step, one that you’d imagine that he builds off of going forward. 

And another area that stands out is how fit he is, as he was able to play 180 minutes in the span of 5 days and not look fatigued doing so, covering a lot of ground in the process. 

To get an idea of how much ground he covered, here’s his heatmap from both games. 

He could seemingly run for days and not get tired, and it’s not like he’s jogging around either, as he’d often be making gut-busting sprints up and down the pitch whenever possible. 

Building off of what we looked at tactically, however, is where he showed the most intrigue, as his ability to make runs from deep proved to be devastating, especially against Bermuda, where he had 3 assists and 8 key passes in a dominant performance. 

Here’s a compilation of some of those sequences from that game.

First, there’s an outside run where he ran into space out wide before setting up Larin with a cutback, but Canada’s #9 just had his shot just blocked.

Then, he made a great inside run between the full back and centre back, allowing him to get on the end of an Adekugbe through ball before setting up Larin for his second of the game.

Not wanting to be outdone, he then makes a devastating outside run, one that Larin finds him in stride for, before setting up Cavallini, who probably still has nightmares of missing this chance.

Continuing his quest to cause as many Bermudan headaches as possible, he then makes another outside run, this time chasing onto a high Adekugbe ball, which he meets before cutting inside and unleashing a goalbound shot, one that was only kept out by a great block.

Moving to the second half, he then made a bursting run down the outside, latching onto a ball that came loose when Larin was fouled, before setting up his dispossessed teammate for his hat trick.

Lastly, he made a similar outside run, latching onto yet another Adekugbe ball, before cutting back a similar ball for Liam Millar, who just slashed at his shot a bit. 

As you can see from those many clips, Davies is just so good at attacking defences from deeper positions, something that dates back to his days with the Vancouver Whitecaps, but the question always remains where to actually deploy him to get the most out of him. 

With Bayern, he plays as a left back, but he has the license to run forward without too much worry about leaving his defence exposed, a luxury he doesn’t have for Canada, as their centre backs aren’t quite at the same level as Bayern’s.

If you stick him too far forward, however, it’s easier to mark him out of games, as he’s not able to build up speed before destabilizing defences, something he does so well. 

So as we saw, the answer to getting the most out of him is by putting him somewhere in between, allowing you to get the most out of him offensively. 

Plus, almost as a bonus, you get to take advantage of his defensive impact without actually sticking him at left back, something he showed against Bermuda. 

Here’s an example of that, as in this clip Adekugbe slipped on the ball, but Davies bursts into action nearly right away, recovering the ball before the Bermudan winger got into a dangerous area. 

So all-in-all, there were encouraging signs all around from Davies, who will be a key piece for Canada to lean on going forward, and he showed that he’s ready to shoulder that responsibility in this camp. 

With some of the names that Canada has at their disposal offensively, such as Larin, David, Hoilett, Cavallini and Arfield, among others, having Davies open up space for them can only mean good things offensively for this team, as he showed in these games.

Considering that they’ve only failed to score in a game once in 18 games under Herdman now, with that game coming without many of their regulars in a friendly against Iceland in January of 2020, Canada doing more of what they’ve done so far only be a good thing, and Davies will play a big role in helping them do that. 

Cyle Larin: 

And look no further than Larin to see the sort of impact Davies can have on his teammates, as Larin was excellent this camp, adding 4 goals in 2 games. 

In the first game against Bermuda, he was the star man, scoring 3 goals in the 5-1 win, all assisted by Davies, continuing his excellent form for both club and country in 2020/2021. 

As mentioned earlier, a big part of that comes down to a tactical tweak that was made by Herdman to free up the Besiktas striker more, mimicking the Turkish club’s special set-up for him. Despite having the frame of more of a traditional #9, he’s better at playing like a false nine, one that participates in build-up play before arriving late to the box to score goals. 

Herdman recognized that, mentioning that it was something he was looking to capitalize on before the games, and that manifested itself in the Bermuda match, something the Canadian head coach made sure to chat about after the fact.

“He’s an absolute predator,” Herdman said to describe Larin’s performance versus Bermuda. “He knows how to time that run into the box and he just glides when he moves, and he has that ability to finish in so many different ways.” 

And that’s backed up by his heat maps from both games that he played, as he was as active in other areas in the final third as he was in the box, where he’d only show up to just to get on the end of crossed balls. 

That’s how he scored 4 goals on 6 shots on target in two games, as he made an art of showing up at the right time to convert high-percentage chances, something he’s made a habit of doing for Besiktas. 

Here are some examples of that. 

We first saw this clip a few moments ago to analyze Davies’s run, but keep an eye on Larin in this one. He begins this run at the complete right of the frame, making a midfielder-esque late run to get on the end of the low cut back. 

Then, for his goal, he makes another devastating late run, arriving at the edge of an already crowded box to slot home, not before zigzagging through a few defenders first, though. 

Lastly, on his hat trick goal, he doesn’t make as deep of a run as he did before, but he immediately drops into a soft space behind Davies when he loses the ball, forcing the defender to choose between both players in a 2v1. 

The defender chose Davies, leaving Larin open, and he made no mistake with the chance when the ball came to him. 

He just consistently made the habit of making these stealthy runs in these games, making it hard for defenders to track him, at least not until it was too late, that is. 

But while Larin was excellent at doing that, the question now remains – how do you fit him and Jonathan David into a lineup when both are fit? 

Considering they both like to make very similar deep runs, it’s a good question, one that Herdman will have to answer. 

Looking at things, though, it seems like the best solution would be to pair David and Larin up top, with David replacing Cavallini in the lineup that Canada used against Bermuda. You’d lose Cavallini’s pressing ability by doing that, but David is no slouch in that department, either, and considering that most of Canada’s crosses in these games were low ones, Larin and David’s ability to score on those balls more than offsets what you lose by taking out Cavallini.

It’s no coincidence that in the first game Cavallini struggled a bunch with low crosses, failing to sort out his feet in time, but in the second game, where Canada crossed in the air more, he scored a hat trick off of 3 high crosses. 

Cavallini can score with low crosses, as his struggles versus Bermuda were more indicative of rust, than anything, but if Canada is going to keep crossing low, a noted specialty of Davies and Laryea on the flanks, Larin and David’s ability to get on the end of those makes a partnership between them worth exploring. 

There’s nothing wrong with having Cavallini come off of the bench, either, so that’d be a win-win for Herdman, as well. 

With Larin in the sort of form that he’s in, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup at this point, and he proved that this camp.

Richie Laryea: 

Lastly, we’ll look at one of the most intriguing players on this roster, Laryea, who’s had a meteoric rise these past 2 years. 

It’s wild to think that at the start of 2019 he signed to Toronto FC as a midfielder after being released from Orlando, but since then he’s quickly become one of the best full backs in MLS, playing a big role for Canada in the process. 

The timing of his rise was perfect, as he earned his chance in September of 2019 while Herdman looked for new options at right back after a tough 2019 Gold Cup for right backs Zachary Brault-Guillard and Marcus Godinho, allowing Laryea to work himself into the Canadian fold. 

Since then, Laryea has been undroppable, for good reason, and he showed that this camp. He’s just such a dynamic player going forward, whipping in dangerous crosses at every opportunity, but he’s also a solid defender, getting stuck in whenever needed. 

He had to play a big role for Canada vs Bermuda, as well, covering nearly every blade of grass on the right-hand side, even popping up on the left side to score his first-ever goal for Canada. 

Just take a look at his heat map from that game to get an idea of how active he was in that game. 

He played a similar offensive role to the one he plays for Toronto, one where he’s tasked with charging forward at every opportunity, and he wasn’t shy in doing so for Canada in this camp. 

Here are some examples of that. 

In this clip, he sees Hoilett push wide, and elects to underlap into the channel opened up by his wider positioning, before playing him in for a chance with a 1-2. 

Then, later in the game, we see more of a typical Laryea overlap, as he pushes forward into the space opened up by Hoilett cutting inside to whip in a dangerous low ball, one that caused all sorts of problems for the Bermudan defence.

He then also showed that he’s not just someone who runs into the box to do low cutbacks, whipping in an early ball in this clip, one that finds Cavallini’s head for a brilliant chance. 

Lastly, he makes another devastating underlap and gets played in behind, before making a devastating cutback, one that Hoilett probably should’ve put away for Canada’s 4th goal.

But while he did a lot of his best work at the offensive end, he had a few good defensive actions, as well, showing off his two-way ability. 

In this clip, he uses his speed to close down the space on a Bermudan attacker, winning the ball back for Canada in a good position, allowing them to get a quick chance. 

Later, he once again makes a similar defensive action, this time tackling the ball out of play, winning time for his team to track back and avoid being hit on the counter-attack.

We didn’t see much of Laryea’s 1v1 defensive ability, as Bermuda’s left winger hardly tested him that high up the pitch, but through actions like those, you can see why. 

And overall, it was just another top performance from a player we’ve come to expect it from, which is why he’s quickly become so undroppable in Herdman’s eyes. 

So from a Canadian perspective, you have to be fascinated by recent reports that Besiktas is now keeping an eye on Laryea, as him making a move like that could only push his game forward even further. 

As an already crucial cog in Canada’s system, that sort of progression could prove to be massive for him, but at the very least, as he’s shown these past two years, he’ll push himself every game at TFC until a move like this happens, making him a key piece on this Canadian team.

Looking Forward: 

Now, Canada’s players have returned to their clubs, for the time being, allowing them to have a few months of club football before reconvening in around 2 months’ time to once again don the maple leaf. 

Again, as mentioned at the beginning, this was a fascinating camp to keep a close eye on, mostly due to the fact that it had been so long since this team played games, but also due to the many interesting tactical tweaks and individual performances that we highlighted here. 

So while it was hard to judge Canada’s overall progression in these sort of games, there’s plenty of positives that should carry over to their next window, one where they’ll be expected to play some tougher games. 

With such little preparation time before the games get tough, Canada needed to take advantage of any opportunity to play competitive games, and they did that during this window. 

Hopefully, that helps them in June, allowing them to bust their lengthy World Cup qualifying final round slump.

If some of these players keep playing at the level that they have, however, that shouldn’t be too big of an issue, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on that, guided by what we learned from this past week and a bit. 

Cover Photo via: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer

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