New Look: Analyzing the CanMNT’s 3-5-2 (and why they should keep it) ahead of the 2021 Gold Cup

In this, we break down Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team’s 3-5-2 formation that they debuted back in June, seeing why they should probably keep working on this particular tactical set-up ahead of the 2021 Gold Cup this July (and for the Octagonal, as well).

After a bit of experimentation, they’ve appeared to find the magic formula. 

For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team’s head coach, John Herdman, it was always going to be hard to find a preferred formation to get the most out of his Canadian side, as he had a multitude of good options to choose from. 

From a 4-3-3 that could allow Canada to control more of the ball, to a 3-4-3 that would cause havoc in transition, Herdman had choices when it came to finding an ideal tactical set-up. 

And to be fair, none of the choices were bad ones, and worked relatively well, allowing Canada to get off to a strong start to 2021. In a hybrid 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 that sometimes even became a 4-4-2, Canada found a good balance between ball retention, being good in transition and defending tightly in their fluid formation. 

But then, in June, Herdman found a formation that blended the best of all of those worlds, and that was the 3-5-2, which gave Canada the sort of balance that they needed at the defensive end, while also allowing their offensive big guns to run rampant. 

Thanks to that switch, Canada was able to fly out to a big 4-0 win over Suriname to close out the first round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, before taking care of business across 2 legs against a plucky Haiti side, allowing them to qualify to the Octagonal, the final round of World Cup qualifying, for the first time since 1997. 

So now, heading into the Gold Cup this month, Canada will look to build off of what they showed tactically in June, as they get set to kick off the Octo later this year in September. 

Because of that, they’ve called up a pretty strong squad for the tournament, player availability permitting. They are missing some key pieces, such as Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, who have injuries, but for the most part, Canada has most of what would be considered their ‘A’ squad in the fold for this tournament. 

And while David and Davies’s absences will make it harder for Canada to win, they’re already key contributors to Herdman’s side, and already know their roles within the system, making this tournament more of an opportunity to see some unheralded faces show what they could do for this Canada team going forward. 

As Herdman made sure to point out when the squad was announced, Canada’s plan is to keep progressing as a group, one step at a time, heading into what will be a huge fall for this program.     

“Our job is to stay humble,” Herdman said. “Keep working hard behind the scenes for the players, to keep looking at the process and the journey, not outcomes, and if we can stay focused, we can take this team to a higher place.”

So with all of that in mind, here’s a deeper look at a key part of that process, that 3-5-2, and what Canada will look to prioritize in it during this Gold Cup. 

The defensive set-up:

And to start, it’s important to dive into Canada’s defensive set-up in the 3-5-2, as they proved to be quite the compact unit to break down in June, allowing 0 goals across 3 games in the formation. 

More importantly, though, they hardly gave up any quality chances, only giving up 17 shots across those games, including a measly 4 that were actually on target. 

After a few loose moments in their first game in the 3-5-2 against Suriname, they were nearly impenetrable the rest of the way, too, doing well to limit their opponents to half-chances, making it hard for them to get punished. 

There were a few chances they allowed that might have proved to have been costly against some teams, but as Canada continues to grow in this formation, you’d expect those to go away, making them less concerning for now. 

To start, Canada did their biggest damage in the press, as they were relentless whenever they lost the ball, throwing the kitchen sink at their opponents in an attempt to try and win it back. 

Thanks to the midfield trio of Jonathan Osorio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Stephen Eustaquio, along with Jonathan David up front, those 4 were key in forcing turnovers high up the pitch against Suriname and Haiti. 

Take these next two clips as an example. 

First, there’s this relentless bit of pressure from the Suriname game, where Canada wasted no time in getting to the Suriname defenders as soon as their goalkeeper, Warner Hahn, gave them the ball. 

Then, there’s this clip from the Haiti game, where Canada also wasted no time in getting to Haiti’s players as soon as goalkeeper Josue Duverger released the ball, applying relentless pressure via their front 7 players in the 3-5-2. 

Whenever possible, Canada knew that they could cause problems for their opponents in possession, as the beauty of the 3-5-2 is that it allows a team to press with 2 from the front, 2 out wide, and 3 in the middle, giving teams the capacity to be very aggressive in applying pressure from the front. 

That could backfire against a team with more quality in the middle of the park, an area in which both Suriname and Haiti were lacking, but Canada could just counter that by toning down the level of pressure they apply, choosing instead to apply more of an aggressive secondary press behind a more passive front press. 

Otherwise, the other big tweak that Canada made sure to do was keeping their lines compact when they were without the ball, making it hard for their opponents to break through their waves of pressure. 

From a mid-to-low defensive line, to a compact midfield 5, along with a front 2 who served as guides for their opponents to play into before enacting the press, Canada tried to move as a unit whenever possible, sitting in a compact unit like the one below. 

So while Canada might not be expected to keep up their very impressive run of 5 games without conceding a goal that they have heading into this Gold Cup, it’s important to note that they’ve made noticeable tweaks to improve their previously leaky defence, showing tactical growth. 

To go without conceding a goal in 90 minutes against the likes of Sheraldo Becker and Nigel Hasselbaink on Suriname, before going 180 minutes without conceding against the likes of Duckens Nazon, Frantzdy Pierrot and Derrick Etienne on Haiti is no small feat, as Canada’s 2019 team would have struggled with similar defensive tasks. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how Canada responds against a team with more quality in midfield, such as the US, Mexico or Costa Rica, but so far, the 3-5-2 has positive reviews defensively, which was always going to be the big concern when switching to a formation like this. 

The offensive set-up:

But while the defensive set-up is sturdy, did Canada get the sort of offensive push they were expecting from a switch to the 3-5-2? 

The answer is mostly yes. By unlocking Alphonso Davies in a wing back role, he was lethal in all 3 games, running rampant with the freedom that playing as a wing back provides.

As a result, he scored 1 goal and added 2 assists against Suriname, and while he didn’t pick up any goal contributions against Haiti, he still put up some gaudy numbers, completing 14 dribbles and picking up 6 key passes across both legs of that series. 

But even from a team-based tactical standpoint, Canada did have some really good sequences of possession, ones where they held onto the ball for extended periods of time, moving around their opponents before attempting a killer blow. 

Here’s an example of that from the Suriname game, one that didn’t end as well as they would’ve liked, but one where they showed some good movement and passing. 

And here’s an example of what happened when they started to find more of that killer instinct, this time coming from the 2nd Haiti game, as they created a great chance that was just narrowly flagged as offside on Cyle Larin.

Starting from the back, where Canada made sure to originate their possession, movement was the name of the game for Canada in the 3-5-2, as the midfielders and wing backs played a big role in their ability to play with the ball. 

From there, they then tried to get their forwards involved once they got closer to the opponents half, either through runs in behind to stretch out space, or by dropping into space to serve as an option for a 1-2, opening up space in other areas of the pitch. 

Thanks to that, they caused all sorts of problems for Suriname and Haiti, generating a whopping 26 shots on target across their 3 games, scoring 8 goals in the process.

And if anything, they could’ve arguably had way more goals, as their finishing boots were mostly lacking in those 3 games, something that we’re not too used to seeing from them. 

So for Canada, their goal offensively this window will be to find more ways to generate chances from possession, especially with no Davies and David, who can sometimes generate their own opportunities out of nothing. 

That’ll hopefully mean more goals such as their lone tally on the road in Haiti from their 1-0 win the first leg, where they put together a fantastic move, one where they had fantastic movement, passing and then a nice finish, scoring arguably their best team goal in their 3 games with the 3-5-2. 

How might it look now? 

Now, though, the big question for Canada will be to figure out how to best continue their use of the 3-5-2 at the Gold Cup, especially with no Davies or David.

With Davies’s injury coming at the last minute, there is no replacement announced for him as of writing, meaning that there is no true left back on the roster. Calling up someone like Cristian Gutierrez or Zorhan Bassong could change that, and that remains a possibility heading into the start of the tournament on Sunday, but until then, Canada’s options at left wing back would be wingers Tyler Pasher or Tajon Buchanan, or full backs Richie Laryea or Alistair Johnston. 

Given how important the wing back position is, though, one will wonder if that’ll tempt Herdman to switch away from the formation, returning to more of a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. 

He could do that, and there’d be nothing wrong with doing so, as most teams have flexible formations, but it’d be nice to see him stick with the 3-5-2 seeing what it could do for Canada in the long-term. Even if that means tweaking it to a 3-4-3, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 against certain opponents, that’s fine, but continuing to test out the 3-5-2 has to be the priority whenever possible. 

But assuming they stay in the 3-5-2, it’ll now be interesting to see in what direction Herdman goes at certain positions, primarily the centre backs, wing backs and forwards. 

Starting at the back, will Kamal Miller slot in seamlessly in place for one of Scott Kennedy, Doneil Henry, Steven Vitoria or even Alistair Johnston, who all put up good shifts at centre back the last camp? With Miller playing in a back 3 on a Montreal side who has conceded the 3rd-fewest goals in MLS, it’ll be hard to leave him out, so it’ll be interesting to see who the 3 centre backs end up being, as Miller, Kennedy and Henry seem to be the early favourites right now. 

Moving to wing back, it’ll then be curious to see who Herdman chooses to play at that left wing back position, with the right wing back position basically being Laryea’s (although Herdman isn’t shy in putting Jonhston there if needed). Will it be the left-footed Pasher? Will it be a replacement in Bassong or Gutierrez, who are more suited to the position? Or will it be Laryea, Johnston or Buchanan, who all played as right wing backs last camp? 

Then, moving up front, that striker spot alongside Larin remains the other big battle, with Lucas Cavallini sitting as the big favourite to replace David, with his pressing ability being a big reason why. If not, Ayo Akinola could be a good option, even if he isn’t as active defensively as Cavallini or David are. Otherwise, someone like Theo Corbeanu, Junior Hoilett or even Buchanan are all options that could probably work, even despite not being traditional #9s, as their job would be to play off of Larin, anyways.

Otherwise, there could also be some debate around potential midfield starters, but last camp showed that Osorio, Eustaquio and Kaye are the easy favourites to start right now, especially with no Atiba Hutchinson and Scott Arfield at the Gold Cup, although the always-reliable Samuel Piette is an option to consider. 

But either way, there are plenty of options at all positions, which is good for Herdman, who will have plenty to ponder in terms of picking his starters. 

Plus, any extra players who miss out on spots can just become useful super-subs, so it’s not as if they wouldn’t have a part to play, either. 

Ultimately, though, with the 3-5-2 showing plenty of promise as a potential set-up the last camp, there’s no reason not to at least try to continue with it this Gold Cup, as it’ll be a good tactical framework to have in the back pocket ahead of the Octo. 

Looking Forward:

So now, the final choice is in Herdman’s hands, but there are certainly plenty of good reasons to keep working with the 3-5-2, giving Canada a formation that can get the most out of their talented players. 

It might not be as straightforward as a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, but it will allow them to get the most out of Davies, and with 2021 seeming to be the year of the wing back, Canada finding a way to extract the most out of their World XI left back isn’t the worst tactical idea in the world to explore long-term. 

Plus, it’d finally give Canada a formation to complement their continuously evolving tactical identity, of which we’ve been monitoring closely for almost 17+ months now, showing their growth as a team. 

As seen in March, the 3-5-2 played a big role in their historic triumph of reaching the Octo then, and they’ll hope that it’ll allow them to make similar history at the Gold Cup this summer, as well as in the Octo starting this fall. 

Continuing what has quickly started to become a memorable year for Canadian soccer, the 3-5-2 has started to become a staple of that, and hopefully June was just the beginning of what’s to come from Canada in this formation. 

Up Next: Canada vs Martinique, Sunday, July 11th, 2021, 15:30 PDT, 18:30 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Doug DeFelice

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