Tangoing with the Ticos: Analyzing Costa Rica’s tactical profile ahead of 2021 Gold Cup quarter-final clash with CanMNT

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team will take on Costa Rica on Sunday in the quarter-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup. Here is what to expect from the Ticos then, as Canada looks to return to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup for the first time since 2007. 

After a week-long break, a sprint to the final now awaits. 

For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, they’ll feel rested and ready for what awaits them on Sunday, when they take on Costa Rica in the quarter-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup. 

As they look to get back to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup for the first time since 2007, a stiff test awaits them in Los Ticos, who are among the giants of CONCACAF. Having made 4 of the last 5 World Cups as one of CONCACAF’s representatives, they’ve got history unrivalled by many in this region, making it a tough challenge for Canada to overcome. 

But despite that, if there’s a Canadian team that is going to topple Costa Rica, this one has as good of a shot as any. Despite having no Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David this Gold Cup, Canada did relatively well in the group stages, finishing with 2 wins and 1 loss in a solid group with the US, Haiti and Martinique. 

They come into this quarter-final having lost their most recent game, a 1-0 loss to the US, but they outplayed the Americans despite that scoreline, just finding themselves felled by an early goal, showing that they can compete with some of the best that this tournament has to offer. 

On the other side, Costa Rica is in fine form, having won all 3 of their group stage games, sweeping a solid group with Guadeloupe, Jamaica and Suriname, as they and the US were the only 2 teams out of 16 participants to win all 3 of their games through the group stage phase of this Gold Cup. 

Two of their wins were by just 1 goal, coming against Jamaica and Suriname, with the other being a 3-1 win over Guadeloupe, but they did what they needed to do in order to progress comfortably, showing their status as powerhouses of the region. 

So despite missing star goalkeeper Keylor Navas for this tournament, leaving him to rest and prepare for the start of the season, they’ve emerged as one of the favourites to lift the trophy this year. 

For Canada, this makes them a great matchup for head coach John Herdman to sink his teeth into. To win, you must beat the best, and this Canadian team needs all the tests they can get before the fall, when they embark on their quest through the Octagonal, the final round of World Cup qualifying. 

Here’s more of what to expect from Costa Rica on Sunday, when Canada takes on the Ticos for the first time since 2017, when the two sides combined for a 1-1 draw at the 2017 Gold Cup. 

Tactical identity: 

To start, it’s important to dive into their tactical identity, as they’ve proven to be quite the interesting team this Gold Cup. 

As mentioned earlier, Costa Rica is a powerhouse in this region for a reason, and that’s because they’ve built a long-term identity of how they believe the game should be played, and have stuck to that over the years. 

On their day, they can defend well and send numbers forward in transition, but also play in possession and press, making them a bit of a chameleon tactically. 

So far this tournament, though, they’ve chosen to be more direct, which makes sense as they’re not the Costa Rica of old, meaning that they don’t have the technicians in midfield that used to make them tick. 

Just to get an idea of how so, here are some snippets of their game against the opponent that probably most closely resembles the style that Canada will be expected to play on Sunday, Suriname. 

In that game, Suriname actually went up 1-0  before Costa Rica stormed back and snatched back a 2-1 result, as the Ticos showed good experience and poise to overcome a bright Suriname start. 

To start, Costa Rica came out with a 4-3-3, their preferred formation so far this tournament, with a flat back 4, a more defensive midfield and then a natural front 3 with 2 wide players and a true #9. 

Defensively, they tried to sit behind the ball at every opportunity, shifting into a 4-5-1 whenever Suriname had the ball, as they elected to suffocate space in their half. 

Here’s what that looked like. 

From there, they just sat back and let Suriname make the mistakes, pressuring them whenever they threatened that middle 5. It wasn’t the most aggressive defensive system, but it made it hard to play through them, as they were rarely threatened in transition, which is probably their biggest weakness right now. 

More interestingly, they hardly pressed, as well, giving Suriname all the time they desired on the ball, only choosing to press whenever Suriname broke into their half. 

Just to get an idea of how passive their pressure was, check out this 40-second clip from that game, one in which they let Suriname pass around the outside before pouncing on a ball into the middle, winning back possession. 

And those are the moments in which Costa Rica then came alive. 

As soon as the ball was won back, they sprung into action, sending their wingers in transition, trying to get 1v1s and 2v1s whenever possible. 

Here’s an example of that. 

And speaking of 1v1s, that’s a play that Canada will have to get used to seeing a lot of on Sunday, as Costa Rica really liked to get their wingers going in transition. 

For the first half against Suriname, that was Columbus Crew speedster Luis Diaz, but other wingers such as Joel Campbell and Ariel Lassiter also tend to operate at their best in transition, giving all sorts of threats for Canada to keep an eye on. 

When those guys get moving in transition, it can be a sight to behold, and Suriname’s defenders quickly learned that in their clash, as will Canada.

Lastly, though, it’s worth noting that Costa Rica tended to avoid playing through the middle, which does benefit Canada, who should have a significant advantage in that area of the field. 

Just take this attack from Costa Rica, as an example. 

Despite having a good chance to go at Suriname right down the middle, they had zero support in that area of the park when the ball arrived there, forcing them to try a lower-percentage look from a wide area. 

To give credit to them, they know how they want to play, and do their best to do so, but it certainly gives an idea of how they’ll look on Sunday, as well as give an idea of what Canada should watch out for. 

How should Canada counter that?

So with that in mind, how should Canada counter that?

To start, there are a few easy things to keep an eye on. 

First, they need to defend a little deeper, nullifying a bit of the space that Costa Rica will look to attack into. 

Secondly, they need to assert their dominance in midfield, giving them more control of the match at both ends. 

Lastly, they need to find a way to break down Costa Rica’s deep 4-5-1, as Canada struggled against the US when the Americans went into a low block, of which Costa Rica will be expected to emulate. 

Because of that, Canada should either go for a 4-3-3, or stick with their 3-5-2 with a few tweaks, allowing them to do all of those things. 

Considering they’ve mostly played with a 3-5-2 as of late, and will likely do so in the fall, they should probably stick with that, so here’s what they could do to address all of those things. 

By rolling with this formation, Canada would have a back 5 that could shift into a back 4, as Kamal Miller has played left back, meaning that if needed, Johnston could drop back into right back, making a flat back 4 with Henry, Vitoria and Miller, allowing Buchanan to make it a 4-3-3. 

But otherwise, they’d get the control they need in midfield with Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio, who have proven to be a pretty efficient trio together, while also getting the work rate of Lucas Cavallini up front. 

The last wild card, however? 

Junior Hoilett. If he plays, he can be deployed as both a #10 and as a winger, helping Canada break down Costa Rica, but if not, Canada does have a few other options in his position. 

They can either go for a true wildcard like Theo Corbeanu, who has the x-factor required to break down a low block, or they can even add in someone Samuel Piette, who’d slide into the #6 position and push Kaye and Eustaquio further forward, allowing Canada to use their passing ability higher up the pitch. 

Elsewhere, though, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with someone like Richie Laryea, who didn’t feature in that lineup, but could very well play a big role in this game. Does Canada choose to play him further forward? Or does he take the place of Johnston, as he is speedy enough to handle the Costa Rican threat, although that would come at the cost of his offence? 

Either way, though, there are no bad options when it comes to that dilemma, and the others that await Herdman, showing that Canada has choices when it comes down to how they want to break down this Costa Rican side. 

Canada’s players react after the National Anthem vs the US (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

Players to Watch: 

Elsewhere, here are some players to watch on this Costa Rican side for Sunday. 

Luis Diaz:

To start, Diaz is the obvious pick, as his speed on the counter has the potential to cause fits for the Canadian defenders. 

He’s yet to score this tournament, but he’s been lively, and could certainly have fun against a Canadian backline that has looked far from settled at times this tournament. 

Because of that, Canada might look to deploy the more defensive-minded Alistair Johnston up against him, but either way, whoever is matched up against Diaz will have to be alert, unless they want to deal with a long night, that is. 

Celso Borges: 

Moving on, Borges is an interesting one to keep an eye on, as despite being deployed in midfield, he has 3 goals, tied for 2nd in the tournament. 

For a Costa Rican side that doesn’t really play through the midfield, it’s been a surprise to see him pick up those goals, but he’s made a habit of making some good late-arriving runs on crosses, which is something that Canada will have to keep an eye out for. 

His main job description will be to help shield his defence, though, so look for him to do that to the best of his ability, helping his team maintain their defensive solidity. 

Esteban Alvarado:

Lastly, Alvarado will be the interesting name to keep an eye on in goal, as Costa Rica’s missing Navas, as mentioned, but are also missing his replacement, Leonel Moreira, who picked up a red card in Costa Rica’s last group stage game, suspending him for this clash. 

Despite that, Alvarado came in and looked decent in relief, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, as he actually started the game before against Suriname, after Moreira had started the opener. 

So although it’s hard to tell if the 31-year-old Moreira or the 32-year-old Alvarado was the actual starter, they’ve got no choice now with Moreira’s suspension, so Alvarado will have to come up big in order to prove that Moreira’s suspension wasn’t as costly as some are expecting it to be.

Battles to Watch: 

Otherwise, as we tend to do in these pieces, here are some tactical battles to keep an eye on Sunday. As usual, whoever wins at least 2 out of 3 of these battles should have a better chance of winning the game, making it interesting to see how both sides will address these in this game. 

The midfield:

And to start, there’s the big one that Canada will focus on, and that’s in midfield. 

Again, with the likes of Eustaquio, Kaye, Osorio and Piette as options in midfield, without even mentioning the likes of Harry Paton and Liam Fraser, too, Canada should have the advantage here. 

Because of that, though, it’ll be interesting to see if Costa Rica tries to adjust to nullify this, or if they just embrace that fact and choose to concentrate their efforts on other areas of the pitch. 

Advantage: Canada

Costa Rica’s wingers vs Canada’s full backs/wing backs:

Then, there’s the main battle that Costa Rica will look to win, and that’s the one between their wingers and Canada’s wide defenders. 

As mentioned earlier, Costa Rica has speedsters, and will look to unlock them at every opportunity, so it’ll be intriguing to see if Herdman looks to nullify this tactically, by shifting to a less aggressive back 4 from the back 3, or through his personnel, choosing to play the more defensive Johnston at wing back ahead of someone like Richie Laryea. 

Either way, he’ll probably have to do something, because if not, it could be open season for the Costa Rican wingers on the Canadian backline. 

Advantage: Costa Rica

Lucas Cavallini vs Costa Rica’s CBs: 

And then to round it off, there’s the battle between Canada’s likely starter up front, Cavallini, and the Costa Rican defenders, which should be a doozy. 

With no Cyle Larin and Ayo Akinola, the two starting strikers against the US, due to injury, that makes Cavallini Canada’s #1, making him one to watch up front. 

Against a solid Costa Rican defence filled with physical specimens such as Giancarlo Gonzalez, Oscar Duarte, Francisco Calvo and Kendall Waston, he won’t be in for an easy night, but if there’s anyone who can be relied on to give his all in that battle, it’s the man nicknamed ‘El Tanque’. 

Canada struggled to break down the US in their last game, and against a similarly solid Costa Rican side it won’t be easy to do that on Sunday, but Cavallini putting in a good shift up front could go a long way towards making that happen. 

Advantage: TBD 

Looking Forward:

So now, it’ll be interesting to see how this matchup goes on Sunday, as this promises to be quite the battle between two longtime veterans of the region. 

It’s worth noting that despite Costa Rica’s recent dominance, they’re yet to win the Gold Cup in its current format, as just Mexico (8), the US (6) and Canada (1) have won the tournament under its current iteration, giving Canada a leg up there. 

Costa Rica did win the tournament 3 times between 1963 and 1989 when it was just the CONCACAF Championship, but with a drought of over 32 years, they’ll want to change that as soon as possible, making this a big game for them. 

On the other side, Canada is also riding a drought of 21 years themselves, showing that either way, both teams are entering this game with history on their minds. 

Ahead of the big duels that await them later this fall, this will be a good teaser for that, but make no mistake, it’s a pretty big appetizer, one that both sides will want to take a big bite out of. 

Up Next: Canada vs Costa Rica, Sunday, July 25th, 2021, 16:00 PDT, 19:00 EDT (AT&T Stadium, Dallas)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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