Shifting Shapes: Analyzing the CanMNT’s diverse tactical profile ahead of the start of the Octo

Ahead of the start of the final round of World Cup qualifiers, the ‘Octagonal’, we dive into Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team’s diverse tactical profile, analyzing their use of the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 formations, before looking at some potential lineups to use within those formations. 

The value is there, but it needs to be properly extracted. 

Heading into the start of the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, the ‘Octagonal’, later this week, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, and for good reason, as they’ve called up one of their strongest squads ever for the occasion. 

Led by stars such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, and underrated contributors such as Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Richie Laryea, along with a mix of veterans such as Milan Borjan and Atiba Hutchinson plus those close to breaking out, such as Tajon Buchanan, the talent on this team is bursting at the seams like never before. 

Once a team that often struggled to cobble together a squad of 23 players playing regularly for a club, let alone a top one, this Canadian team now has a good chunk of players playing at the highest level, and a full squad of players getting regular minutes somewhere. 

With an unprecedented amount of depth that has allowed Canada to leave some really good players at home for good reason, they’re looking to prove why many believe they’re now ready to take the big step towards becoming a top-3 team in CONCACAF, joining Mexico and the US as the kings of this region. 

Heading into the Octo, a stage they haven’t reached in World Cup qualifiers since the late 90s, they’ve got a chance to prove themselves by directly competing against 7 of CONCACAF’s best, the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador and Honduras, in a 14-game royal rumble, with 3.5 spots in the 2022 World Cup sitting on the line for the bravest of the 8 teams. 

But while on paper this Canadian team is easily a top 3 team in CONCACAF, the next step is to now go out and prove those credentials by beating the other top dogs in CONCACAF. They’ve started to do that in recent times, having already picked up some memorable victories against Costa Rica, the US and Haiti these past 2 years, but there are no higher stakes than these Octo games, where every kick of the ball has World Cup implications. 

So while Canada’s talent will be enough to make some noise on their own, it’s important that they enter these games as best prepared as possible, both in knowing how they’ll want to play, and being ready for how their opponents will want to play. 

And to give them credit, that hasn’t been a problem so far in 2021 under head coach John Herdman, who has drilled up this Canadian team quite nicely this year. Thanks to some tactical concepts such as their fluid 3-5-2, their ability to switch to a 4-4-2 and their much-improved defensive engagement, among others, there’s a reason why they’ve only allowed more than 1 goal in a game just once in 2021, and haven’t allowed more than 1 open play goal in a game yet over that same timespan. 

Heading into the Octo, that’s exciting, as it should mean that Canada will be well-drilled and prepared for these big games, which should hopefully allow them to do the job they’re setting out to do heading into this round – qualify for the World Cup. 

With that in mind, here’s a deeper dive into some of those tactics, and how they should allow them to continue and pick up valuable results heading into the Octo.

Canada celebrates a goal versus Suriname in World Cup qualifiers (Canada Soccer/Abel Arceniega)

So what’s the framework?

And to start, it’s important to understand what Canada aims to do when they play, as they’ve started to build up some basic principles, from which they make adjustments and tweaks while looking to stick with those base ideas. 

To better understand what those ideas are, we’ve dove into some clips from 2 very important Canadian games from the Gold Cup earlier this summer, where Canada surprised onlookers with a weakened squad and qualified for the semi-finals for the 1st time since 2007, where they narrowly lost to Mexico in a memorable game. 

Along the way, they had some solid victories, including 2 comfortable wins over Martinique and Haiti, and a huge 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the quarter-finals. They did also lose to the US 1-0 in the group stage in a game they should’ve absolutely won, and played fantastically despite a 2-1 loss to Mexico, showing that they still need to find another level to beat those teams, but despite a depleted roster, they showed no inferiority complex in those games, which was key. 

So considering all of that, we decided to analyze parts of Canada’s game vs Costa Rica, as well as some key sequences from the Mexico game, where they made some key adjustments to their game plan from that Costa Rica match to trouble the Mexicans. 

The 3-5-2 continues to get the job done:

And looking back at that Costa Rica game, it was a perfect example of what Canada can do when they’re playing at their best, as they played one of their most complete games in a while en route to that 2-0 result. 

Playing in their preferred 3-5-2, they barely gave Costa Rica a sniff at their goal, while carving out a few good looks of their own, putting up a complete performance at both ends of the pitch. 

Speaking of that 3-5-2, it’s what we want to take a deeper look at here, because it’s something we highlighted heading into the Gold Cup, and as proved in that Costa Rica game, they showed why they will likely keep it heading into the Octo. 

The 3-5-2 is not an easy formation to play, but for those who can master it, it’s a great way to dominate the midfield, hold possession and have some stability at the back. It’s easily adaptable, too, as it can be both a defensive and offensive formation, and can be switched to another formation without too much worry, giving coaches a plan b if needed. 

But for those who don’t master it, it’s a formation that can get really stretched out, and leave some dangerous spaces open, so there’s a reason that some managers stick to stay away from it, as it’s a high-risk, high-reward set-up. 

On a Canadian team with strong full backs, good strikers, excellent midfield depth and solid centre backs, however, it’s proven to be the perfect set-up, as it’s given them the sort of defensive stability that many feared they might not have given the profiles of their centre backs, most of whom aren’t that fast, while also giving the rest of the team all of the tools to remain a good offensive side.

Starting with the defensive side of things, though, it’s really important to highlight the strides that Canada has made in this area of their game, and how they’ve done so. 

2 years ago, it felt like Canada was just waiting for bad things to happen whenever they defended, but now they can keep teams quiet for long stretches of the game, limiting them of high-quality chances. 

So the question from within that is simple – what has changed since then?

And the answer is that Canada’s engagement on that side of their game has been fantastic, pairing nicely with their tactical tweaks. From front to back, everyone’s committed and in sync with the defensive cause, making it hard for opponents to play through them. 

Here are some examples of that from the Costa Rica game. 

First, they make sure to press very high up the pitch, forcing teams into a long ball whenever possible. 

And when we say that they press high up the field, they really press high up the field. 

Just ask striker Lucas Cavallini, author of this hard tackle deep in the Costa Rican half.

Thanks to that, they’re able to snuff out a lot of good attacks before they really get started, making life easier for their defenders. 

But then, what happens when the ball bypasses that front line of pressure?

If that happens, Canada doesn’t seem to be bothered by it, making sure to at least get all of their midfielders and their wing backs back to join the centre backs, doing their best to disrupt their opponents before they get up to full speed. 

Plus, thanks to their early pressure, that’s huge for buying their defenders and midfielder an extra second or 2 to get back into position, which for them is in a mid-block that protects the edge of the box, but without dropping too deep into their own 6-yard box. 

Here’s an example of that mid-line, as Costa Rica finds their way through the Canadian press in this clip, but are stopped by a white wall of bodies who made sure to nullify their advantage as soon as possible. 

And here’s another example of that, one where Canada does a great job to turn what looked like a promising counter-attack into a non-threatening chance from their opponents. 

Thanks to little things like that, along with their aggressive backpressure, that’s how Canada has turned into quite the solid defensive team. 

That’s important, because the fewer goals they concede, the better chance that they have to win, as their offence is usually reliable for a few goals on most nights. 

Of course, that goes for every team in the world, but it’s nice that Canada is talented enough offensively where they can afford a mistake or 2 a game defensively, allowing them to play as aggressively as they do, knowing that a slip-up won’t be fatal. 

And speaking of the offence, what are they doing on their end to ensure that Canada generates a good number of chances each game?

To begin, they’re playing a very fluid brand of offence, one that relies on plenty of movement in the midfield, combined with aggressive play from the full backs, allowing them to attack through both central and wide areas.

Whenever they’re on the ball, they look to stretch out the field, forcing their opponents to either choose between leaving space for their strong wing backs such as Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea out wide, or stretching out and instead leaving space for the likes of Mark Anthony Kaye, Stephen Eustaquio and Jonathan Osorio in the midfield. 

It’s a ‘pick your poison’ situation, because either way, Canada can hurt you, as they’ve got some very talented and speedy wide players that can do damage in space, and some midfielders that can carve through you with good combination play. 

So to unlock that, they stretch things out. 

From there, they look to move the ball around fluidly, capitalizing on those holes left by their opponents. 

Here’s an example of that. 

First, they stretched out the field by getting the ball wide to Buchanan, before getting it back into a central idea, where they generated a good look at goal for their striker, Lucas Cavallini, who just got under his header here. 

In a flash of an eye, they forced Costa Rica to choose between letting Buchanan run, or leave the middle open, and they chose the latter, which nearly cost them. 

Here’s another example of that from Canada. 

In that clip, Canada went down the other side with Laryea, who was playing left wing back, and with Costa Rica doing a good job of closing down the middle, they went down the flanks, before cutting back into the middle, creating a good chance for Kaye with some quick combination play. 

And via those basic offensive principles, Canada is able to pick their way through opposing defences. They don’t do anything too complex, but instead try to force their opponents into making tough decisions, of which they try to catch them out on. 

That leads to goals like this one, where Eustaquio found Junior Hoilett with a lovely ball over the top, capitalizing on Costa Rica’s full backs giving a bit too much attention to Laryea and Buchanan, who drew them out of position, playing Hoilett onside.

The 4-4-2: Break glass in case of emergency

But while Canada looks to employ those basic principles when playing in a 3-5-2, there are times where that doesn’t work. Some teams have tried to slow that down by clogging up the middle and wide areas, making combination play nearly impossible. 

When that happens, out comes Canada’s emergency option – the 4-4-2. 

By doing that, Canada sacrifices a body in the midfield by throwing them out wide, allowing them to play much more directly.

Defensively, nothing changes, as they apply high waves of pressure with their front 2 before sitting into 2 banks of 4, instead of a bank of 3 and 5, as they would in a 3-5-2. 

Where everything changes is on offence, as they look to simplify how they play, capitalizing on the space left by their opponent’s intention to clog up the middle. 

Against Mexico, that ended up happening, as Mexico played a sort of a 4-5-1 on defence, one that allowed them to get ample coverage in the middle and out wide. 

Seeing that, down 1-0, Canada changed to the 4-4-2 at halftime and started targeting Tajon Buchanan in wide areas, finding some joy there. 

Here are some examples of what that looked like. 

First, they found Buchanan in a bit of space with Mexico’s line caught a bit up, creating a good look at goal. 

Then, they found him in an isolated pocket between Mexico’s right centre back and right back, trying to get him in a shooting position. 

And then lastly, they caught Mexico high up the pitch, and Kaye found Buchanan with a lovely long ball, one that the Canadian speedster smartly converted to get Canada back into the game at 1-1. 

Again, much like some of the concepts seen with the 3-5-2, it’s nothing overly complex, but it’s just a case of Canada taking advantage of what they have at their disposal, and maximizing it. 

If possible, they want to use the combination of their strength in wide areas and combine it with their solidity in midfield, but if teams want to clog the midfield, when you have the likes of speedsters such as Buchanan, Laryea, Davies, Theo Corbeanu, Liam Millar and a few others, having that ability to switch to the 4-4-2 to unlock those players in transition is never a bad plan B. 

The ideal lineup?

So seeing all that, let’s see how might Canada line up in these first few Octo games, where they’ll face Honduras and El Salvador at home, along with a trip down south to take on the US away wedged between those two matches.

To start, it’s important to know what to expect from either of those 3 teams first, as they’ve all got a unique way of playing that Canada will have to be wary of. 

With Honduras, you’ve got a team that likes to be very direct and defend space, while the US is a team that really likes to control possession and play with the midfield, with El Salvador falling somewhere between them stylistically. 

Seeing that, the 3-5-2 should work in all of those games, although Canada might need to make some tweaks throughout all of the games to adjust to those different styles. Plus, when considering that these games are all coming in quick succession over the span of a week, you also need to factor in rotation when considering a potential squad, which makes Herdman’s job quite interesting. 

To start, though, here’s something that could work well against Honduras. 

With this, Canada would go for a bit more technical skill and overall coverage in midfield, going for 3 box-to-box transition machines in Kaye, Eustaquio and Hutchinson, while also focusing on going gung-ho on the flanks by unleashing Davies and Buchanan together as wing backs. 

Defensviely, Kennedy and Johnston would give the athleticism to counter Honduras’s speed in transition, and the defensive ability of their 3 midfielders would help them avoid getting caught out in that area as well, which could be a risk if Davies and Buchanan push too high up the field. 

Up front, Larin and David would interact as a front 2, with David dropping deeper and Larin playing as more of a #9, as they did quite well in a trio of games against Suriname and Haiti (x2) in World Cup qualifiers back in June. 

It’d be hard for them to switch to a 4-4-2 without playing Davies or Buchanan in a back 4, which might not be ideal if their game plan goes astray, but they could also sub in a Laryea or a Sam Adekugbe and push them forward if they did want to switch to a 4-4-2, so there’s still some flexibility there. 

But if all goes right, they should have what it takes to pick up the 3 points that they’d need from a home game like this, especially considering a goal of Canada’s is to win all of their home games in the Octo.

Moving on, though, here’s how things could then look like a few days later, on the road, against the US. 

In this case, it’d be more of a flexible team, one that can shape-shift and occupy a lot of different spaces, which will probably be better suited against a US team that likes to hold the ball, as this Canadian team should be able to hang with them in that regard, but also offer some threat in transition.

As one would expect, rotation is key, as Kamal Miller would slot in for Kennedy at the back, while Johnston would be able to stay in, used to short turnarounds in this having done many of them over his time in MLS. One wonders if Doneil Henry might slot in the centre for Vitoria, who might not be able to handle both games in that short time, but if not, he could stay in. 

Up the pitch, Davies stays in, as Canada would need that sort of mercurial weapon against the States, but Laryea would slot in for Buchanan, giving Canada a bit more of a defensive presence to go along with the speed, and the option to switch into a 4-4-2 if needed. 

In midfield, Eustaquio and Kaye would stay in, giving Canada that technical skill, while reuniting them with Jonathan Osorio, who they had some excellent games together with earlier in the year at World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup. Samuel Piette could also slot in for Kaye, who has had a spotty injury history in the past, but otherwise, Hutchinson would get a rest, while David Wotherspoon could also be an option to start in that #10 position, too.

Up front, Larin and David continue to start, as A) you’d assume they both come off at some point in the Honduras game and B) because Canada’s striker depth is limited this window. If needed, Junior Hoilett could also start too, to be fair, but that’d depend on what things are looking like after the Honduras game, as ideally, you’d like to unleash Larin and David against the US.

Then lastly, there’s the El Salvador game, which will be interesting as it’ll be Canada’s 3rd in a week, meaning that it might be the one where we see the heaviest rotation. 

Canada has to be wary of not over-rotating here, as El Salvador is a good team, but they should have the depth to overcome that.

A team that likes to both hold onto the ball but also launch it forward on the counter-attacks, Canada will need decent speed at the back, and good coverage in the middle and wide areas, allowing them to close down their opponent’s space on the ball and in transition.

To start, Kennedy and Doneil Henry join Miller at the back, giving them a mix of physicality and speed to handle El Salvador’s speed wingers and physical strikers. 

In midfield, Hutchinson slots in after a rest, while Wotherspoon would be a great option, and while Kaye is in the lineup here, Piette, Eustaquio and Liam Fraser are all shouts to replace him. 

At wing back, Davies gets a rest, assuming he played most of the last 2 games, although he’d remain an option as a super-sub, while Buchanan would slot back in, keeping that offensive threat from wing back. Joined by Adekugbe, who is also quite dangerous offensively but also defensive responsible, it’d give Canada a good 1-2 punch at wing back, while not losing much from resting Davies a bit. 

Lastly, Larin and David start up front, for the same reasons outlined above, although again, Hoilett remains an option, and Lucas Cavallini might be recovered enough from the knee injury that currently has him as a doubt to even feature at the moment to play in this one. 

Much like in the Honduras game, it’d be hard to switch into a 4-4-2 from this, but it’s more doable with the presence of Adekugbe, and they can always sub someone in, if needed.

Otherwise, we didn’t say anything about the goalkeepers in any of these 3 lineups, because while Milan Borjan is the expected #1 and a key leader, Maxime Crepeau showed enough at the Gold Cup to possibly warrant a start or even 2 in this camp, but it’s hard to know in which games Herdman might switch things up in goal. 

But moving on, as seen here, Canada should have the depth to roll through their roster and get minutes for most of their players, while avoiding skipping a beat, which is a sign of their growing depth. 

Plus, they’d be flexible enough in most cases to be able to switch between the 3-5-2 and the 4-4-2, which would allow them to adjust in-game, if needed, which is always a good option to have for a head coach.

Looking Forward:

So having seen all of this, it’s going to be interesting to see what Herdman elects to go with in these games, especially depending on the opponents. 

Canada has mostly focused on themselves in games recently, just shifting between the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 depending on their opponents, comfortable to play in either formation, but there is always the potential for a surprise from Herdman.

But as long as they maintain their basic tactical principles, which is to press aggressively, applying good pressure in midfield and maintaining a solid mid-block defensively, along with fluid on-and-off the ball movement, strong wide play and good interplay in the midfield offensviely, they should be in good hands going forward. 

After years of floating along without a rudder on their ship, they’ve finally got a tactical identity to steer themselves with, as they’ve shown throughout the year, and they’ll look to continue that into this window. 

If they stick to that, allowing their best players to shine, things should go well for Canada, allowing them to get off to a hot start in the Octo. 

Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, September 2nd, 2021, 17:05 PDT, 20:05 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)

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