Firing Blanks: Exploring the CanMNT’s recent offensive woes – a worrying trend, or just bad luck?

Despite being known for their strong offence, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team has been starved for goals as of late. In this, we dive deeper into the numbers to see if that’s a trend to worry about long-term, or just the case of some plain old bad luck for Les Rouges. 

It’s been an interesting trend to monitor as of late. 

As we’ve rolled through the first 2 matchdays of the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, we’ve learned a decent amount about all 8 teams all currently jostling for one of the coveted 3.5 spots in the 2022 World Cup that the region has to offer.

From Jamaica’s slow start, to Mexico’s quiet sweep, and the middling starts of all the other teams that sit between them, each team has learned plenty about themselves through 180 minutes of soccer in the Octo, giving themselves a pretty good idea of what they should hone in on as we get prepared for the last matchday of this September window, which comes this Wednesday.

With 11 games remaining for each team in the Octo after this window, no team will be out of the race quite yet after Wednesday, but those who will be at the front of the race to get to Qatar will be hard to push out of that pole position going forward, putting on an onus on teams to emerge from this first window with as many points as possible, which will mean applying what they’ve learnt so far through 2 games into this last game.

So for Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, although they might not have done the best job of maximizing points to begin this Octo, sitting with 2 draws from their first 2 games so far, they’ve overall been pretty good across the balance of both games, at least other than a slow start versus Honduras at home in their opener

Other than that, though, they’ve played pretty well in the 3 halves of soccer that they’ve played since, first in that 2nd half versus Honduras, before keeping that momentum into their 2nd game, which came against the US on the road Sunday

“We knew it was going to be clunky,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said of his team’s start to the Octo after the US game, “Knew it was going to be a bit shaky, but I think the players realize that this is CONCACAF, this is going to be a freaking war.”

And along the way, they’ve shown plenty of positive things, too, including some resolute defensive performances, excellent spirit and good tactical adjustment, which are things that they’ll look to continue to grow in heading into their upcoming games. 

Despite that, though, there have also been a few worries with this Canadian side, as they’ve had a penchant for giving up the first goal, and they haven’t been controlling the midfield enough, which has had some worried heading into their last game of this window, a clash at home against El Salvador. 

But while those are little things for Canada to work on, there is also one worrying trend that is starting to emerge, and it’s one that Herdman will want to fix as soon as possible – their offence. 

On a team loaded with offensive difference-makers such as Cyle Larin, Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Lucas Cavallini, Jonathan Osorio and Junior Hoilett, it hasn’t been a problem that Canada has dealt with a lot this year, having scored a whopping 42 goals in the 11 games they played in 2021 before this fall, but with 2 goals in 2 games so far in this September window, they haven’t been able to reach those same heights offensively quite yet this Octo. 

So the important question has to be asked – what’s plaguing Canada offensively right now? 

It’s a good question, one that Herdman will look to answer as soon as possible, hopefully as soon as their Wednesday clash with El Salvador, as this Canadian side looks to get the good vibes flowing again on offence. 

Canada’s offensive problems – a blip on the radar, or a long-term problem?

So returning to the original question, it’s an interesting one to ponder – what is exactly keeping Canada from scoring goals right now?

To try and answer that question, though, it’s important to dive into some key notions. 

First, it’s worth noting that while this is a problem that Canada will want to solve, it’s important to point out that with those 2 goals in 2 games, they’ve actually scored the 3rd most goals in the region so far this Octo, so this lack of goalscoring hasn’t really haunted them quite yet, as they’re not the only team struggling to breach their opponent’s goal in CONCACAF right now. 

At the same time, you don’t want to have to depend on other teams for success, so that’s not to say that they can keep cruising along as they have, even though some of their other Octo opponents have allowed them to do so while remaining relatively unscathed so far. 

Secondly, it’s also equally as important to point out that this has been a problem that has been lingering for a while now, because in their last 5 games, they’ve scored more than 1 goal just once, which came in a 2-0 victory versus Costa Rica at the Gold Cup. 

Considering that in the other 4 games that they’ve played over that time span, they lost twice and drew twice, this lack of offence has made it hard for them to grab results. That’s frustrating, because of those 4 games we speak of, games vs the US (x2), Mexico and Honduras, they arguably could’ve won all of those games if they had their finishing boots, which you usually don’t expect to be a problem for this Canadian side.

So while this goalscoring problem isn’t one that is necessarily sinking this Canadian side, it’s been one that has made it hard for them to swim, especially at the level that they know that they can. 

When they’re in-form offensively, they almost have wings at times, playing through teams without a second thought, but for the most part, that Canada has been absent as of late, which has been strange to see. 

It’s too bad, because Canada has also been getting some colossal defensive performances from their team, performances that they haven’t been able to capitalize on due to their lack of finishing. 

Despite claims that this defence would be a problem and a weak spot for Canada heading into this year, they’ve stepped up in a big way at that end so far in 2021, allowing just 8 goals in 13 games this year, keeping 6 clean sheets along the way, showing great growth in that side of their game. 

And at the beginning of the year, when Canada was cruising offensively, that allowed them to grab results without too much thought, as they began 2021 with 8 straight wins, including some memorable ones over Haiti (x3) and Suriname along the way. 

But now, it’s been frustrating to watch Canada’s resilient defensive performances go to waste, especially considering that they’ve only allowed more than 1 goal in a game just once this year, versus Mexico in the semi-finals of the Gold Cup. That’s meant that they’ve kept the likes of the US (x2), Costa Rica and Honduras to 1 or fewer goals recently, yet of those 4 games that we’ve mentioned, they’ve won just once (vs Costa Rica). 

For a team that was running over teams at the start of the year, it doesn’t feel like too tall of an ask for them to start picking up a reasonable 2 goals a game going forward, especially when their defence has been doing a good job of keeping opponents to 1 or fewer tallies each night, as that simple formula would allow them to grab victories. 

Instead, though, the sight of Canadian attackers with their heads in hands after missing a chance has become all too familiar as of late, leaving some to wonder where it’s gone wrong for them recently. 

Are the numbers as bad as they look? 

But at the same time, it’s important to dive a bit deeper into things to figure out if this goalscoring woe is indeed something that will take a lot of work to fix, or if Canada has simply just been unlucky. 

Having scored 5 goals in their last 5 games, all against teams in the top 8 of CONCACAF, is that what we’ll have to get used to seeing from Canada now, who amassed much of the 39 goals that they scored in the 8 games before that against teams outside that top 8?

And thankfully, the answer actually seems to be no. 

When looking at the Expected Goals (xG) numbers from their recent matches, it’s worth noting that Canada has generated 8.32 xG in those last 5 games, which means that their actual goals are underperforming their expected ones by a whopping 3.32 goals, which is a pretty significant underperformance.

Plus, they’ve picked up 59 shots over those 5 games, which is an average of 11.8 shots per game, which is a pretty good number of attempts per game, so it’s not like they can be accused of being shy in front of goal, either.

Where the problem seems to lie is in the fact that they’ve only put 16 of those 59 shots on target, which is just 29% of their attempts, which shows that for whatever reason, they’re not getting enough of their attempts towards the goal. 

So even though they’re getting into good areas, as indicated by the xG, not enough of those good looks are hitting the target, and even the ones that are aren’t threatening opposing keepers enough. 

That would suggest that their problem right now is in their finishing, instead of their chance generation, which is good as the former is much easier to fix than the latter. 

And that theories backed up by the eye test, as there have been several occasions in the past few games where Canada has gotten the ball in a great area, only for someone to slash the ball well wide or over the goal, killing the opportunity. 

Those things happen, but considering that this Canadian side has the likes of David, one of the top scorers in Ligue 1 last year, Larin, someone who’s been scoring for fun with both club and country in the past year, and some other solid options in players such as Cavallini, Hoilett, Davies and Buchanan, who have shown to be able to put the ball in the net before, it feels like a matter of time before the goals start rolling in for this Canadian side. 

It certainly is strange to see them on this sort of dry run, but when seeing some of these numbers, it all adds up, as it just appears that they’re in a slump, one that they’ll look to bust as soon as possible. 

Cyle Larin and his teammates celebrate his penalty goal vs Honduras (Tagwa Moyo/Canada Soccer)

Can breakthrough come vs El Salvador?

And the good news for Canada? They have a pretty good chance to bust that slump this Wednesday at home against El Salvador. 

It won’t be an easy game, as El Salvador has kept clean sheets in 9 of the 12 competitive matches that they’ve played this year, but with the talent that Canada has at their disposal, and considering that they haven’t lost at home in 5 years, this feels like a game where they can find a breakthrough. 

Seeing that they’ve actually done pretty well to generate chances against some top teams as of late, but have been let down by their finishing, this feels like a game where that dam could finally burst, allowing them to grab a few goals. 

Yes, their squad might be a bit tired after 2 games in a short period of time, but that’ll be the same for El Salvador, who will also have the added negative of having had to travel all the way up from Central America to Canada for this game. 

Plus, Canada has one of the deeper squads in this region, so even if they do have a few regulars who might not be able to fully participate in this game, they’ve still got a good number of guys who are ready to step up in relief, giving them a ‘next man up’ mentality.

So that should give Canada more than enough juice to find some offence here, which in turn should allow them to grab all 3 points, putting them in a pretty good position to close out this September window. 

Quick hit: Keep an eye on Jonathan David

Lastly, we wanted to quickly highlight someone who could play a big role in busting Canada’s slump, and that’s David, who has also been mired in a bit of a slump as well internationally. 

After never having gone more than 3 games without scoring for Canada through his first 15 games with his country, he’s now gone 4 games without scoring, his longest such streak internationally. 

As someone who scored an impressive 14 Ligue 1 goals last year, outscoring his xG by an impressive 3 goals in the process, he’s shown to be a good finisher historically, but he’s just been rushing his opportunities as of late, looking like a player that is playing a bit too tense right now. 

Because of that, Herdman elected to start him on the bench in Canada’s last game versus the US, using him as a super-sub and leaving his usual strike partner, Larin, to lead the line on his own. Considering that Larin then went on to score his 12th goal for Canada this year, Herdman was just in his judgement, leaving some to wonder if we’d see this sort of tactic repeated going forward. 

But even if it’s yet sure if we’ll continue to see David and Larin split up regularly going forward, either way, that Herdman did so last game by running Larin up front should now pave the way for a fresh David to start this El Salvador game, a game in which he should be primed to break his mini-slump, helping his country in the process. 

Looking Forward: 

And even if David isn’t the guy to help Canada find some more goals, it just feels like they’re due to find some soon, through one way or the other, putting them back on track offensively. 

That’s exciting, because if this Canadian team continues to defend as they have as of late, an offensive breakthrough would go a long way in this Octo, allowing them to pick up some valuable victories, victories that could pave the way for them to qualify for the World Cup. 

Although they sit in a decent position through 2 games, things could be much better if they could’ve found find their shooting boots, so they’ll look to try and find them in time for this game on Wednesday. 

If they can do that, they’ll put themselves in a very good spot heading into the next window, which was all anyone expected from them going into the start of this Octo, making this next game an important one. 

A good defence might win championships, but goals win games, and this Canadian team needs to win games to add belief to their World Cup dreams right now, and they’ll need to find the offensive firepower to make that happen, starting this Wednesday. 

“We’re getting tighter and more chemistry,” Herdman said. “New faces are coming into this squad and performing, showing that this is a talented squad from 1 to 23, and they’re desperate to head to a World Cup.”

Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Wednesday, September 8th, 2021, 16:30 PDT, 19:30 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

Data via: MLSSoccer/SofaScore/FootyStats

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