3 KEY takeaways as CanMNT kicks off post-John Herdman era with 4-1 drubbing from Japan
For the first time since July, the CanMNT were back in action, as they took on Japan in a friendly in Niigata early Friday morning.
Unfortunately for Canada, however, their return to action ended up being one to forget for them and those who woke up early to watch them back home, as they fell 4-1 to Japan on the day, as their hosts raced out to a 4-0 lead through 50 minutes, before Canada secured a late consolation in the 89th minute.
To be fair to Canada, that result wasn’t unexpected - Japan is coming off similar wins over Germany (4-1), Turkey (4-2), Peru (4-1) and El Salvador (6-0), showing their quality as a team.
Still, it’ll frustrate Canada that many of their mistakes were self-inflicted, as they also made things a lot easier for Japan than they needed to, even if they were the dominant team and deserved winners on the day.
From a comedy of defensive errors on Japan’s opening goal, an own goal to forget for the second, a sloppy turnover on the third or a whole host of ball-watching on the fourth, to a missed penalty and a lack of killer instinct at the other end, Canada will have a lot to be frustrated with on both sides of the ball in this game, really.
And, most frustratingly, Canada struggled while playing a formation and lineup they’re quite familiar with, despite it being interim head coach Mauro Biello’s first game in charge, which makes how disjointed they looked all the more surprising.
Yet, at the same time, it’s also not that surprising to see Canada struggle with the group that they rolled out, as it’s not the first time it’s happened recently, albeit under a different head coach in John Herdman (although Biello was his former assistant).
As seen over the past year under Herdman, they’ve struggled against tier-one opposition, having been mostly unable to make the key adjustments necessary to compete at the next level, and this game was just a continuation of that.
Therefore, the biggest frustration from this game won’t be that Canada got throttled by Japan - that would be a disservice to their hosts, who were full value for their win. Instead, it’s that Canada once again failed to take some important lessons to heart from past windows, and remain with the same questions from past losses like their defeat to their rivals, the US, in the Nations League final earlier this summer.
Especially given that this friendly would’ve been a great chance to experiment and try and learn from those lessons, that adds to the frustration, as now Canada will need to adjust on the fly.
Given that their next two matches are a crucial two-legged Concacaf Nations League quarter-final tie, one that also serves as Copa América qualifiers, there won’t be much time to do that, as the margin for error will be quite low.
Before looking too far ahead, however, here’s a look back at some of what stood out from this Japan loss.
Defence continues to be a worry against top teams:
Any time you concede four goals, alarm bells will go off, especially when you concede them in the manner that Canada did on Friday.
Plus, it’s worth noting that a lot of Canada’s defensive breakdowns came from across the board, too, as the team’s overall defensive structure struggled, instead of just a few individuals.
To begin, their back three was far too stretched at times, as reflected in the second goal, for example.
A big reason for that, however, came from the fact that their wing backs, Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea, were often caught too high up the pitch, forcing their centre backs to stretch out to deal with Japan’s wide threat, something that doesn’t really suit their profiles. Given how important wing backs are to the success of any three-centre back formation, on both sides of the ball, that had a huge effect.
Along with their #8s, Jonathan Osorio and Ismaël Koné, being too aggressive as they drifted forward into space as the wing backs did, that put a lot of pressure on their #6, Samuel Piette, and their centre backs to have to stop Japan in transition moments.
Against a team as lethal as Japan is in transition, that was always going to be a tough ask, and their hosts made them pay for that sloppiness on countless occasions.
Yet, this is part of a bigger worry for Canada - their ability to defend against top teams, as with this four-goal outing from Japan, they’ve now conceded 18 goals in their last eight games in the top 20 of the FIFA Rankings.
With an average of over two goals per game, consistently putting up those numbers can make it hard for a team to win, especially given that Canada has only scored six goals across that span.
Because of that, it’ll be imperative that Canada finds a way to tighten up defensively going forward. As seen in this game, teams like Japan can hurt you if given the space to do so, and that can make it hard to win.
Therefore, it feels like a big overhaul to Canada’s defensive structure could be considered to help them compete at this level, something that either Biello or the next permanent manager (be it Biello or otherwise) will have to ponder.
For example, shifting to a back four could be a huge asset, putting less pressure on the wing backs to defend as much as this 3-5-2 has, while employing some speedier legs at the back and in midfield - in that new formation or in the 3-5-2 - could help Canada cope with defensive transitions better than they have.
If you're the #CanMNT, this 2nd half would be the perfect time to experiment with a 4-3-3— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 13, 2023
The 3-5-2 is a good formation, but Canada is too open in wide channels, and that's putting pressure on the CBs, who are getting stretched and leaving space
Top teams feast on that
To be fair, there are also some worrying individual trends - it feels like Canada isn’t pressing or getting numbers behind the ball with the enthusiasm that they did during World Cup qualifiers, but tweaking their defensive structure certainly could help refind that desire to defend.
If not, more games like this could be on the cards, as teams are finding ways to expose Canada’s aggressive 3-5-2, which is leaving all sorts of spaces in midfield and in wide areas to thrive in, due to the concerns at wing back, in midfield and at the back that cropped up in this one.
On-ball struggles persist for Canada:
As the saying goes, however, sometimes a good defence is actually a good offence, which is also another factor to consider in the team’s defensive struggles.
And that doesn’t just mean scoring goals, either, but what you do with the ball, too.
In this sport, it’s natural to turn over the ball - managers like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp have revolutionized the game on the basis of the idea that teams will turn over the ball (even if each of those managers have approached that concept in different ways).
What the top teams do, however, is manage their turnovers to ensure that they aren’t in dangerous areas, and get numbers behind the ball when they do lose it.
As touched on in the previous section, Canada isn’t doing the latter, and that’s especially hurt them as they’ve also been quite sloppy with the former, too.
Just look at the first three goals, for example, as they all originated from Canadian turnovers within their own half or narrowly inside Japan’s half, which are the worst spots to give away a ball on the field.
It’s one thing to be turning over the ball in an opponent's final third, as doing so still offers you the possibility to properly get numbers back defensively, but it’s harder to do that when you do it at half with your midfielders and wing backs pushed high up the pitch.
Yet, knowing that Canada was going to play aggressively, Japan seemed content to sit back and force Canada into those sorts of dangerous turnovers. Because of that, they conceded 59% of possession to the Canadians, instead focusing on their defensive pressure.
There, they chose to employ what almost looked like a 4-4-1-1 when pressing high, before dropping into a 5-3-2 when defending low, with the former doing well to force Canada into passing the ball wide, while the latter then shut down the wide channels when Canada got there.
All while applying traffic in midfield, ensuring that Canada couldn’t get their midfield trio in between lines, it forced Canada into several unforced errors, which Japan then pounced on.
But that just shows the value of managing the ball in key areas when in possession, which Canada struggled with in this game.
That then had a ripple-down effect on the rest of their offensive game, as they only mustered up six shots despite all of their possession, showing how well Japan were able to stymie them.
Because of that, Canada will need to also tweak their offensive game, as this isn’t the first time that a top team has realized that sitting back and allowing Canada to hold the ball while applying pressure on them in a mid-block, pushing them to make those unforced errors.
To beat that, Canada’s going to need more fluid ball movement, more quick passing and fewer touches on the ball that slow down play, things that they lacked at times in possession in this game.
Along with a potential formation shift, such as one to a 4-3-3, which would allow them to get more bodies behind the ball in the build-up, that could be key.
Of course, that would mean sacrificing a striker like Cyle Larin, which is always a tough decision given his knack at scoring for Canada, but given that he struggled to receive the ball with Canada’s build-up struggles, it shows that there might be more value in playing a formation that can get the ball to one striker with regularity instead of having two strikers that might struggle to get the ball due to a lack of numbers in the build-up.
Auditions remain few and far between:
While there’s value in using friendlies as a chance to push out first-choice XIs to build chemistry and go for a win, sometimes they can be crucial in getting to evaluate new talent, as well as experiment tactically.
Therefore, while it wasn’t too surprising to see Canada run a pretty standard 11 to start the game, playing 9/11 of the starters that played in the Nations League final, what happened afterwards was a surprise.
In particular, with Canada struggling and down 3-0 at half time, it felt like a perfect opportunity for Biello to either experiment with a new shape or bring in some new players to have a look at in the 3-5-2, especially with the game itself being pretty much lost at that point.
Instead, his lone half-time change was to bring in veteran centre back, Steven Vitória, who replaced Cornelius, in what felt like a move that one would do in a must-win game.
Especially given that Vitória has struggled for form to start this year with Chaves in Portugal, while Cornelius has been excellent all year with Swedish giants Malmö, it was a big surprise. Of course, Vitória has been a key piece in this backline for years, but at 36, it had felt that the 25-year-old Cornelius had stepped up as the heir apparent to Vitória, and was just due an opportunity.
Because of that, one would’ve thought that Cornelius would’ve gotten a chance to grow and learn from that first half, while experimenting with partnerships around him, but instead, he had to slide to the bench.
I understand preparation time is limited but we’ve essentially rolled out the same team and system as the Nations League final (except against a better team and without Eustaquio) and expected a different result.#CanMNT— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) October 13, 2023
While that’s a move that may have made sense in the November qualifiers to shore things up in a must-win game, say, it seemed strange in this friendly, especially as Vitória, who isn’t exactly fleet of foot, immediately struggled to keep up with the pace of Japan’s rapid attackers, something that Cornelius could be better suited to do.
That’s not a knock on Vitória, who has thrived for Canada based on his decision-making and defensive intelligence, he’s just not the quickest guy, something that is well-known.
All of that to say, however, is that the Vitória for Cornelius substitution was emblematic of why the second half felt even more frustrating than the first in a way, even if Canada actually tied Japan 1-1 in that half.
Instead of seeing what untested players like Moïse Bombito, Luc De Fougerolles or others could’ve done in this environment, for better or for worse, Biello turned to known commodities such as Vitória and Hoilett, after already starting a veteran-heavy team with starters like Milan Borjan and Jonathan Osorio.
Again, it’s important to note that the Vitória and Hoilett substitutions did actually work, as Canada only conceded one with the former on the field, while the latter scored the only goal, but that shows why they would’ve been perfect subs in a must-win game where Canada was up against the ropes.
In a game like this one of no consequence, they instead had a chance to see if some new faces could potentially step up and be contributors long-term, and they didn’t use it.
Feels like this would be a great time to see the likes of Moïse Bombito, Luc De Fougerolles, Mathieu Choinière and Charles-Andreas Brym for the #CANMNT— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 13, 2023
At this point, not much to learn from running out pretty much the same XI through 60' given the struggles
Plus, adding to the frustration is the fact that the two new faces that did see the field, midfielders Mathieu Choinière and Harry Paton, did look energetic and showed well in their auditions, which makes one wonder what a few of those other new options could’ve done with similar opportunities.