3 KEY TAKEAWAYS from frustrating group stage for the CanMNT in Gold Cup
It took more effort than was expected, but Canada officially progressed to the knockout stages of the Gold Cup on Tuesday.
After three nervy games, they got the job done in the end, and advanced to the quarter-finals for a fourth straight tournament for the first time in their history.
At the same time, based on how the first three games went for them, the achievement doesn’t seem to carry the weight one would expect.
Especially given that they ended up qualifying as the second-place finisher in their group, setting up a date with the defending champions and hosts, the US, this Sunday, it feels like Canada is in a far-from-ideal position at the moment.
It's official: the #CanMNT will play the USMNT in the QFs of the Gold Cup on Sunday, as they finish 2nd in Group D— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 5, 2023
Going to be a tough test against the US. Canada will have to tighten things up, but they'll be pleased to head into it with a win
That should be an intriguing one
Yet, at the same time, the beauty of tournament soccer is that everything can change in an instant, as long as you stay alive.
Now, Canada gets an opportunity to prove that against the US, their rivals. A side who beat them in the Nations League finals just weeks ago, Canada has a perfect opportunity to avenge their defeat from that match in a competitive setting, which is a rare chance at instant revenge, something that would also certainly help wash away the sour taste of their performance in this tournament so far.
Before looking too far ahead to that, however, here’s a look back at what Canada will look to take away from that mixed group stage performance, as they begin preparations for that game.
Canada lacks sharpness at both ends in key moments
At the World Cup, a big area where Canada felt that they struggled was in both boxes, as they were often not clinical enough with their offensive opportunities, and allowed their opponents to make the most of theirs when defending.
Because of that, it was one of the big things they were looking to clean up in their game this year, having seen how important those margins are at the highest level.
To their credit, they then did a good job of that in their first post-World Cup games, too, showing all sorts of ruthlessness in wins over Curaçao, Honduras and Panama in Nations League action.
Yet, they’ve taken a bit of a step back in that regard this tournament, after struggling against the US in the Nations League final.
Of course, it’s worth noting that this Gold Cup team is not quite Canada’s full-strength squad, as they’re missing several key regulars who withdrew from participating.
At the same time, this is still a veteran-heavy group, one filled with all sorts of Canadian regulars that would usually still see the field even if everyone was available.
Therefore, it’s been a big surprise to see Canada struggle with that ruthlessness, as it's something they’ve mostly had little issues with in Concacaf competition in recent years.
GOAL 🇬🇵— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 27, 2023
Guadeloupe take a 1-0 lead over the #CanMNT at BMO Field as Thierry Ambrose catches Steven Vitoria before burying past Milan Borjan
🔴 Watch the match LIVE on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/pj4Ws8jnip
Plus, even more frustrating is how inconsistent Canada has been at both ends of the pitch, too.
Against Guadeloupe, they ended up having a sloppy game in both boxes, as they allowed two goals from just 1.1 xG and eight shots defensively, and turned 14 shots into 1.81 xG and two goals. Despite having more than double the shots in Guadeloupe’s box, they only turned one of them into a big chance, while Guadeloupe managed to muster up three big chances, and could’ve arguably won the game if their finishing was sharper.
Then, against Guatemala, they were once again too sloppy defensively, allowing 1.16 xG on nine shots, and got nothing going offensively, finishing with 0.36 xG on eight shots. Because of that, while the game finished 0-0, it seemed like Guatemala was the likelier of the two teams to win in the end.
Lastly, against Cuba, Canada found their footing a bit offensively, scoring four goals on 2.86 xG (although the two Cuban goalkeepers they faced did help them a bit with timely errors), but allowed two goals thanks to two penalties, the first time they’d allowed more than one goal in a game against Cuba since 1981.
Most worryingly, too? Canada had arguably the easiest Gold Cup group on paper, so the difficulty level is only going to be raised from this point on for them, which means any sloppiness that they show will be further magnified.
There are reasons to explain the disjointedness, but Canada will need to put it behind them, quickly, as they get set to face a dangerous US team now.
What formation should Canada use for the rest of the tournament?
Intriguingly, John Herdman recently did something many haven’t been accustomed to seeing from him over the last few years - he used the same formation over a stretch of games, as Canada stuck with a 3-5-2 for the first two games of the tournament, making it a six-game stretch in which they used that formation.
While they’d both seen the positives and negatives of what that formation can bring them across those six games, making it hard to assess whether it was one worth using long-term, it was good to see from Canada as they look to build a more consistent tactical identity.
With the goal being to get the most out of their star players, using the same formation also helped Canada get a look at how certain players might fit into that set-up, and how they might complement everyone when Canada has a fully healthy roster.
Safe to say, with how the first two games went, it wasn’t great across the board.
The one bright spot is that the #CanMNT has continued to play with the 3-5-2— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 2, 2023
The flip side of that is that they’ve gotten an idea of players that may or may not fit that formation and tactical identity going forward
And further complicating matters is that Canada then switched back to a 4-4-2 for their last game against Cuba, a formation that seemed to suit a lot more of their current group than the 3-5-2 did.
Because of that, it leaves them with an important question to answer as the US game looms - how should they set up for that?
Do they return to the 3-5-2, and potentially risk the growing pains of that formation to rear its head in a game of that magnitude? Or do they go safe and play with the 4-4-2, a formation that they’ve had success with against the US before?
Ultimately, one thing’s for sure - they should certainly stick with the 3-5-2 or try out a 4-3-3 long-term, given the benefits of those formations when playing top teams and how Canada’s best players fit within those systems.
At the same time, Canada will want to win this tournament, and has a prime chance to get revenge on the US for the Nations League final, so it could make sense to stick with that 4-4-2 to try and keep that familiarity for now.
Especially now that they’ve gotten some good data points of who and what might not work in a 3-5-2, they can at least look at that positively after the tournament, although it does feel that they’ll have missed a chance to see how more new players could look in that formation.
New and old faces lead the list of standouts:
Despite Canada’s struggles throughout the three games, not all was bad for them - they had a few players step up with solid performances, something Canada will hope they continue to do as the knockout stages arrive.
And, even more intriguing, those players all stepped up from different roles, too.
Leading the way was arguably Canada’s player of the group stage, Ali Ahmed, who shone through the first two games in midfield, before slotting back to left back in the finale, looking comfortable in each role.
Despite never being capped for Canada at any level before this camp, he looked like he’d been in Canada’s set-up for years. Eager to take players on and make things happen on the ball, and responsible off it, he seems exactly like the sort of profile Canada will need more of in midfield long-term.
If the goal of the Concacaf Gold Cup was to find a player or more that can contribute to the first-choice #CanMNT in the future, it's already a success.— Ben Steiner (@BenSteiner00) July 4, 2023
A shining light, and not long until he's playing big games for Canada. #VWFC
Then, the next big standout has been Richie Laryea, who continues to show his importance as a key leader on this Canadian team.
He might not be the most vocal leader, but he continues to be remarkably consistent with his performances, no matter the opponent, always finding a way to raise his play to the highest level. Plus, he’s dominant on both sides of the ball, which makes him a key asset out wide for Canada.
Yet, that’s why he’s already at 44 caps for Canada despite only making his debut in 2019, which is actually seventh among Canadian players called up in the last 12 months, as he’s made himself hard to drop out of the lineup over the years, and this tournament is further showing that.
Then, elsewhere, certain names have shown up in flashes. Liam Millar looked good as a striker versus Cuba, for example, while Moïse Bombito looked very comfortable on the outside of a back three in the 45 minutes he got there against Guatemala.
Otherwise, Jayden Nelson brought good energy off the bench versus Cuba, looking like a potential offensive x-factor, Zac McGraw looks like a potential long-term Steven Vitória replacement when played in the heart of a defence, and the pair of Jacob Shaffelburg and Jacen Russell-Rowe had good cameos off the bench.
Really, for Canada, the biggest thing they’ll want to see more of now, especially as they get set to face this US team, is some more of the veteran players to step up as Laryea has.
If they can get that, it’d go a long way toward improving Canada’s odds of surprising the US, as they look to halt the current trophy-hunting Kings of Concacaf, a game in which they’ll need all hands on deck to have a chance of winning.