3 KEY takeaways from Mauro Biello's first CanMNT squad as interim head coach
After sitting out the September window, the CanMNT are back in action this month, as they get set for a friendly against Japan in Niigata next week.
Their first camp since head coach John Herdman departed to join Toronto FC, it’s a big window for Canada, as it's their last chance to prepare for a crucial Concacaf Nations League quarter-final in November.
Also serving as qualifiers for the 2024 Copa América, that two-legged tie will be massive for Canada, as they’ll look to take advantage of their opportunity to play with some of the best in the world down in the US next summer.
Before then, however, they’ll use this Japan camp to get up to speed, as they’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of November.
For one, they’ve got a new bench boss to take instruction from, as Herdman’s assistant, Mauro Biello, has stepped up as interim head coach for the foreseeable future. Along with the retirement of a CanMNT legend, Atiba Hutchinson, those are big changes that the team will look to deal with going forward.
Despite that, the show rolls on, however, and they reminded people of that by announcing their squad for the Japan game this week.
Here’s what stood out from that announcement, as Canada continued their transition into the post-Herdman era on Thursday.
De Fougerolles, Choinière, Paton highlight new faces:
Of course, the most intriguing part of a squad reveal is usually the inclusion of new faces, especially when a new manager steps in.
Canada Soccer unveils Men's National Team squad for Japan Friendly 🇨🇦— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) October 5, 2023
Canada will face FIFA number 19 ranked Japan on Friday 13 October at 6:35 AM ET / 3:35 AM PT in Niigata, Japan.#CANMNT x @CIBC pic.twitter.com/N7PcSob8rS
Because of that, the big standouts from Biello’s first squad certainly had to be the inclusion of some new names, as 17-year-old Luc De Fougerolles earned his first CanMNT call-up this camp, while midfielders Mathieu Choinière and Harry Paton earned calls for the first time in 2023, and Maxime Crépeau marked his return from injury with his first call in a year.
To begin, De Fougerolles is the most fascinating name, as the youngster made big waves at Premier League side, Fulham, this summer. There, he impressed big-time in their preseason, playing a couple of games against Premier League opposition, not looking out of place despite his age.
Given that he was also doing that at centre back, too, instead of his usual full back position, that immediately grabbed the attention of Canadians, who will know that Canada’s depth at that centre back position isn’t quite what it is at a full back or in the attack, for example.
Because of that, his inclusion is quite exciting, as he looks like he could be an interesting name to keep an eye on long-term. He’s yet to break through as a Fulham regular, but has made five appearances this year on their U21 Premier League 2 side, so he’s certainly trending in the right direction.
Therefore, Biello is looking to use this opportunity to see what the youngster could do in a CanMNT environment, which could also be key from a recruitment standpoint, as De Fougerolles impending breakout will only attract outside interest from an England, say, who De Fougerolles is also eligible to play for.
“Part of this selection is also a long-term approach,” Biello said of De Fougerolles. “But at the same time, it's about bringing someone of his ability and his ceiling into the environment and seeing how he's able to compete. He’s a player that could play center back, and as we know, that’s a position where we want to improve, and he’s knocking on the door there at Fulham, so for us to bring him into this environment, get him on board and get in contact (...), he’s excited, and is looking forward to the experience.”
Otherwise, Choinière was a no-brainer inclusion for this camp, as he’s been in great form for CF Montréal, becoming one of their most important players in midfield, becoming an MLS all-star off the back of his efforts.
Despite that, he was yet to earn a CanMNT call this year, making this opportunity a long-awaited one for him, as his last call had come in a camp for MLS and other out-of-season players to find fitness and audition ahead of the World Cup last fall.
“Every time you look at the Montréal game sheet, he's there playing 90 minutes,” Biello said of Choinière. “He's been their most consistent player, and I think he merits this call-up based on his performances in Montreal. He’s a player I know well, and he understands the game well, he knows how to exploit space, and his decision-making is very good, so now it's up to him to see how he integrates into the group and is able to perform at those levels here.”
Make it a brace for Mathieu Choinière, who makes no mistake from the penalty spot for his 4th in MLS play (5G/4A in all comps)— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) August 21, 2023
#CFMTL was on the ropes a bit, especially with #TFCLive’s goal, but this tally pretty much seals it#CanMNTpic.twitter.com/55BakianGy
As for Paton, his inclusion is a bit of a surprise given that he hasn’t earned a CanMNT call since the 2021 Gold Cup, but he does add more depth to the midfield position. Having started the year strong for Motherwell, putting up strong performances against Celtic and Rangers in recent weeks while scoring his first goal for the club back in August, Biello felt that he could add something different to the position.
“He's got really good bite defensively, and he’s a forward-moving player,” Biello said of Paton. “He's able to cover ground, he's technically clean, as he can play with his left and right, and he can really push the play forward.”
Lastly, Crépeau was a nice inclusion to cap off the new faces, as he’s recently made his return from a serious leg injury that forced him to miss out on the World Cup. Given that he was a key part of this team before the injury, he’ll look to push back into the fold after his absence, having gotten off to a solid return to action with LAFC.
“Maxime has been out for a while, but he’s come back in top form and has been able to perform really well for LAFC,” Biello said of Crépeau.
Of course, while the new faces will always intrigue, those who aren’t there will always stand out, as well.
In that regard, MLS youngsters, midfielders Ali Ahmed and Nathan Saliba, were two big omissions, as were attackers Iké Ugbo and Theo Corbeanu, defenders Lukas MacNaughton and Joel Waterman, and goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois, who all could’ve earned a spot on merit.
In particular, Ahmed was an expected call after shining for the CanMNT at this Gold Cup, especially given his recent excellent play for Vancouver, knowing that Canada could use more depth in midfield.
Along with the form of Ugbo, who has 3 goals and 1 assist for Cardiff this season in the Championship, as well as Corbeanu, who has 1 goal and 3 assists for Grasshopper this year in the Swiss League, it was felt like they’d done enough to earn a look up front.
Now, that’ll have to come in November at the earliest, when all of these names will look to prove that they can bring something to the table for Copa América qualifiers, showing that they should’ve earned a call to this Japan game.
Positional clarity surrounding Alphonso Davies?
It’s been the big debate ever since he’s become one of the best left backs in the world at Bayern Munich - where should Alphonso Davies play for Canada?
Should he play higher up the pitch for Canada, allowing him to influence the game more offensively? Or should he play more of a similar role to what he plays at Bayern, where he operates much deeper on the pitch?
A balance that Herdman experimented with heavily, seemingly playing Davies everywhere but centre back over his time in charge, Biello looks to have a pretty clear idea of what he expects from the Bayern star already.
Having listed him as a defender in this squad list, instead of as a forward, he was then asked if that was intentional, and he confirmed that indeed it was, noting that he wants Davies to replicate a lot of what he does at the club level.
“With Alphonso Davies, as we all know, he’s one of the best left-backs and left-sided players in the world,” Biello said. “It’s important to continue to bring that continuity with him to the national team, so we're looking to play him in a position where he's comfortable, where he sees things every week at his club, but at the same time, for me, it’s about adjusting tactically so we can also maximize him on that left-hand side.”
For a 2nd straight week: Alphonso Davies 🤝 Harry Kane— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) August 27, 2023
Davies is loving playing alongside his new #9, and they’ve linked up again to show for it, as Davies nabbed his 3rd Bundesliga assist in 2 games
He continues to be *very* involved from LB#CanMNT
To be fair, it’s worth noting that Davies has arguably had the most stability in a role this year for the CanMNT, as their switch to a 3-5-2 has seen him play exclusively as a left wing back, but Biello’s comments are quite interesting nonetheless.
Because of that, it opens up some key questions for Biello to answer in this camp.
Does he stick with the current formation, using Davies in that wing back role, one that could be argued to be his best position given his ability to influence play on both sides of the ball?
Or might this indicate a return to more of a back four, with Davies slotting in as a left back?
There are certainly merits to both, as the former would likely get the best out of him on both sides of the ball, while the latter would be the option that would give him the most familiarity.
Either way, there will be a lot of eyes on Davies, as there usually are when he plays for Canada, as they look to get as much out of him as possible given his recent good form for Bayern.
How will Biello handle the post-Herdman transition?
Returning to the idea of a formation, however, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Biello chooses to go in that regard for this camp.
Given that Herdman had started to really stamp out that 3-5-2 this year, it appeared that would be the direction that he’d planned to go in the long term. That appeared especially clear at the Gold Cup, too, where he got to experiment with several new faces within that formation, indicating his desire to use that going forward.
With Herdman gone, however, that does now open up the possibility for new ideas, and one of them could be tactical, such as choosing a new formation.
For example, could Canada switch to more of a 4-3-3, using Davies as a left back and going for an attacking trident instead of a strike partnership? It’s been something that has long been pondered, especially given that it’d allow Canada to tap into their strong depth out wide, while still deploying three in midfield, as they should.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Biello is unlikely to make big changes, given that he’s been a key part of Herdman’s staff for so long, but seeing that he is seen as one of the candidates to replace Herdman, he could use this camp to showcase some of his tactical ideas.
And when asked, Biello did seem to indicate that he won’t be as set on old philosophies as some might think, either. Without a doubt, he’s looking to keep building on what has worked for this team, and not stray too far into the unknown, but that doesn’t mean he’s married to any ideas, either.
Yet, that’s why this friendly is so important, as it’ll allow him to get a pulse check on what he can do with this team, before diving right into the fire for the November window, making this a test run of sorts for him.
Therefore, while he might not reinvent the wheel in this camp, as he knows the value of continuity, he’ll look to balance that with some fresh ideas of his own.
“Yeah, it's not a simple task,” Biello said. “I think it's important that there is some continuity, as it’s important to understand the amount of time we have - we have a lot of time to plan but very little time to actually practice. So I need to balance all that out and know what I can implement, and what I can adjust. For me, it’s important to prioritize some things that I felt needed some immediate adjustment for the next two windows.”
“It’s normal that whenever there's a transition, and there's going to be a different voice, there are going to be different ideas, there’s going to be a different staff, so there will be an adaptation period for the players, and I understand that, so I will try to make them feel comfortable in knowing that while some things will be different, there will also be a lot of continuity.”
“Then, once I'm working with the team, I’ll be able to see how I can adjust things, how I can bring different tactical aspects to the team. That'll be my approach, but it's important that I understand certain things, and see how certain players will react to this change, but at the same time, after that, I’ll be in a better position to start making changes. I know what’s ahead of me in terms of this role, I know I need to win, I need to get this team performing, so that's all going to go into the mix, and hopefully I’ll be able to put the players in the right conditions to perform and grow at the same time.”