3 KEY takeaways from leg 1 as CanWNT get set leg 2 of Olympic Qualifiers vs Jamaica at BMO Field
The CanWNT inched closer to a fifth straight participation at the Summer Olympics on Friday, as they nabbed a crucial 2-0 win over Jamaica in the first leg of their Olympic qualifiers down in Kingston.
Now, they return home to a sold-out BMO Field in Toronto for the second leg on Tuesday, where they’ve got 90 minutes to hold onto their hard-earned lead, allowing them to book a ticket to Paris.
It won’t be easy - despite grabbing a two-goal lead in Kingston, as well as two valuable away goals, there’s no doubt that this Jamaica team could still have some life left in it as they look to climb this mountain. Especially after a disappointing World Cup this summer, Canada will need to prove that those woes are fully behind them, too, so they’ve got every reason to want to lock things down in this leg.
Yet, if they repeat anything close to what they showed in leg one of this tie, they should be more than fine in that quest. Arguably their best performance of 2023, it was one that felt overdue for this Canadian side, who has spent much of this year struggling to find their usual standard of play.
Thanks to a tweak in formation, though, as well as the insertion of some different players, Canada looked far different from the team that seemed to lack ideas and confidence at the World Cup.
Therefore, look for them to build on that as they now get set for this second leg. Knowing that their job is far from done, it’ll be imperative to not slip into old habits.
Especially with what’s at stake for the defending Olympic gold medallists, who will want to do everything in their power to be able to retain that title next summer, they know that the pressure is still on.
With that in mind, however, here’s a look at what worked for Canada in leg one, and how they’ll look to build off that heading into leg two.
A long-awaited tweak in formation pays off:
For a few years now, it’s been a constant question for many of those who follow this Canadian team - could they one day shift to a back three?
Usually preferring to play with more of a traditional back four, with a 4-2-3-1 being the preferred formation of choice, some have felt that a switch to a three could be beneficial for Canada in the long-term.
Given that they’re blessed with some strong depth at the centre back position, with options such as Kadeisha Buchanan, Vanessa Gilles and Shelina Zadorksy, among others, it’s felt like a no-brainer.
Despite that, Canada has ignored that idea and stuck with what’s been familiar to them.
Because of that, it was quite a surprise to then see the team sheet for this Friday game, and see that head coach Bev Priestman had named four centre backs in the starting XI in Buchanan, Gilles, Jade Rose and Sydney Collins.
Seeing that the latter two have played full back in the past, it would’ve made sense to see just one of them in the lineup, completing a back four with Buchanan, Gilles and the always-reliable Ashley Lawrence.
With both included, however, it looked like Canada was either about to try Jade Rose in midfield, or that a back three was a real possibility.
Turns out, it’d be the latter, as Canada came out to start the game in a 3-4-2-1 on the ball, one that shifted into more of a 4-4-2 off of it.
So far looks like a 4-4-2 off the ball, a 3-4-3 on it for the #CanWNT/#CanXNT, as Nichelle Prince is playing the 9, while Sydney Collins is indeed at LB— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) September 23, 2023
That's the value that Jade Rose brings, though - lets see if this tweak can now give Canada a bit more in the attack pic.twitter.com/7K9fLnyCOo
There, Rose ended up completing the back three alongside Buchanan and Gilles, while Collins joined Lawrence as a wing back, flanking Quinn and Jessie Fleming in midfield, with a front three of Cloé Lacasse, Nichelle Prince and Adriana Leon completing Canada’s outfield group.
To Priestman’s credit, her tweak ended up working to near perfection, too. Thanks to the triangles that they were able to create on the ball with their back three, combined with the overlap threat of Lawrence and Collins, they were able to put together some great sequences of play in possession
Take their opening goal, for example, as they completely carved Jamaica from back to front with patience, complete with a finishing touch of verticality into the space that they’d opened up.
GOAL 🇨🇦#CANWNT OPEN THE SCORING! 🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 23, 2023
Nichelle Prince gets a PERFECT header on Ashley Lawrence's cross to go up 1-0 vs. Jamaica in the 18th minute 😎
🔴 Watch Leg 1 LIVE on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/3XffrytrIq
Yet, that was just a glimpse of what Canada was able to do on the ball, as they did a great job of disrupting Jamaica’s press by creating width, which then opened up space in the middle to play in. From there, when they did break lines, they managed to overload Jamaica back out in those wide areas, and the rest was history, as Canada really started to take over the game.
The numbers reflect that control, too, as Canada outshot Jamaica 16-11, and had 57% of possession, completing 81% of their passes.
Given that they were up against a Jamaican team that had made the Round of 16 at the World Cup this summer, only conceding one goal in four games at that tournament, that’s no small feat, especially for a Canadian team that was on the road in a tough locale.
And the formation tweak is a large reason for why, especially in terms of Canada’s ability to just hold onto the ball and play out of the back, as that’s an area where they’ve struggled in the past.
With Rose slotting into the back three, that changed that, as her ability to be patient and play line-breaking passes was a huge asset on the ball, which coupled with her speed and 1v1 defensive ability, also allowed her to bring value to Canada defensively.
Given that a big worry of a potential back three of Gilles, Zadorsky and Buchanan was mobility and speed on the outside of the three, Rose’s insertion helped solve that problem, as she and Buchanan fit nicely on the outside of Gilles in the middle.
Because of that, look for Canada to build on what they showed in this formation going forward.
Especially with how Rose has pushed her way into Canada’s XI with her performances over the last year when healthy, using this formation to get her, Gilles and Buchanan in natural positions on the pitch at the same time is a big bonus.
Then, you add in that Ashley Lawrence is able to play higher up the pitch in a role that suits her two-way ability more, and that a healthy Janine Beckie would be a perfect candidate for the other wing back position (which Collins filled admirably, to be fair)? Even better.
Of course, they must now build off of this performance, but it was certainly a good start, one that showed why many have wondered if a switch to this formation could be a way to go for Canada for a while now.
TACTICAL BREAKDOWN 🔎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) September 23, 2023
Bev Priestman utilized a 3-5-2 for the #CanWNT to great effect – and @cmoscato4 breaks down exactly why those on-field partnerships flourished in this new system 🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/dmd1Q5edLD
Nichelle Prince a solution to Canada’s #9 woes?
After a World Cup where they only scored two goals, the big question was simple for Canada heading into this camp - where was the offence going to come from?
And by scoring two open-play goals in this game, the first time they’ve done that in 2023, they certainly found a way to get some more offence in this game.
A big reason why, however? The insertion of Nichlle Prince as a striker, as she led the line to start this game.
Fully healthy again after an Achilles injury, it was her first CanWNT start since November of last year, marking a big milestone for her.
Yet, for Priestman, it was a bold call, given that Prince has spent most of her time playing out wide for Canada. Instead of choosing Jordyn Huitema, who has been the preferred option at the #9 lately, or Evelyne Viens, whose club form is always hard to ignore, Priestman went for the fluidity that Prince can offer up front.
And to Priestman’s credit, her gamble paid off, as Prince was a handful to deal with up front for the Jamaican defenders. Always a threat with her speed, she also did well to drift into deeper pockets, too, providing value as a key outlet.
Then, for good measure, she topped off a good showing with what ended up standing as the winning goal with a powerful header, showing a fantastic striker’s instincts on the finish.
Yet, it was a perfect way to cap off Prince’s performance, as she showed why she can be an option at striker for Canada, even if it’s not her natural position.
Given that Canada has struggled to find consistency at that spot, a performance like this can only make one wonder if she can win the spot and make it her own, as she just seemed to do everything one would want from a striker.
From running the channels, to hold-up play, as well as a bit of defensive effort and chance creation, Prince did a good job of involving herself in ways other than just scoring.
For what it’s worth, she has played this role before for Canada, as Priestman has slotted her up front in the past. There, however, she was shifted back out wide as Canada had fewer options at the winger position at the time, despite her doing well up up front.
With the recent emergence of the likes of Lacasse, Leon and Olivia Smith, as well as the presence of the likes of Beckie and Deanne Rose, however, Canada’s more than set out wide now.
Because of that, don’t be surprised to see a bit more of Prince up front. Especially since she seemed to play off of Lacasse and Leon quite well, giving Canada’s some much-needed fluidity in attack, that’s also key, as sometimes Canada’s front three was guilty of getting quite isolated at the World Cup.
So that Prince was also able to help solve that issue, as well as bring a different threat up front, just shows the value that she can bring to this position going forward.
Defensive transitions still a worry:
For all of the joy that Canada had in this game, however, especially offensively, not all was perfect for them.
In particular, they did have some hiccups defensively, as they did still allow 11 shots from Jamaica.
Of course, they kept the clean sheet, as they only allowed two of those shots to find the target, but that was as much due to Jamaica’s struggles in attack as it was to Canada’s defensive play.
Especially in transition, where they were giving up far too many dangerous counter-attacks which opened the game right up, that was a big worry, something they’ll need to clean up going forward.
Yet, a large part of that was down to Canada’s own doing. Be it the growing pains of working with this new formation, the field or just nerves, Canada had a few sloppy moments at inopportune times in possession.
And that’s a worry, as it gifted Jamaica some opportunities that they probably should’ve put away if not for sloppy finishing and some good defensive actions from Canada’s centre backs, which could’ve changed the complexion of this game.
Therefore, look for them to clean that up, as it could be an issue worth monitoring going forward. Given that they struggled heavily in transition in the World Cup, especially against Australia’s press, teams will only continue to apply pressure on Canada’s backline if they know that chances like that could be on the table.
To be fair, it’s worth noting that Canada was a lot cleaner on the ball as a whole, as seen in the earlier section, so the big area of concern is more situational versus the overall philosophy.
No doubt, Canada should keep playing out of the back, and based on what we’ve seen, this new formation looks like a good way for them to do that effectively.
Where they must be careful, however, is how they manage the ball, especially when their wing backs drift forward, as those are the moments where you must be extra careful to not turn the ball over.
In order to be successful in the modern game, you cannot gift transition moments to the top teams, as that’s where teams score most of their goals.
Even if a back three of Jade Rose, Gilles and Buchanan will help slow down those moments, if you give up enough of them, you will get punished eventually, and Canada was lucky not to get hit in leg one.
Therefore, as they get set for leg two, look for them to avoid opening up the game as they did at times, allowing them to really control the tempo of the game on the ball in their new formation, which is hard to do if the game turns into a track meet.