3 TAKEAWAYS from the CanWNT's come-from-behind win over Ireland at 2023 World Cup
Tied 1-1 at half time, a critical second half awaited the CanWNT in Perth.
135 minutes into their 2023 World Cup adventure, they were facing down the barrel of a less-than-ideal result, as they were locked in a 1-1 draw with Ireland in their second match of Group B action.
Following a disappointing 0-0 draw in their opening match against Nigeria, they’d gotten off to a nightmare start against the Irish, trailing 1-0 off a Katie McCabe Olimpico inside four minutes.
Not only that, but they’d end up being second-best for most of that half, too, and only ended the half tied due to a late miracle, as Julia Grosso forced an own goal out of nothing to somehow tie the game at one right at the break.
Knowing that a win would allow them to regain control of their World Cup destiny, Canada knew that they had to find their feet, and quickly, as they tried to break down a resolute Irish defence.
Turns out, they’d be able to do just that. After one of their worst halves in a long time, Canada then responded with one of their best, finding a winning goal in the 53rd minute via Adriana Leon, and then not looking back from there.
With that, they now head into their last game against Australia in a solid position, no matter what happens with the hosts' clash with Nigeria on Thursday. Ultimately, that’s all that matters, as sometimes these tournaments are just about getting the job done, at all costs, and they did that.
Speaking of, here’s a look at what stood out from this one for Canada, as they found a way to grind their way past Ireland on Wednesday.
Slow starts a worry for Canada?
To begin this game, things were not looking good for Canada.
Faced with a 1-0 deficit less than five minutes in, that left them with a tall mountain to climb for the rest of the 85 minutes, as they chased a must-needed victory.
Adding to their frustrations? The fact that the lead was completely deserved from Ireland, too, as they looked better to start the game and had a just reward to show for it.
Plus, as the half went along, that sentiment didn’t go away, either. In fact, when Canada scored in the fifth minute of first half stoppage time, it felt like it was very much against the run of play, as they struggled to put Ireland on the back foot despite needing a goal.
Because of that, it might’ve been one of Canada’s worst halves since Bev Priestman was hired, with the lone positive to take away being that Canada somehow finished tied.
Therefore, as they reached the break, it was imperative that they’d turn things around, or else, it promised to be a long second half.
Which, to their credit, they’d find a way to do.
Led by a bold half time change from Priestman, who elected to make a triple sub at the break, Canada looked like a whole different team in the second 45 minutes, and it showed.
In their short time on the field, those substitutes, Sophie Schmidt, Christine Sinclair and Shelina Zadorsky, were all integral to Canada’s victory, playing a huge role. You add in a solid 31-minute cameo from Cloé Lacasse, who was dangerous and lively on the flank, and overall it was a good showing from Canada’s substitutes.
Not only did they bring a spark with their play, but they brought a jolt to the rest of Canada’s players, as several players stepped up big after the substitutions, with Quinn and Jordyn Huitema really shining in that regard.
Yet, this leads to a big conundrum for Priestman - for a second game in a row, her substitutions have played a big role in helping break open games late after slower starts. Not only that, but this was also another game where Canada was unable to grab the first goal, something they’ve only done twice in their last eight games.
Safe to say, Canada’s having an issue with slow starts at the moment.
Plus, not only that, but they’re struggling to score early in games, period. Of their last 19 goals, just six have been in the first half, and just three of those have been before the 30th minute.
That’s not a bad thing - it’s good to finish games strong, but it’s also a worry that Canada’s consistently struggled to get going out of the gates in games.
Because of that, it leaves a lot for Priestman to ponder. Once again, she continues to get her substitutions right, something she’s done well since her hire, but sometimes she’s struggled to replicate that from the start of matches.
Against tier-one opposition, that can cost them, as they’ve learned this year, so it’s important that they find a way to clean that up going forward.
Be it by allowing some of those substitutes bigger opportunities to start, or by tweaking the set-up from the start, Canada will need to find something that works, or else those slow starts could loom costlier against different opposition.
Is Sophie Schmidt forcing her way into the starting conversation?
Speaking of those substitutes, however, there is one that stood out, in particular - Sophie Schmidt.
Despite having recently turned 35, and in her fifth (and final) World Cup, Schmidt remains a key part of this Canadian midfield, and she showed that again versus Ireland.
After a solid cameo off the bench against Nigeria, she took that to another level in this Ireland clash, completely altering the complexion of the match when she came in at half time.
Not only did she grab the assist on Canada’s winner, but she looked composed in possession and was excellent defensively, bringing everything that her team lacked in midfield in the first half.
Because of that, she’s opened up an intriguing conundrum for Priestman in that area of the pitch.
No doubt, when looking at Priestman’s options, her best midfield trio remains Quinn, Jessie Fleming and Julia Grosso. Without a doubt, they’re Canada’s three best midfielders, and have proven that with their performances for club and country.
Yet, they haven’t had a chance to prove that together. In fact, their start together in this Ireland game was the first time in 19 matches that they’ve even done so, as they’ve rarely been able to play together due to injuries, form and Priestman’s preference for a double-pivot.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great first half from the trio, as Quinn struggled to get into the game, Grosso kept getting stuck deep on the pitch, and Fleming didn’t get on the ball as much. Therefore, despite Grosso helping create Canada’s first goal, Schmidt came in for her at the break.
Because of that, it’s led to a big conundrum for Priestman. While Quinn, Fleming and Grosso are Canada’s best three midfielders, they don’t fit into the midfield set-up she’s preferred, which is to have a lone #10 in front of a double-pivot.
A combination that worked well for Canada at the Olympics, where they played Quinn and Desiree Scott in that pivot behind Fleming, Priestman’s chosen to try and replace Scott with Grosso, a role that hasn’t suited her.
Better when she’s playing higher up the pitch, Grosso’s instead spent much of the first two games dropping far too deep in possession, nullifying some of her best attributes such as her final pass or shooting abilities.
Yet, with Schmidt being more of a #6 at the club level, she’s looked like a perfect fit alongside Quinn in both games, giving Canada a big boost in that regard.
Sophie Schmidt was excellent today for the #CanWNT/#CanXNT. In 45', she had:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 26, 2023
21/28 passing (75%)
3 key passes
1 big chance created
4 passes into final 3rd
1/1 long balls
5/8 duels won
Should start vs 🇦🇺 pic.twitter.com/fbiLzU6D4m
Therefore, Priestman now has a tough choice to make.
Option A would be to see her continue with Quinn, Grosso and Fleming, but adjust the set-up to play Grosso and Fleming in front of Quinn, which would suit all three best. It’d be a risk, as Canada might lose a bit of defensive solidity with the double-pivot, but they’d gain some creativity in midfield, and really unlock Grosso and Fleming, which could be exciting.
But if not, Option B could be to continue with the double-pivot, but slot in Schmidt alongside Quinn. Through that, Canada would be able to maintain their defensive solidity, and have a more natural fit for that set-up.
It’d have ramifications elsewhere, as one of Grosso or Fleming would be benched since there’s only one #10 spot in that case (although one of them could shift to the wing if need be, a role Fleming has played in the past for Chelsea), but it could allow Canada to maintain their preferred set-up defensively.
There’s no doubt that Canada’s future in midfield is and should be Quinn, Grosso and Fleming, but that’ll require the right deployment and some experimentation to get the correct balance, and if Priestman isn’t willing to take that risk, Schmidt has certainly shown that she’s more than capable of stepping up in the short-term the rest of the tournament.
Here’s what I’ll say on Sophie Schmidt, who’s BALLING right now:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 26, 2023
🇨🇦’s best midfield trio is Quinn, Julia Grosso and Jessie Fleming w/ the latter 2 as #8s. Full stop
But if 🇨🇦 keeps playing a double pivot instead, the best pair for that is Schmidt+Quinn
We’ve seen that vs🇳🇬+🇮🇪
More questions than answers remain up front:
As has been the case over the last while, it continues to be musical chairs up front for Canada, as they experimented with a different attacking combination.
This time, it was a trio of Adriana Leon, Evelyne Viens and Jordyn Huitema, after Viens did well enough off the bench against Nigeria to earn a start up front.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last very long - Viens would only make it to half time, as Priestman decided to withdraw her after she made just 11 touches, failing to generate a shot or key pass.
Instead, Priestman brought in Christine Sinclair to play a familiar role, but one she hasn’t played all that much lately, as she led the line the rest of the way. Her insertion helped massively, too - Sinclair had two shots and had two chances created in 45 minutes, and helped open up a key pocket on Leon’s goal.
Soon after, Leon came off for Cloé Lacasse, who once again was very lively off the bench, finishing with one chance created and two shots in 31 minutes, looking dangerous every time she got on the ball.
But while it’s good to see those two strong performances on the bench, it unfortunately continued a cycle that Canada remains stuck in offensively - they struggle to get the right combination from the start, and usually look their best offensively after subs come in.
Then, that usually leads to Priestman starting some of those names who shine, and then the cycle repeats itself.
Because of that, Canada will need to find a way to find the right combination from the start of games going forward. As seen earlier, slow starts remain an issue, and a big reason for that has been their offensive struggles early in games.
If they can find a way to rectify that, however, the slow starts might go away.
Therefore, Priestman will need to find a way to find the right magic for this Australia clash. Be it by handing Lacasse a start, or experimenting with different combinations, something has to give up front.
For example, one way could be just to match profiles instead of form. On paper, the Leon, Viens and Huitema trio made sense based on their performances last game (although Lacasse certainly deserved a chance), but between those three, they are all shoot-first attackers, and as a result, struggled to mesh together.
When Sinclair came on, however, that changed, as Sinclair is as much a pass-first player as a shoot-first player these days, which helped Leon and Huitema get a few more opportunities on the ball, leading to a strong second half from both (to go along with Leon’s goals).
As a result, it’ll be intriguing to see if Canada can get the right mix of profiles. Lacasse certainly deserves to start, but could the best combination alongside her be Huitema and Leon? Or Viens and Leon? Or Jessie Fleming even?
All options to consider for Priestman, as she continues to chase that perfect attacking formula for this Canadian team going forward.