3 takeaways from the CanMNT, CanWNT's Friday doubleheader
In a busy Canadian Soccer doubleheader, the CanMNT and CanWNT both were in action on Friday, as they continued their preparations for upcoming World Cups.
First, there was the CanMNT, who took on Bahrain in Bahrain with a primarily MLS-based squad, in a game that was mostly scheduled for those players to shake off some rust with Canada’s World Cup opener now less than two weeks away. There, Canada ended up picking up a 2-2 draw, as a goal from Ismaël Koné and an own goal allowed them to split the spoils with their hosts.
Then, less than an hour later, there was the CanWNT, who took on Brazil in Brazil, as they continued their preparation before their World Cup, which comes next summer. There, they picked up a hard-fought 2-1 victory, as early goals from Shelina Zadorsky and Adriana Leon were enough to withstand a late Brazilian surge to rise to victory.
Here’s what we learned from both of these games.
CanMNT still has some rust to kick off ahead of Qatar:
Depending on how you look at it, there are a few perspectives that can be taken when looking at the Bahrain game.
To begin, there is initially a feeling of disappointment, as while a good chunk of the heavy lifters of this Canadian squad were not there, drawing 2-2 with an 85th-ranked Bahrain is still frustrating. Especially given that Canada looked sloppy for much of the match, with both of the goals that they conceded being self-inflicted, it felt like Canada could’ve done much better than they did on the day.
On the flip side, there is the reality that this game was always going to be more about shaking off the rust for these MLS players, some of whom could play a big role in Qatar. Given that some of them had gone up to four weeks without playing a game, getting minutes was always going to be the goal for them, giving them a chance to get closer to full speed before the full Canadian squad convenes this week.
Along with a chance to start and get used to the ruthless Middle Eastern heat, which will be on full display at the World Cup proper, that also meant that the success of this game could always be tied to intangible factors not fully related to what occurred on the pitch.
At the same time, there were still some concerns to glean from the performance. For example, the sloppiness that Canada showed on the ball will be a worry as they get set to face much more aggressive teams defensively, as will their struggles in breaking lines and getting Bahrain’s defensive line to move around off the ball.
Plus, you factor in that Canada’s back line didn’t look as sharp defensively as they have in the past year, that’s also a worry, given that a good chunk of that could be composed of these players.
You add in the fact that Canada got throttled on the Expected Goals (xG) battle 1.43-0.89, generating just six shots (two on target) while allowing seven (four on target), that only adds to those points.
Yet, for all of those concerns, there was also a lot of good to glean from the game.
For example, the play of Ismaël Koné was a big bright spot, as he scored the opening goal (and should’ve arguably had a second), doing well to be a threat for Canada every time he got on the ball. Once a doubt to be in this World Cup squad, he once again showed why he won’t just be in the team in Qatar, but could play an increased role there, too.
GOAL 🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) November 11, 2022
A first #CanMNT goal for Ismael Kone?
You bet! The #CFMTL star bursts past the Bahrain backline and tucks home his finish as cool as you'd like 😎
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhxUCE pic.twitter.com/fW5AqjgjWG
Then, there was the play of Jonathan Osorio, who despite playing just 18 minutes since the 21st of August, went the full 90 minutes in his first start in over two months, looking lively whenever he got on the ball. Having recovered from what he described as ‘neurological dysfunction’ that arose as he dealt with post-concussion syndrome, that’s a huge plus, as a healthy Osorio will always play a big role for Canada.
You add in some good performances from other World Cup-bound Canadians, Richie Laryea and Dayne St.Clair, along with some bright showings from longer-shot World Cup hopefuls Liam Fraser and Zachary Brault-Guillard off of the bench, and that’ll give plenty for John Herdman to ponder when looking back on this match.
So overall, while the result was far from what Canada would’ve liked, there was still a lot to take away from this game.
Now, that'll leave them to now hope that Doneil Henry’s injury from warm-up isn’t as bad as it sounds, and that Kamal Miller’s knock that forced him to leave the game is nothing more than just a small niggle, with those arguably being the bigger worries than the game itself at the moment.
CanWNT continues to reap benefits of new-look offence:
In what has become a familiar sight as of late, the CanWNT were firing on all cylinders in Brazil on Friday, as they stormed out to a surprise 2-0 lead over ninth-ranked Brazil inside 30 minutes, a lead they’d manage to hold onto the rest of the way.
GOAL 🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) November 11, 2022
SHELINA ZADORSKY opens the scoring for the #CanWNT vs Brazil!
A powerful header off a perfect Ashley Lawrence cross gives Canada the 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/CaSw1RFUnm
It wasn’t easy, as Brazil pushed hard for the win, making it 2-1 before the half before pushing all the way to the end, but as Canada tends to do when they are tasked to defend, they managed to see things over the line.
Through that, they extended their winning streak to five games, having done well to find some form after a tough end to their CONCACAF Championships this summer. A run on which they’ve won by a combined 11-2, scoring at least two goals in four of those games, what’s most impressive is that they’ve done so against solid opposition, as well.
Yet, as has been the case for three windows in a row now, they continue to reap the benefits of their new-look offensive system, one that has been a big game-changer for their offence.
To be fair, this game wasn’t the greatest example of that, as both of Canada’s goals came off of set pieces (a pair of different corner routines, to be exact), but there is no doubt that Canada is playing with more freedom at the moment.
Especially against stronger teams, Canada is doing well to consistently create more opportunities, be it in open play or via set pieces (an area they’ve focused on all year ever since the appointment of Jen Hurst), giving them a better chance of scoring them.
To get an idea of how much so, consider this - before Canada tweaked formations in September, they played four tier-one teams in 2022: England, Germany, Spain and the US. In those games, Canada averaged just 0.72 xG on seven shots (2.75 on target) per game.
Now, in the three tier-one games they’ve played since (Australia x2, Brazil), they’ve averaged 1.39 xG on 10 shots (six on target) per game, which is a significant increase on those numbers.
Of course, there are factors behind that rise, as the US, Germany, Spain and England are all clear favourites to win the World Cup next year, while Brazil and Australia will be happy if they can crack the final eight, but there’s still a lot to like with that if you’re Canada.
Given that they’ve also been without key regulars for most of these post-CONCACAF Championship friendlies, that shows that Canada’s tactical tweaks have had their desired effect, giving them a bit more offensive punch without much sacrifice to their defensive game.
Now with a more modern midfield set-up, and a fluid attacking set-up among the front four, Canada is finally taking advantage of some of the dangerous attacking talents that they have on a more regular basis, which is huge.
And what’s most exciting about all of this? Canada still probably has another gear to hit offensively, too, meaning that this evolution could still be set to blossom further in games to come.
Midfield transitions a concern for both teams:
Across both games, however, a surprising theme emerged for both teams once again - midfield transitions.
As both teams were tasked to play out of the back against their respective opponents, a reason why both gave up a lot of quality opportunities (the CanMNT conceded 1.43 xG, the CanWNT 2.03) was due to their defensive transitions caused by their turnovers.
In the CanMNT game, it was more self-inflicted, as Canada tried to play out of the back, but made some sloppy mistakes, including a turnover on Bahrain’s opener. Be it due to rust, a lack of familiarity or the state of the pitch, their issue ended up being a lot of unforced errors, something that Bahrain pounced on.
The good news is that they should be able to fix that, as that mostly wasn’t an issue throughout qualifiers, but that’s now three games in a row dating back to the September window where they’ve been the cause of some unnecessary transition moments, which are the most dangerous in soccer.
Part of the reason that Canada was such a good defensive team in qualifiers was that they limited those moments, but they’ve regressed on that front lately, which is bad news as they get set to face teams like Belgium, Croatia and Morocco that can feast on such moments, making it imperative that they clean it up, pronto.
As for the CanWNT, their wounds were less self-inflicted, as Brazil’s high press had as much to do with Canada’s turnovers as any sort of sloppiness, but the bad news is that this now isn’t the first time that a team has pressed Canada in possession and had success.
At the CONCACAF Championships, the US nearly played Canada off of the pitch with their high press, with a mix of last-ditch defending, heroic goalkeeping and luck being the reason the US didn’t walk over Canada (they won 1-0 on a penalty despite winning the xG battle 3.02-0.68).
And that’s something for Canada to monitor, as they play out of the back while using a back four, one where the full backs are tasked to push high. The problem with that is that with Canada now having just a double-pivot in midfield, it means that a team that presses high only has to cut off the two midfielders and two full backs to put Canada in trouble on the ball.
Of course, Canada could bypass that by going long, but they don’t really have a true target #9 to play off of, and haven’t always been able to pick out the long diagonal switches that you need to spread the field in some of those scenarios.
Because of that, it could be a good option for Canada to start using a back three when building up to counter that. They don’t have to use it all of the time, as they’ll want to stick to the principles they’ve adapted in their recent offensive resurgence (double-pivot midfield, a fluid front four), but being able to spread the field and outnumber teams presses with an extra body at the back wouldn’t hurt.
If not, teams might be able to continue to cause them trouble with a high press, a strategy you can only imagine more sides start to use if this continues.
Therefore, as they continue their tactical evolution ahead of next summer’s World Cup, that could be the next step for them to take, allowing them to clean up that side of their game.
No matter what happens with either side, however, one thing is for sure - midfield transitions will be key to either of their successes, and they’ll look to now clean up that side of their games ahead of bigger matches, no matter what the fix ends up being.