Amidst send-off celebrations, CanWNT shows glimpses of new tactical vision in 5-0 win over Australia: "We can be dynamic"
They have been celebrating the upcoming departure of some all-time greats, but the CanWNT gave a glimpse into what the future could look like without them amidst all of the festivities.
Because of that, while most who tuned into Canada’s clash with Australia at Starlight Stadium on Friday night to catch Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt don the Maple Leaf for the second-last time, they’ll have been impressed to see Canada put up a show to mark the occasion, as they defeated the Matildas 5-0 in a resounding victory.
Of course, it’s important to note that this was quite an experimental Australian lineup, one that saw most key starters relegated to the bench in an effort from coach Tony Gustavsson to audition some new faces, leading to this lopsided scoreline, but for Canada, they’ll be pleased with the outcome regardless.
Given that Canada isn’t a team that has spent most of the last few years wondering where their goals would come from, especially as the prolific Sinclair, the all-time international leading goalscorer, neared the end of her distinguished career, they won’t mind seeing that sort of output - no matter the opponent.
Seeing that the goalscorers, Nichelle Prince, Adriana Leon, Cloé Lacasse and Simi Awujo, all have big roles to play going forward? That’s huge, as Canada will be relying on these sorts of names a lot going forward, which is why big performances from them probably came as a big relief to many.
Yet, that’s just one of the reasons to be pleased with this outburst, too. Another one?
The fact that Canada scored five, as it’s not often that they’ve put up these sorts of numbers recently - in fact, this was just the fourth under Bev Priestman in which they scored four or more, and just the sixth in which they’ve scored three or more, showing why this sort of total stands out.
Plus, it wasn’t just that Canada found the net with the sort of regularity that they did, or even that they did so against this calibre of opponent (even without their regulars), either, but it was how they found their goals, instead.
From the high press, which was the source of two of their five goals, to a strike from distance, which was the source of Simi Awujo’s marker, and then a pair of crosses, which rounded out the scoring, Canada can be pleased with where they found offence against Australia.
Plus, that wasn’t even their most dangerous chance generation avenue of the evening, either - those would be corners, which Canada used to fashion several other high-danger opportunities thanks to some sublime service from Leon, even if they didn’t score by that route in the end.
And that’s all huge for this Canadian team, who has often been accused of being too one-dimensional offensively, with the counter-attack usually being the preferred avenue of choice.
“It was good,” Awujo explained. “I think we came out very strong, and we came out with a response, and we went out and went after it in this game.”
But as they’ve shown post-World Cup, they’re starting to bring different attacking looks to the table, leading to different results, as this game showed.
Thanks to a new formation, the 3-4-2-1, they’re creating more in wide areas, but are more robust up front, all while not sacrificing the midfield to do so.
As a result, they can press more aggressively, and push numbers forward from up wide, all while staying within their defensive principles.
“I wanted us to be daring and brave,” Canada head coach, Bev Priestman, said of her team’s approach afterwards. “And that means living right to the edge, as I think when we do that, that's when this team is really at its best.”
Then, within this system, they’re developing new partnerships, too.
For example, Lacasse, Prince and Leon started and were excellent as a front three in this game, but Jordyn Huitema and Evelyne Viens have shown that they can pair nicely in this formation, while Deanne Rose also scored a goal last camp while looking good in this system.
Then, out wide, Sydney Collins has gone from new face to locked-in starter in this formation, while Ashley Lawrence has thrived at wing back, generating four assists in her last five games.
And then at the back, Canada has still been sturdy, only allowing two goals in their last five games, all while looking more and more steady as they’ve gotten used to this formation, with players like Vanessa Gilles and Jade Rose standing out within that.
Now, that’s all starting to pay off, as seen in their last two games, in which they’ve scored seven and conceded zero, with all of their goals coming in open play. By comparison, seven was the total of open play goals they’d scored in 11 previous games this year, while this was just the second time they kept back-to-back clean sheets in 2023, giving an idea of why those numbers are so important.
“Yeah, and that’s what the shape is bringing,” Priestman noted. “I think our forwards are closer together, we've got more numbers in the box, and it’s leading to more one-touch moves, runs around the corners, lots of little combinations and interchange, and I think the shape has given us a bit more of all of that.”
“Then you've got defenders like Jade Rose at the back, and I thought she was outstanding tonight, and then up front we could have scored even more than we did, story of the night but at the end of the day that comes from the hard work we put in, and the buy-in.”
“And I think it shows we can be dynamic when we just keep believing that we can play that way and we keep things simple.”
Heading into an Olympic year, that’s huge, as Canada will need to find a way to keep this up if they’re to repeat as gold medallists, as this is the exact sort of tactical framework that they’ll need to compete with the top teams around the world at the moment.
After a World Cup where they looked a step behind everyone, playing a rigid, slower style of play that just didn’t seem to get the most out of them, they’re starting to show glimpses of the team they can be at their best, and that’s not going unnoticed.
Take Australia as an example of that. Just this summer, Australia ran riot over Canada, beating them 4-0 to eliminate them from the World Cup, so for Canada to turn the scores the way that they did just shows how much Canada has tweaked.
“Yeah, we saw that in the four games heading into this camp, they’ve started a new journey,” Australia’s head coach, Tony Gustavsson, noted. “They still have the identity of a team that’s organized, very hard-working, but they’ve added some new dimensions to their game by being even more aggressive on the front foot and in their pressing game.”
“But then I also see a fluid attacking game that they didn't have before, a lot of variation of combination play, and strength in the wide areas.”
Yet, for the success of the last few games, they still want to pump the brakes when it comes to patting themselves on the back. They know that what they’ve shown so far is just that - glimpses, both against opponents who are also tinkering and playing with their own identities, which is why this isn’t enough to declare a successful tactical plan.
Instead, that sort of validation will come with a string of consistent performances, building off what they’ve started to show the last few windows, first.
“I think in moments of spells, tonight was the team we’ve all seen snippets of,” Priestman said. “We just now want to see it more consistently, and that’s working through things, putting people in different positions, as has been the story of the last two windows.”
“But I said it to the group, now it's about showing some consistency after these flashes, as that’s where we've got to get to in 2024.”
“It's great, scoring five goals is always fun, keeping clean sheets is also fun,” Canada defender Vanessa Gilles added. “But we’re also keeping our feet on the ground, we're testing new things, we’re building, so today’s not the end game, and the next game isn’t either. It's all about building towards the Olympics, so while today is huge, building on this is what’s important to us.”
But despite that, they’re on the right track, and that’s important, as many worried that Sinclair and Schmidt’s retirements would leave behind big holes that might be too big to fill going forward.
No doubt, the void they’ll leave behind is tough to fill, but performances like this one show that they might not be as catastrophic as first thought, showing that Canada is pushing in the right direction.
So although Canada will now put some of that progress on pause in their next game, as they get set for a rematch with Australia at a packed BC Place (or as it’s temporarily renamed, Christine Sinclair Place), in which Sinclair and Schmidt will start for the final time in their Canadian careers in what promises to be a special celebration for the sport in this country, they can be confident in what awaits them once these festivities come to an end.
Because of that, they can now enjoy the special party that awaits them on Tuesday, before getting back to work soon after, as they continue their journey toward the 2024 Olympics, building off what they’ve shown as of late.
“We've got to do everything right,” Priestman said of ending 2023 on a high this Tuesday. “From minute one to the final whistle, we’ve got to give them (Sinclair and Schmidt) the send-off, on and off the pitch, that she deserves.”