ANALYSIS: Three takeaways from the CanMNT's return to action versus Curaçao
For the first time since the 2022 World Cup, the Canadian Men’s National Team were back in action this weekend, as they took on Curaçao in the first of two crucial CONCACAF Nations League clashes they have on their schedule in this March window.
There, they did what they needed to do on the night, picking up a tidy 2-0 win, one that both booked their spot at the 2023 Gold Cup, as well as put them in the driver’s seat to qualify for the Nations League finals, which will be held in Las Vegas this June.
Now, they must finish that job by drawing or beating Honduras at BMO Field on Tuesday, allowing them to officially punch their ticket for Vegas, while also all but mathematically confirming that they will get a bye through next year’s Nations League (and get one step closer to the 2024 Copa América, too).
Thanks to a professional performance down in Curaçao, where Canada did what they needed to offensively, and locked things down defensively, they kicked off their journey toward the 2026 World Cup in style, while also applying some of the key learnings that they picked up in Qatar.
Here’s a closer look at what stood out from this one:
New-look formation gives Canada much-needed stability in midfield:
There’s no doubt that Canada learned a lot during their short but memorable time at the World Cup last year. From the importance of being clinical in both boxes, to sharing the field with world-class players, and everything in between, it was no doubt a tournament of growth for Canada, who got served a harsh reminder of what it takes to compete at the top level.
One of their biggest learning moments, however? The importance of being solid in midfield, as Canada got a first-hand look at some of the best midfield units in the world with Croatia, Morocco and Belgium, seeing how they can control games.
Canada ended up being on the wrong end of that in Qatar, as they had the misfortune of suffering some mistimed injuries to some key midfielders, while some of their other options dealt with rust. Then, not helping their cause, they tried to run a double-pivot for most games, a dangerous move given who they were up against, as well as who they tried to run in said double-pivots.
As a result, post-World Cup, it was noted that Canada would be wise to potentially embrace using three in midfield more often going forward, either in a 4-3-3, or a 5-3-2, depending on preference.
Because of that, it was very interesting to then see Canada come out for this Curaçao game with a 5-3-2, one with a 3-player midfield unit of Stephen Eustáquio, Ismaël Koné and Jonathan Osorio.
Instead of trying to stick with a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-3, as they did at the World Cup, something they had way more of a chance of getting away with against a Curaçao versus a Croatia, say, they decided to be a bit more robust in midfield on Saturday.
A smart choice given that Curaçao themselves are pretty good in the midfield, it really ended up proving beneficial in this game, too, as Canada really managed to wrangle control of the middle of the park, which then made life easier for their defenders and forwards. Of course, a first-half red card to Curaçao only helped that, but even before that happened, the change yielded obvious benefits, and that remained true as the game went along.
My favourite part of the #CanMNT's opener? How they controlled the ball, and slowly broke Curaçao down— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 26, 2023
Held possession for ~90 secs, doing well to win it back the two times they lost it
Here's the full sequence, just to get an idea of what worked therepic.twitter.com/0fFv4p7oMr
Led by Eustáquio, who was his usual dynamic self in the heart of the trio, doing a lot of the work of orchestrating the play, and helped by both Koné and Osorio, who helped Eustáquio to form triangles and provided good outlets for him to play through, it allowed Canada to set the tempo for most of the game, as reflected in the fact that they held 60% of possession.
That’s key, as it’s not often easy to do that on a road game in CONCACAF, especially one where the field conditions weren’t favourable to how they want to play, something they’ve learned in the past (take last year’s mud bath game versus Honduras, for example). Plus, it’s important not to scoff at the fact that they won the xG battle 1.15 to 0.09 in this game, with the latter number being the lowest xG they’ve given up in any game since they played Aruba in 2021.
Yet, that’s a credit to this set-up, as well as the roles that it gave those within this formation, which just seemed to suit the trio of Eustáquio, Koné and Osorio a lot, who weren’t overworked in this one.
In particular, Osorio was excellent in his role, as he really took over the game in the pockets that he was able to find, something that was reflected in his overall excellent numbers from this game.
Also, Jonathan Osorio had a quietly tidy game in midfield for the #CanMNT, showing why he's a key option there— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 26, 2023
Led the team in key passes (2), had 0.32 xA, 2 tackles, won 7/8 duels and drew 2 fouls
Decent performance from him today
Because of that, look for Canada to try and continue this going forward. It’ll be tough to do so, as it’s going to make for some tough decisions with players such as Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea, Tajon Buchanan and Junior Hoilett, for example, but that could be a necessary sacrifice if it means being able to control the middle.
Especially if Canada can really unleash Eustáquio and Koné, with the former already the team’s most important player, and the latter soon set to join him in that discussion, with Osorio’s ability to find space and play on the ball really freeing them up, it’s a move you have to make.
Of course, this trio will need to go through tougher tests together, as one game against 10-player Curaçao isn’t enough to proclaim it as the be-all, end-all answer to Canada’s midfield question, but it was very encouraging and certainly should be built off of.
Larin and David yield benefits of strong club form, resurrect strike partnership:
There’s no secret that Jonathan David and Cyle Larin are crucial to Canada’s attack. Given that they’re now the top two leading scorers in CanMNT history (Larin now has 26 goals, David has 23), with Larin putting up 18 goals and one assist since the start of 2021, while David has grabbed 12 goals and eight assists, as they go, so does Canada.
Yet, despite their prolific form, they went quiet when it mattered most for Canada - at the World Cup, where the pair were unable to grab a goal or an assist across three games. To be fair, that was expected of Larin, who was struggling for minutes with Club Brugge at the time, but it was a big shock to see David, who was in strong form for Lille at the time, get blanked as he did (and even in Larin’s case, form hasn’t always been needed for him to score crucial goals for Canada).
Not only that, but it continued a discussion that has long persisted with the pair - that they can score for Canada, just not often together, making it seem likely that Canada’s best option post-World Cup was to split them up, starting one and bringing the other off the bench. Especially seeing Larin’s club form at the time, it seemed like a no-brainer, with the likeliest outcome being that David would start more (he had his best game at the World Cup as a lone striker), with Larin becoming a super sub.
Then, of course, that discussion quickly changed, as Larin then secured a move out of Brugge to La Liga’s Real Valladolid on loan, where he’s been on fire, scoring five goals in eight games there. As a result, with David also still on fire for Lille, where he’s up to 21 goals on the season in all competitions, it was interesting to see what John Herdman would do this camp, as it seemed inconceivable that one of them would get benched.
As a result, it was no surprise to see them both lead the line in this game, as part of the new-look 5-3-2.
And there, they shone. David was everywhere, playing in more of a free, second-striker role, which he thrives in, while Larin did well to occupy defenders and play as more of a traditional #9, a role that he hasn’t always done well in, but has really improved a lot with at Valladolid.
Plus, as a bonus, they both scored, with David poking home an early Richie Laryea cross, before teeing up Larin for the second. That, in particular, is important, as it was just the fifth time the pair have scored in the same game for Canada, and just the third time since 2021.
GOAL 🇨🇦🇨🇦— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) March 26, 2023
It's CYLE "𝑳𝒂𝒓𝒊𝒏𝒊𝒔𝒎𝒐" LARIN 💥#CanMNT go up 2-0 over Curaçao just before half-time as the @realvalladolidE striker keeps his hot scoring streak going in Concacaf 🔥#CNL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/oOlGP2Ndcj
Yet, thanks to the new formation, which allowed Herdman to pair the two together without losing anything in midfield as he often had to do when he played them in a 4-4-2, they were able to thrive.
Because of that, it’s an added bonus towards keeping this formation going forward. Not only is it important for Canada to have that extra body in midfield, as well as give Alphonso Davies some positional clarity by having him in a similar wing back role to the one he now plays with Bayern, but getting Larin and David firing within that could arguably be the biggest factor of them all.
Just look around CONCACAF, where other top teams like the US, Mexico and Costa Rica are struggling to figure out any sort of solution at the #9 position, while Canada sits there with two of the most in-form options out of anyone.
And if they can now get those two in-form #9s working together? Watch out, something that they’ll now look to keep going in the future, which should make for a fun couple of years watching this pair fight for their spot atop the all-time CanMNT goalscoring charts.
Defensive tweaks offers glimpse of future:
In terms of tactics, Herdman has not been one to shy away from being flexible in the past. Just take a look at the list of formations that Canada has used over the past two years.
Not only that, but he has no problems trying players in new positions, as seen with the likes of Alistair Johnston, Alphonso Davies, Richie Laryea and more.
Yet, despite that, there’s been one area where he’s been very particular - starting left-footed centre backs on the left of his defence, and right-footed centre backs on the right.
It hasn’t been too big of a deal, as Canada has had a relatively even split of in-form righties and lefties, but that’s changed in recent months, as most of Canada’s lefties have been in the best form of all centre backs, yet the likes of Derek Cornelius, Kamal Miller and Scott Kennedy were never able to share the pitch together.
In this game, however, that changed, as a suspension to Alistair Johnston led Herdman to deploy Kennedy on the right side of Steven Vitória, filling Johnston’s spot, while slotting in Cornelius on the left.
And to be fair, it ended up working rather well. As seen with the xG numbers, as well as the shots (Canada only allowed two shots, one of them on target), Canada had an excellent game defensively. Part of that was the red card, no doubt, but even despite that, Canada did what they needed throughout the game.
Plus, they more than held their own in possession, with Kennedy, in particular, not looking uncomfortable on the right. As a result, he completed 85% of his passes, including 38/41 (92%) of his short pass attempts, helping quell one of the biggest worries of having a left-footed centre back on the right-side.
Because of that, it’s something interesting to keep an eye on going forward, especially after Canada’s main right-footed centre back option, Steven Vitória, picked up a suspension for this upcoming Honduras match. Typically, it has always been Vitória or Doneil Henry joining one of Kennedy, Cornelius and Miller alongside Johnston in a back three, but with Henry missing from this camp with injury, this will mean a rare chance for a new combination.
Therefore, it’ll be interesting to see which two centre backs join Johnston, who returns from suspension, as among the list of options, which are Kennedy, Cornelius, Dominick Zator and Kyle Hiebert, Kennedy and Cornelius are by far the most experienced with Canada, and are the likeliest to start.
From there, it’ll then be intriguing to see if that opens the door for new combinations in the future. With Henry continuing to battle injury, and Vitória not getting any younger at 36, that’s going to open the door for new options.
And while the likes of Hiebert, Zator, Joel Waterman and other right-footed centre backs will look to step up and replace them, as of now, Miller, Cornelius and Kennedy lead the way in terms of experience, so it’ll be intriguing to see if Herdman will play more than one of them at a time, as he did in this game.