GANGUE-RUZIC: After being schooled at World Cup, did Canada fail to take those lessons to heart?
The 2022 FIFA World Cup saw Canada schooled by some of the world's biggest teams.
Whether it was no. 2 ranked Belgium sitting back and exploiting Canada's lack of potency, Croatia outclassing and overrunning Canada in midfield, or Morocco proving that grit and fight don't come exclusively out of the land of ice and snow, John Herdman and his players left Qatar with plenty of tape to look over... and plenty of lessons to stew on over the next six months.
There was a date set in the summer for a shot at a trophy - the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League title. Kings of Concacaf, officially on the line.
The steps to getting there saw Canada cruise to the semi-finals, ease past Panama, and square off against the United States in what would be Les Rouges' first final in 23 years ... a game that this Canadian brotherhood lost, hard.
Not only did they lose, but Canada also struggled to even get into the game, spending most of the match on the periphery as they came up second-best to the U.S. in what was arguably their worst performance in recent memory.
Even more frustrating? The fact that Canada struggled to show what they’d become known for over the past few years; namely, an organized team-first side that fights for every ball and possesses tactical flexibility, as they lost nearly every battle against the U.S. on the night.
And sure, losing to a strong U.S. team is definitely nothing to scoff at... but to lose the way that they did?
It felt like Canada fell into a trap and beat themselves over 90 minutes. Worse, still? It felt like none of the lessons Canada were taught at the World Cup had even settled into their collective hearts and minds.
CHAMPIONS 🏆 pic.twitter.com/f2V77RSdu4— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) June 19, 2023
All this leads to one important question: What's next for this Canadian side now?
No doubt, not all is doom and gloom, as Canada will feel like they're the second-best team in Concacaf – or, for a more positive spin, among the confederation's finest on their day. Plus, they have a young team still on the rise. No changes there.
Yet, as this final and those World Cup games showed, that’s still a long way from being able to compete at that next level, which is that step that they’ll need to take if they want to consistently contend for trophies in Concacaf and make the knockout stages of a World Cup, as they’ve said they want to.
To do that, they must take what they learned from these matches to heart, and apply those on the field.
Following this final, here are a few that they’ll need to take going forward.
Usually, I got a lot of thoughts, but this is all I've got:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) June 19, 2023
It's 1 thing to lose a final, especially against a team like 🇺🇸. That stuff happens
For the #CanMNT to have their worst performance tactically and effort-wise in 5 years, from minute 1-90? That's the painful part
The pressure of no longer being underdogs
A big reason for Canada’s success over the last few years? The fact that they were able to burst onto the scene almost unannounced, showing that they could be a team that could compete in the upper echelon of Concacaf.
As a result, they were able to catch teams by surprise in big games. Used to a Canadian side that might get overwhelmed by the big occasion, opponents were faced with a new-look team, one built on resilience, brotherhood and tactical flexibility.
That element of surprise gave them a big advantage, too. Especially given that the talent on this team was quickly growing, they all of a sudden had the pieces to make things happen.
Plus, through that flexibility, they were able to mask any potential deficiencies, adjusting based on the opponent. All of a sudden, this Canadian team wasn’t just playing to their potential, but seemingly were punching above their weight.
They might not have had the depth of a US or Mexico, but they were going toe-to-toe with those giants in qualifying, looking like a team that belonged.
Yet, as success often does, that came with a consequence - they’re no longer those same underdogs.
What that means is that teams are no longer entering matchups with Canada with naivety, especially tactically, hoping that talent advantages expose cracks - they’re preparing for these matchups as they would with any other top team, where the goal is to limit strengths and expose weaknesses.
This final was an example of that, as the US could’ve easily seen this Canadian side, and tried to play them off the park. Instead, the US went for a more calculated approach, even despite scoring early.
There, they would’ve had every reason to ramp up their pressure another notch and try to completely bury Canada earlier. Knowing that Canada likes to play in transition, however, the US instead dared Canada to break them down and tried to hit them on the break, a plan that worked marvellously given that they grabbed their second goal soon after, and limited Canada to just 0.62 xG from 12 shots (four on target).
And this isn’t the first time that’s happened recently, as it was clear that at the World Cup Belgium, Croatia and Morocco had similar approaches, showing that teams are starting to give Canada the respect of a top-tier team.
While that may be humbling given where Canada used to be as a team, that brings with it a different kind of pressure, which they’ll now have to get used to bearing.
The importance of an identity
That leads nicely into the next factor, too - Canada’s tactical identity, and the reluctance to settle with one set tactical plan.
Ultimately, when you’re playing top-level teams that are looking to capitalize on your weaknesses, it’s imperative that you play to your strengths, as international soccer is a strength-based game.
Unlike at the club level, where managers have the luxury of shipping out players they don’t want and bringing in new ones to fit their identity, international managers don’t have that luxury - they’ve got a set player pool.
What that means is that you have to maximize your strengths, as you will always have weaknesses, no matter what system you use, and how deep your pool is.
Now, for Canada, the big challenge will be finding out how to best use the strengths of their pool, and finding the right tactical identity to do so.
Tactically, the flexibility was and continues to be a big part of the team’s success, especially in Concacaf, but has started to show its flaws.
In particular, Canada just hasn’t been able to play to their strengths enough in those World Cup games and now in this US final. A team that is strong in wide areas, has two of the best strikers in Concacaf, is capable in midfield and has a backline that plays at its best with the game in front of them, it’s hard to say they’ve ticked enough of those boxes in big games.
But there's no doubt that they can build off that identity going forward, with the lone difference being a need to be more aggressive defensively, and capable in build-up play given that Canada's not suited to play direct to the strikers.
Therefore, it’s imperative that they carve out a consistent tactical identity and formation that maximizes those strengths, with the latter being key. Speaking of, the 3-5-2 seems to be one that could work, although it does take away some of their wide threats, while a 4-3-3 is also a good option that ticks a lot of those boxes, even if it sacrifices one of the strikers
From there, it’s crucial to then find the right profiles of players that can best complement those strengths. That’s a much harder discussion to have, as it might mean making some tough lineup decisions, but it could be key to making that next step.
Last thought for now, but what #CanMNT needs to take from the WC & today to take that next step tactically is the importance of a system that specifically maximizes one's best players— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) June 19, 2023
They've done it in glimpses, but need way more of that to push top teams. That's the next step
For example, look at Canada’s goalkeeping situation. There, Milan Borjan has been the main option, and rightfully so given how good he’s been over the years for club and country, as well as his spot as a key leader on this side.
Yet, at 35, it’s clear what Borjan is at this stage of his career - a very capable shot-stopper, but one who likes to stay on his line and isn’t one who prefers to play with the ball at his feet.
That was no problem in qualifiers for Canada, as their system suited him, allowing him to play to his strengths. As a result, he was a big reason why Canada made the World Cup, making some huge saves along the way.
Now, however, with Canada taking that step up in opposition, Borjan hasn’t been able to have that same impact on games, as opponents have honed in on his weaknesses. Especially as Canada’s been forced to play more aggressively both defensively and in possession, as one has to do when you make that step up in level, it’s left Borjan to struggle in key moments at the World Cup and in this final.
Might someone like Dayne St.Clair or Maxime Crépeau (when healthy) be better goalkeepers than Borjan? It’s up for debate, especially as those two names haven’t hit their full potential yet.
But with both able to play a more modern style of play, their profiles would’ve suited both the demands of these top-level games a lot more, as they’ve proven with their clubs.
Given that there is only that marginal difference between the actual talent level of those players, the difference in profiles could’ve made a big difference, especially to help Canada play a style that could’ve potentially better elevated their overall strengths.
And that’s not the only position where that sort of debate can be had, which is something that Canada will have to look at, as they try to find a way to maximize what they can do as a team.
Especially as Canada’s player pool grows, the options are there now, but it just might mean some tough decisions in terms of finding the right profiles and integrating them into the system.
Canada needs to get more out of top players
Speaking of maximizing one’s potential, however, that leads to another big question that Canada will have to look at - are they getting the most out of their best players in big games?
When looking back at all of Canada’s recent matches against World Cup-calibre opposition, it’s hard to say that the answer’s been yes.
Alphonso Davies has had good flashes in games, such as when he scored Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal in the first minute against Croatia, but hasn’t been able to take over a match as often as he should, often resorting to doing a bit too much in those moments.
Then, despite seemingly scoring for fun for Canada over the past few years, both Cyle Larin and Jonathan David have failed to score in any of Canada’s matches against 2022 World Cup participants not named Qatar since January of 2022, when Larin scored in Canada’s 2-0 win over the US. Given that Canada’s got a record of 1W-0D-6L in such games, having only scored four goals, one can only imagine how valuable a couple of tallies from them could’ve been.
Elsewhere, Tajon Buchanan and Stephen Eustáquio have had moments, but both could certainly hit another gear based on what they’ve shown at the club level (although the latter did battle injury problems in some of those big games), while Ismaël Koné has also had flashes, but has needed more opportunities in big games and is still growing as a player.
Ideally, those six (and whoever else emerges out of nowhere à la Koné) will take Canada as far as they can go, and they’ve shown that in Concacaf play, but will now need to translate that to these bigger games.
Yet, that’s not all on them, especially given that they’ve all shown an ability to take over games before.
That’s where it ties into that chatter of maximizing Canada’s strengths, as that also means maximizing Canada’s best players.
Ultimately, in big games, you need your best players to be, well, your best players. Canada knows that, as they wouldn’t have even made this final if it were not for Davies or David, who stepped up big in the semi-final against Panama to rescue a sloppy performance.
Therefore, it’s important that Canada finds a way tactically to get the most out of those players as often as possible. While they’ll certainly shoulder some of the responsibility for not being able to help Canada win some of those games, it’s hard to say that someone like Davies has had clarity with his role given that he’s played in nearly a half-dozen different positions in those games, as an example.
By defining a role for Davies and the others, though, that’ll allow Canada to then build around what they’re good at, helping them solve a lot of the questions from the last section.
The next challenge for John Herdman
And that’s now the task that John Herdman faces, as he turns his focus towards the Gold Cup and beyond.
Now, his team has had the chance to play at a World Cup and in a final, and have gotten a taste of what it takes to hit that next level.
They’ve shown that they can compete, at their worst or at their best, but now they must find a way to go beyond that.
The ceiling is there, but reaching it is the next goal, one that Herdman must now find a way to navigate.
This isn’t the first time he’s navigated such a challenge, as it’s easy to forget that in 2019 that Canada was seen as a team that didn’t have the defence or midfield to make a World Cup.
Fast forward a few years, Herdman was able to find a way to nullify a lot of those weaknesses with Canada’s tactically flexible system, while also managing to secure some key recruits to help out that defence.
Now, he must undergo a similar process, this time to help this Canadian reach that next level that they’ve got the potential of hitting, but have been unable to show other than in flashes.
If not, people will look back in five years on this US final loss as a moment where Canada painfully hit their ceiling, instead of being the catalyst that they needed to take that next step forward.
As the player pool continues to strengthen, that potential isn’t going away anytime soon, so the challenge has been laid out for Herdman in that regard.
Certainly, it hasn’t been easy for him in terms of lack of preparation, especially given that his team has faced a tough schedule, but that’s starting to slow down now, which gives him plenty of time to assess and apply some of the learnings from these big games.
POST-GAME THOUGHTS 🗣️@KristianJack, as usual, gives us a succinct and thorough set of takeaways, on a night where the usual reasons don't carry the same weight for the #CanMNT 🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/7QUEoLvEF7— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 19, 2023
So... what’s next for Canada?
It’s easy to forget after a loss like this, but the sky hasn’t fallen down completely for Canada quite yet, as the Gold Cup kicks off in just over a week (as of writing).
From there, a big fall looms, as they’ll have two crucial windows to play some top teams in friendlies in September and October, before they dive right back into Nations League quarter-finals in the November window (which also serves as qualifiers for the 2024 Copa América).
Within that, there will be plenty of opportunity to begin to implement some of the tweaks that they’ll need to take that next step, especially in terms of evaluating potential players that could help them in that quest.
This Gold Cup is a great opportunity, as this year’s tournament could be as crucial for Dayne St.Clair, Moïse Bombito, Zac McGraw, Victor Loturi or Charles-Andreas Brym as the 2021 tournament was for Tajon Buchanan, Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea, allowing them to get bigger reps for Canada.
Canada announce squad for 2023 Concacaf @GoldCup 🍁— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) June 19, 2023
Canada will open the tournament on Tuesday, June 27th in Toronto against the winner of a Guadeloupe-Guyana Preliminary Round match.
TICKETS 🎫: https://t.co/EXmmHEX0r5#CANMNT x @CIBC pic.twitter.com/Cd3nO8g4hG
Then, the friendlies could allow the players that impress to get a further look against higher calibre opposition, while allowing the flexibility to allow a few potential dual-nationals to experience a camp, something that a heavy competitive schedule doesn’t allow much time for.
No doubt, that gives Canada plenty of time to take that next step, and now, they must just make the most of it, using the US final loss as fuel for that.
As they say, losses can often be key learning moments, so it’s imperative that adage is taken to heart in the aftermath of this defeat.