TACTICAL PREVIEW: Lots at stake for CanWNT ahead of Ireland test in World Cup group stage
Things move quickly in tournament soccer.
While the disappointment of an opening game draw to Nigeria still lingers for the CanWNT, there’s no time to dwell on it, as they now get set to face Ireland in their second match of the 2023 World Cup.
A crucial matchup, one that could very well determine their World Cup fate, they’ll need to come out flying as they look to avenge a frustrating 0-0 result from their opening match.
Awaiting them, however, is a stiff test, as this Irish side are no pushovers. They proved that in their opening game, as they battled with hosts Australia right until the very end, only falling 1-0 to a penalty.
Therefore, while Canada will enter this game with a chip on their shoulder from their opening game draw, Ireland will certainly be doing the same, as they felt that they should’ve gotten more out of their first game, too.
Because of that, one thing’s for sure in this game - it’ll be feisty, as both teams know what’s at stake for them here.
Now, can Canada step up to the occasion? That’ll be the big question, as the defending Olympic gold medallists look to now prove their credentials, allowing them to get back on track after their opening game setback.
The importance of a victory remains clear
While Canada’s not technically in absolute “must-win” territory quite yet heading into this match, due to the implications of their opening game draw, this game certainly fits the category of a proverbial must-win match.
With a victory, Canada would leap up to four points, which would allow them to still have a chance to control their destiny in terms of being able to win the group in the last match.
If they draw, however, things could get interesting, as an Australian win over Nigeria would remove Canada’s ability to win the group outright (but keep the possibility of advancing with a draw or win), while a Nigerian win would turn Canada's last match into a must-win for them to have any chance at advancing.
Really, should they draw, they’d need to root for a draw between Nigeria and Australia, putting Australia at four points, Canada and Nigeria at two, and Ireland at one, but that’s a tall ask.
Then, if they lose, things would really hit the fan, as that’d leave them to enter the last matchday not just needing a win, but also needing another team to do a favour for them, too.
Yet, that’s not that surprising - it just shows the importance of being able to win your opening match, making Canada’s missed opportunity against Nigeria that much more frustrating in hindsight.
The good news, however? An opening day result can also mean nothing.
Argentina proved that at the men’s World Cup last fall, falling to Saudi Arabia in their opening match before going perfect the rest of the way, proving that winning the first game isn’t everything.
At the same time, as Argentina proved, Canada will now have to be perfect from this point on.
For what it’s worth, though, Canada has been here before. When they won their Olympic gold medal, they actually drew Japan in their opening match, putting them under similar pressure early in that tournament.
They then responded with a commanding 2-0 win over Chile, allowing them to head into their last game against Great Britain with a chance to win their group, although a late draw in that game then saw them finish second.
All of that to say, Canada will know the importance of winning this second game, especially in terms of being able to keep the possibility of winning this group alive.
Unlike at the Olympics where group finish doesn’t actually matter that much, given that it is a smaller tournament that guaranteed stiff matchups in every knockout game (Great Britain’s reward for winning the group was Australia, who they lost to, whereas Canada faced Brazil), there is value in winning a group at the World Cup.
For example, if Canada finishes second in this group, a likely path to the semi-finals would go through England in the Round of 16 and Germany in the quarter-finals, which is less than ideal given both of those teams' status as favourites as last year’s Euro finalists (which England won).
A potential path of Denmark and France isn’t much better, to be fair, but given that Germany and England are #2 and #4 in the world, respectively, whereas France and Denmark are #5 and #13, you’d take the latter path any day of the week if offered the choice.
All of that to say, while it’s too early to even look at potential paths through the knockout stages, as Canada must now get the job done themselves in the group stage, this just shows the importance of winning this Ireland match, at least giving them a chance to top the group on the last matchday.
If Canada is to indeed climb the summit that they’ve set out to, which is to win the World Cup, those are the sorts of details that will be crucial to them, which is why it’ll be important for them to have a short memory about Nigeria and quickly turn their attention to this one.
A stiff defensive test awaits
Safe to say, there’s no doubt that Canada needs to beat Ireland in this game. Understandably so.
If they’re to do that, however, it won’t be easy. Just ask Australia.
Despite it being their World Cup debut, Ireland gave the hosts a run for their money in their opening match, only narrowly falling 1-0 to a well-taken Steph Catley penalty.
As expected, Ireland were extremely organized in their 5-4-1 defensively, too, doing incredibly well to limit space between the lines for Australia to play through. Because of that, while Australia finished with 63% of possession, they spent much of the match on the periphery of the game, struggling to create any clear-cut opportunities.
That’s reflected in the xG, as Australia only generated 1.59 xG with the penalty, meaning that their non-penalty xG was around 0.8.
Considering that came from 12 shots (one on target), meaning their xG/shot was around 0.06, that shows the lack of quality opportunities that they created for themselves in this game. Heck, even the penalty that they generated was incredibly fortunate, as Ireland’s Marissa Sheva rugby tackled an Australian attacker on an innocent ball into the box, giving Australia a lifeline out of nowhere.
Therefore, Ireland has a lot to be proud of from their defensive performance, as they gave themselves a chance to grab at least a point, if not the win, with the penalty being their lone blip.
Of course, Australia was missing Sam Kerr due to injury, which was a significant blow given her importance to their attack, but Ireland still deserves credit for their performance, as Australia did have some other dangerous options to rely on in their attack.
Now, for Canada, that just gives an idea of the size of this task that awaits them. A team struggling to score right now, sitting with just three goals in five games this year, (three in six if you count a closed-door friendly against England), offence continues to be a big issue for this team.
They showed that against Nigeria, as they failed to really threaten Nigeria’s goal beyond a Christine Sinclair penalty attempt that was stopped, even despite generating over 1.1 non-penalty xG.
Because of that, it feels like this Ireland test could arguably be tougher for them than the Nigeria match was. Arguably, on paper, Nigeria may have had the better squad, especially in the attack, but given Canada’s strong defence, they were comfortable in that matchup.
In this game, however, Ireland is likely to be much tougher defensively, daring Canada to break them down, which has been Canada’s kryptonite as of late.
As a result, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Canada tackles this challenge. Do they go a bit more aggressive tactically? Might they consider adding an extra forward or midfielder to help break down Ireland? Do they alter their attacking approach?
Lots of questions for them to answer now as they head into this crucial clash, that’s for sure.
A selection headache looming for Canada?
Speaking of, arguably the biggest question that Priestman faces heading into this game? What do with her starting eleven, as she faces a few dilemmas in terms of her squad selection.
First, there’s the big one - what to do with Jessie Fleming? Left out of Canada’s opening game as she dealt with a knock, she was sorely missed in midfield, as Canada lacked her quality and intelligence between the lines.
Plus, her skills as a penalty specialist were also missed when Canada won the spot kick, making her absence a bit of a double whammy in that regard.
At the same time, it’s understandable why she was left out - over the course of a tournament, you don’t want to push a player early just to injure them more later, when you can instead manage them across the entirety of the competition.
On the flip side, entering this game, Canada will need to hope that Fleming is fit, as if there’s a game they need her for in this group, this might be the one where her skills are needed the most.
Given how good Ireland are at closing down space defensively, Fleming’s creativity would be a huge asset, giving Canada what they lacked in that regard last game.
Because of that, even if Fleming is only good for 45 or 60 minutes, that could be immensely valuable to Canada, making it intriguing to see if she’ll start or not.
From there, her return might dictate what happens elsewhere. For example, if Fleming is unable to play, it might be worth Canada trying Julia Groso as a #10 instead of Christine Sinclair, as the former’s creative skills felt a bit wasted playing deeper on the pitch in a double-pivot last game.
Then, up front, Canada will need to consider starting Evelyne Viens and Cloé Lacasse, who were very bright off the bench against Nigeria, bringing a key spark.
Do they start alongside Jordyn Huitema, shifting Huitema out to the wing? Or does Adriana Leon stay in after showing good flashes, leaving Huitema to play as a super sub? Or do they just go for a front four with Leon, Huitema, Viens and Lacasse?
All good options for Priestman to ponder, but needing an offensive spark in this game, it feels like Viens and Lacasse will be key to that no matter what.
Lastly, they’ll have to consider a tactical shift.
Knowing how hard it might be to break down Ireland’s low block, providing more width could be crucial, making it imperative that full backs Ashley Lawrence and Jayde Riviere get higher up the pitch than they did versus Nigeria.
Because of that, a temporary switch to an out-and-out back three in this game could make sense for Canada, allowing Lawrence and Riveire to have free roles on the flanks, giving Canada that width.
Australia struggled to do that against Ireland, so it could be wise for Canada to experiment with that, either by slotting in Shelina Zadorksy or Gabrielle Carle to form the back three, or by asking Quinn to slot back into that three (although their ball progression would be sorely missed as Canada tries to break down Ireland’s low block).
Of course, that could leave them exposed defensively, but given how good Canada’s been in that area of their game, that could be a risk worth taking, as they should still be able to handle Ireland’s transitional threat, especially if those wing backs don’t completely forego their defensive duties.
It’s always a risk to make big changes like that on a whim, of course, but for a Canadian team that is struggling to score, all options should be on the table, especially knowing how important a win in this game would be for them.