PREVIEW: What you need to know ahead of the CanMNT's friendly vs. Japan
The CanMNT are back in action this week, as they take on Japan in a friendly in Niigata on Friday.
Their final match ahead of a crucial Concacaf Nations League quarter-final tie in November, it’s a big occasion for this Canadian side, who hasn’t shared the field since this summer, when a good chunk of the squad represented the Maple Leaf at the Gold Cup.
Seeing what’s changed since then, however, such as the departure of John Herdman, who has been replaced on an interim basis by Mauro Biello, as well as the retirement of Atiba Hutchinson, and more, it’s a good opportunity for Canada to regroup ahead of those November games.
Given that they’ll be playing catch-up on a lot of the teams in Concacaf, as most of them featured in the September window while Canada remained idle, that’ll leave Les Rouges with some work to do in this window.
Canada Soccer unveils Men's National Team squad for Japan Friendly 🇨🇦— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) October 5, 2023
Canada will face FIFA number 19 ranked Japan on Friday 13 October at 6:35 AM ET / 3:35 AM PT in Niigata, Japan.#CANMNT x @CIBC pic.twitter.com/N7PcSob8rS
Yet, that’s why they’ve decided to take on Japan, who represent quite the test.
After a 2022 World Cup where they topped a group with Spain, Germany and Costa Rica, before falling in the Round of 16 on penalties, Japan has been on quite the roll since.
Despite facing the likes of Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Germany, El Salvador and Turkey in friendlies since that World Cup, Japan has won four, drawn one and lost one of those six games, playing quite well while doing so.
With the AFC Asian Cup around the corner next spring, they’ve emerged as key favourites for that tournament, and they’ll look to further prove that with a win in this camp.
On the other side, however, Canada will look to prove that they can put an inconsistent last 12 months behind them, as they look to book a spot at the 2024 Copa América, with those November Nations League games also serving as qualifiers for that tournament.
And given that they beat Japan 2-1 in a pre-World Cup friendly last November, Canada will feel confident in how they match up with this Japanese side, despite their recent form, as they get set for this test.
Ahead of then, however, here’s a look at what else you need to know about these two teams.
Can Canada handle tier-one test?
Despite a frustrating year of results, there’s no doubt that this Canadian side is still among the best in Concacaf. That’s why they were able to finish first in World Cup qualifying, and still made the final of the 2022-2023 Nations League, as they’ve done a good job of becoming a team that can take care of business against a lot of Concacaf sides they would’ve previously struggled against.
Where they’ve come up short, however, is against top teams from outside of the continent, as well as tier-one teams within Concacaf, where their record has been mixed.
To be fair, that’s partly understandable - it’s a big jump to go from playing Concacaf teams ranked in the 40s and below in the FIFA Rankings to those in the top 20, especially for a Canadian team that is only ranked 44th themselves.
At the same time, as they’ve seen in match-ups against those top 20 teams over the past year, they’ve also got a lot of work if they’re to compete with those sorts of sides with regularity. That’s seen in their record against top 20 sides, as they’ve got a record of 1W-1D-5L over the past year against teams currently ranked in the top 20, showing what needs work.
Yet, to become used to competing and beating the best, it also helps to test yourself against the best, and that’s why this friendly is so key for Canada.
By getting to play a Japan side that is ranked 19th in the world, in Japan, Canada can continue to push itself to the level that they’ll want to be at by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around, where Canada will want to be a top 20 team in the world themselves.
That’s also why making the Copa América is so key for Canada, as several of the top teams in the world will be there from CONMEBOL, including current World Cup holders Argentina and the likes of Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and more.
Because of that, anything but reaching the Copa América will feel like a failure for this Canadian side, making every game ahead of those qualifiers feel crucial, as they’ll want to take advantage of that opportunity to test themselves next summer.
In fact, that makes this game a double-whammy of sorts - this is a chance for Canada to test its chops against a top side, as well as an opportunity to prepare for that November window.
As a result, it’ll make analyzing this game that much more interesting, given that it’ll both be a chance to see how Canada does head-to-head against a team like Japan, while also serving as a chance for players to battle for spots ahead of November.
Japan’s varied tactical approach a big asset:
As for this Japan team more specifically, it’s worth noting that this side has gone about getting their post-World Cup results in an interesting fashion.
Usually known as a team that likes to hold onto the ball, given how technical a lot of their players are, especially in midfield, Japan has shifted to more of a direct approach this year.
Yet, it’s one that’s worked to great effect, and the numbers back that up. Despite holding an average of 45% of possession in their six post-World Cup games, Japan outscored opponents 3-1.29 on average, had more xG (1.99-1.3) and had more shots (10.71-9.71).
Even more interestingly, despite keeping less of the ball, they were more successful in turning positional attacks into shots, but were significantly more ruthless in transition than their opponents, attempting four times more counter-attacks, while turning a higher percentage of them into shots.
What that indicates is that Japan has actually been doing a great job of playing with the ball, but doing so with greater efficiency and more ruthlessness. Instead of building up just to build up, they’ll attack space if it’s there, especially if they win the ball in a dangerous area, but they’re also comfortable to slow things down and build up patiently if that opportunity to push forward doesn’t manifest itself.
Japonya'da Atsuki Ito'nun attığı golpic.twitter.com/ZG5vTPBZkM— L'et Des Sports (@LetDesSports) September 12, 2023
Plus, as seen by teams' struggles to hit Japan in transition, that also shows that Japan is doing a good job of not turning over the ball in dangerous areas, and getting numbers back when they do lose it.
Otherwise, it’s worth noting that this Japanese side is at its best when it gets going through midfield, as they’ve got a plethora of dangerous options to rely on there.
From Liverpool’s Wataru Endo, who is the team’s captain, to the likes of Takumi Minamino (Monaco), Junya Ito (Stade Reims), Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad), they’ve got several players who can win the ball back (such as Endo) and then push it forward (with Kubo playing a big role in that).
Yet, when looking across Japan’s roster, there are several players worth keeping an eye out for, such as defenders Ko Itakura (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal), Koki Machida (Union St-Gilloise) and Hiroki Ito (Stuttgart), who all play for teams either currently doing well in the top five leagues or playing in European competition.
Elsewhere, there are two question marks with this roster, however - who will score the goals, given that of the two players who have scored double-digit goals for their country, both are midfielders, as well as who will start in goal, as the three goalkeepers called in have a combined six caps for Japan.
But between their options at the back and in midfield, that will provide stability for whoever is in goal, as well as provide service to forward options like Takuma Asano (VFL Bochum), Kyogo Furuhashi (Celtic) and Ayase Ueda (Feyenoord), who are all solid options, with Ueda looking like a probable starter after last window.
Lastly, expect Japan to either come out in a 4-2-3-1 or a 5-4-1, as they’ve split the use of those two formations over the last year, with the former being used in games where Japan’s expected to be more of the aggressor, while the latter has come out in games against the likes of Germany, Croatia and Spain.
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Injuries, form leading to some intriguing questions for Canada:
Speaking of formations, however, Canada should have more certainty in that regard, as they’ll likely stick with the 3-5-2 that they’ve adopted this year under John Herdman, given that Biello knows that formation well having been an assistant before his promotion to interim coach.
There, that formation will allow Canada to get the most out of Alphonso Davies, whose best position can be argued to be at wing back, while still getting three midfielders on the park (which Canada lacked at the World Cup), as well as two strikers.
It’ll be a huge test for this formation, as Canada struggled within it against the US in the Nations League final, making some wonder if it’s viable against tier-one opposition, something that Canada will look to prove in this camp.
If they’re to do that, however, they’ll have some interesting personnel questions to overcome first, across the board.
To begin, there’s the big question - what to do in goal? Does Milan Borjan start after dipping in form for club and country over the last year, or does Dayne St.Clair step in after a promising Gold Cup? Or how about Maxime Crépeau, who was the heir apparent for Borjan before a leg injury last fall, given that he’s looked good in his return from injury?
Elsewhere, centre back is another area of intrigue, as Derek Cornelius and Kamal Miller are favourites to start, but it remains to be seen if Alistair Johnston will join them, or if Steven Vitória will continue to start after a mixed start to the club season. Plus, with high-potential options in Luc De Fougerolles and Moïe Bombito on the sidelines, there are all sorts of options there, too.
Then, in midfield, there are questions, especially after Stephen Eustáquio was ruled out of this camp with an injury, as he and Ismaël Koné were always going to start. Koné remains, of course, but who will join him between Samuel Piette, Mathieu Choinière, Harry Paton and Jonathan Osorio, with Osorio and Piette sitting as the main options, although Choinière’s club form could give him a chance.
Otherwise, the rest of the lineup will be relatively straightforward, as Davies and Richie Laryea will be the left and right wing backs with Tajon Buchanan missing out due to an injury, with the only possible change being if Alistair Johnston slots up to take Laryea’s spot, while Jonathan David and Cyle Larin will start up front, even despite Larin struggling for form at the club level.
Then, from there, Canada will look to build on what they’ve started to work on this year in this new formation, which is to use their triangles in midfield, create width through their wing backs, and provide more service to their strikers on the ball, while being warier of opponents transitional threats defensively, while improving their defence of wide balls and set-pieces.
It’s going to be tough, especially against an organized Japan side, but it’ll be a good assessment of where they’re at, as they’ve shown good flashes in all of those areas this year, to be fair, with the Nations League final being the main blip, as well as the Gold Cup (although lesser so given that several key regulars were missing from that tournament).
Given what’s ahead, look for Canada to continue to build on what they’ve tried to work on this year, with experimentation likely to be minimal, especially with Biello looking to bring continuity as he too looks to show that he can potentially be a long-term option as head coach.
That’s why this team is a bit more veteran-heavy than some would’ve liked, as Biello will look to lean on those he knows well, helping him push his ideas forward.
Will that end up working out, given Canada's need to start shifting directions ahead of 2026? It’ll remain to be seen, but the next two months will certainly give an idea of where Canada is trending in that regard, either positively or negatively, with this game being the first good gauge of that.