3 curious methods John Herdman employed to send Canada to the FIFA World Cup
There's no 'one-size-fits-all' methodology when it comes to coaching sports.
In soccer, there are some managers who thrive on tactical excellence. Others may prioritize squad unity and harmony. Some even prefer to stoke fierce intra-squad competition. If you're Jose Mourinho, you mix love and war. If you're Zinedine Zidane, your own hubris quashes ego.
You get the point – as long as your approach fits the team you have, and finds a way to get the most out of your players, you'll tend to do well by doing things your own way.
That's especially true at the international level, where you have much less flexibility in squad building. Knowing how to maximize what you have is what distinguishes the best from the rest.
Take Canada as an example. Sure, a gold rush of talent is among the primary reasons why they'll be returning to the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 36 years later this month. But while they have arguably built their best squad ever, there's one key piece that has allowed them to tie everything together: Their manager, John Herdman.
A long-time presence in Canadian soccer dating back to his very successful stint with the Canadian women's program, Herdman has spent the last five years rebuilding a fractured men's team, turning them from a Concacaf afterthought to a global underdog story.
Ahead of the latest chapter of their incredible journey, here's a look at three key methods Herdman employed to turn dreams into reality.
Build a brotherhood out of fractured spirit
It’s no stretch to say that when Herdman was first hired in January of 2018, he inherited a fractured Canada.
That much was clear on the pitch, as Les Rouges ranked 95th in the world and 11th in Concacaf.
Still, there was a lot of potential ... at least on paper.
Young Canadian star Alphonso Davies was about to embark on a year that would see him eventually sign for Bayern Munich, while Cyle Larin had just transferred to Besiktas. Milan Borjan was playing in the UEFA Champions League, and Scott Arfield was in the English Premier League with Burnley. Toronto FC had just won the 2017 MLS Cup, and by the end of the year, Jonathan David popped onto the Canadian radar with a hot start with Belgian club KAA Gent, having joined the club straight out of amateur soccer in Ottawa.
The pieces were there, but before Herdman could even start assembling the puzzle on the field, he had to deal with one thing off of it – a toxic dressing room atmosphere.
In just his first camp with the team, Herdman witnessed two huge fist-fights, as tempers ended up boiling over several times in training. On top of that, he noticed that his squad was split into different cliques whenever they were off the field, something that didn't sit well with him.
When his players tried to tell him this was a reality of the men's game, Herdman put his foot down right away. If they were to accomplish anything on the pitch, they had to start pulling in the same direction off it. So, step number one? Leave that toxic bullshit at the door.
"I was blown away," Herdman told reporters last November. "People were saying 'Oh this is men's football.' And I stood against it. I told the guys it's not men's football. You can fight with your opponent but you don't fight internally. I'll never see that again."
He added: "Unless you're willing to change this, this team is going nowhere."
John Herdman has been increasingly forthcoming in his pressers...speaking wholeheartedly which translates into authentic credibility. He said many interesting things on 15/10/21 but notably, he tackled toxic masculinity & leadership following a Q from @NeilMDavidson #CanMNT pic.twitter.com/pJoo5CFSZO— Christina (@6yardscreamers) October 20, 2021
From there, Herdman put in a lot of work to ensure that his squad became a team, first by building a strong leadership group, which then permeated into a feeling of unity among all in the group.
"Over time, the leadership group understood the importance of shared purpose," Herdman explained. "They've understood the importance of their own humility in the environment and they've understood the importance of connecting every man and making every man feel part of this, regardless of their race, their religion, their age."
A key term also began to emerge - brotherhood.
Camps started to become places where players would grow closer, and back each other up on the pitch while celebrating each goal as a team. Outside of training, players started to spend time together, and kept closer tabs on each other at club level, celebrating their teammates' successes on social media, too.
Canada became a tight-knit group of regular call-ups, all pulling in the same direction. Every player that returned to the latest camp found themselves involved in one form or another. There would be no special treatment for anyone; everyone is part of this brotherhood.
That backing allowed Canada grow into a confident team brimming with self-belief. They know that no matter what happens, they'll have each other's backs. In a sport like this, that alone can go a long way.
Tactical identity? Nope. Embrace the chaos
While the team started to pull in the same direction off the field, a lot of that hard work would go out the window if they weren't able to come together in a similar fashion on it.
There, Herdman arguably faced his biggest challenge – how could he get the most out of this Canadian team? Given that he was dealing with a top-heavy squad light in the midfield and at the back, figuring out how to actually win games wouldn't be so straightforward.
Yet, it wasn't impossible, so Herdman and his staff dove headfirst into their important first task – develop a Canadian tactical identity.
Concacaf is a region defined by the rigid identities that some of its best teams had followed for decades. Canada had always been a team that had struggled with its own image. For example, their best-ever teams were typically constructed on rock-solid defences but were less than stellar in attack. Other versions had been a lot more free-flowing and attack-minded, but leaked goals.
Herdman decided to buck conventional wisdom and instead of embracing one specific style, he set out with the goal of making Canada the most flexible team in Concacaf.
Rather than focusing on being strong in possession, or being adept at counter-attacking, or demanding of a high-press, or maximizing against one specific player, Canada came out of qualifiers acting as more of a chameleon, adjusting their style based on their opponents.
Knowing that he had a core of technically-gifted and versatile players, Canada's true game-plan was catching opponents off-guard.
They became the team of all styles and all formations at all times, and stormed their way to the top of Concacaf's qualifying as a result.
"We set out right from the onset, the vision for the team, which has to be the most organized and adaptable team in CONCACAF, and then underneath that, to be the most connected with our team spirit," Herdman told OneSoccer last summer. "And I think that level of tactical excellence shone through in World Cup qualifying.
"To go into those different environments, you need different types of blueprints, and you have to adapt to the conditions, whether it was the surface, the heat, or the profiles of your opponent, to the fatigue of travelling, and I think we handled all of that really well."
#CanMNT FB Sam Adeugbe on John Herdman's tactics and coaching:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) January 30, 2022
"John does a great job of setting us up tactically to win the game, on top of the flexible formation and tactics, we're able to get the best out of each other and we enjoy the moment"
Built off a few base principles – which included always defending in a mid-block in a 4-4-2 – while electing for a back-three as much as possible, Herdman then adjusted to counter their opponent's strengths.
To some extent, every coach in the world does this. But there's an important difference here. While managers may make tweaks, they rarely abandon their own game for it. There's a common attitude in sports: "We just have to focus on our own game and we'll be okay," which may very well be true ... but Canada's insistence otherwise proved their own advantage.
Against a team with speed, for example, they would try to get numbers behind the ball and defend deep, whereas they would try to overload the midfield against a team that was a bit more comfortable in possession. Those is two very different looking approaches, game over game.
All this was done with the idea of disrupting opponents. It ended up being the ultimate trump card in a chaotic qualifying environment, as they used what typically hurts them the most to their advantage by embracing chaos.
"We tried to understand what structure and adaptation would cause the most chaos for an opponent," Herdman continued. "And what we learned through that, is that coaches said it was difficult to strategically prepare for Canada, because we were a chameleon, one game we were in a 3-4-3, the next game we were in a 5-3-2, and then the next game in a 4-4-2 box.
"And we were doing that across games, and in games, and then changing the profiles of our players constantly, as well."
Understand the power of visualization
With a strong brotherhood firmly in place, and a unique tactical identity that allowed them to maximize their strong group of players, that left just one final thing for Herdman to lean on to put the final pieces of the puzzle together - the power of visualization.
There, he ended up having arguably had some of his finest moments. Always a strong motivator (how many national team coaches have a 20-minute Ted Talk about motivation and visualization on their CVs?) Herdman set out with the goal to really drive across how big of an opportunity his players had in front of them.
Starting with their first team meeting before a 20-game qualifying journey, Herdman began by noting to his players that they were about to go on a quest that only a handful of people globally got to undertake, stoking a fire in his players' bellies for greatness ahead.
Herdman is a firm believer that harnessing the power of the mind is just as important as physical skills for an athlete. As such, he went about ensuring that the minds of his players were just as ready as their bodies for these tasks, with powerful speeches arguably being his best tool.
But when that alone wasn't enough, Herdman brought in the big guns to help things along.
First, there was a newspaper mock-up Herdman printed shortly after Canada advanced to the final round of qualifying for the first time in over two decades. Herdman passed out copies of this mock-up of the Toronto Star sports pages, which was dated in the future and boldly proclaimed that Canada had qualified for the World Cup.
When your vision comes to life. Before World Cup qualifying started, John Herdman asked the Toronto Star to put together a mock front page, dated March 31, 2022. It set a vision: what it would look like after Canada qualified. Some players brought it to every camp. Here it is. pic.twitter.com/tkxNkENDmJ— Gareth Wheeler (@GarethWheeler) March 28, 2022
"Everything in that front page is everything we were chasing, everything we were going after, and everything on that front page was everything that this leadership group had said that this qualifying campaign had to be," Herdman told reporters earlier in the year.
Secondly, he crafted a shield, a symbol that they’d "stand on guard" for their country, as is proudly stated in the Canadian national anthem. They brought it with them throughout qualifying, using it as a reminder that they were defending the honour of their country every time they took the pitch.
Lastly, the most famous example of them all - the Sword of Qatar 2022.
"I said to these boys [that] we've always had a shield," Herdman explained. "But we created a sword and on the sword it says 'Nihil timendum est,' which is 'Fear Nothing' [in Latin]. And that's 'New Canada'. That's the swagger we want to play with. And it goes into every stadium to symbolize we'll own their ground and be New Canada."
Considering that they had the most points in Concacaf World Cup Qualifying, as well as the best home record and second-best away record? Mission accomplished, sword and shield in tow.
John Herdman loves to use visualization to help his team achieve its goals. As #CanMNT went thought it’s World Cup qualification journey, there were newspaper fronts and swords, videos and field trips. All in the name of winning.— Laura Armstrong (@lauraarmy) March 29, 2022
It worked. https://t.co/sgWN1KXotb
Their strong play helped set the tone on the field, as did the emergence of several players, but in the end, it was the belief that they had that pushed them over the line. And a lot of that is owed to John Herdman.
He had a tall task in front of him, but instead of shying away from it, he embraced it, leading his team to where they find themselves now – not far away from living a dream 36 years in the making, which is to play at a World Cup.
"It all started with the overarching vision, which was to be the most dominant Canadian team of a generation,” Herdman told OneSoccer this summer. “That's the mission we set out, and that takes winning to do, we have to win, and finishing atop Concacaf for World Cup qualifying, that's the bar set now."