Three takeaways from the CanWNT's She Believes Cup performances
It was a rocky start to a crucial year.
When it was first announced that Canada’s Women’s National Team would be participating in the 2023 She Believes Cup, it was an exciting prospect, as they got set to play three strong tier one teams in the US, Brazil and Japan over a one-week span, helping them prepare for the 2023 World Cup.
Instead, it ended up being a stark reminder of what is needed to prepare for a World Cup, both on and off the field, as tensions off the pitch and some tactical concerns on it ended up affecting the defending Olympic gold medallists, who finished with one win and two losses across three games.
And even beyond the results, the performances themselves were quite uncharacteristic, too, as it was clear that their fight for equality with their federation left them tired and unable to play at the level expected of them, with their fatigue proving evident as the games wore on.
Because of that, it ended up being a She Believes Cup to forget for Canada, who will now look to get their ship in order by their next meeting, a clash with France in April, especially with time rapidly dwindling ahead of the start of the World Cup in July.
Here’s what they’ll look to take away from this camp.
The midfield’s restructuring is not done yet:
A few months ago, Canada looked set for this upcoming World Cup in midfield.
After some strong performances from Julia Grosso and Jessie Fleming in a double-pivot against Australia, it felt like it would be inevitable that the pair would be the go-to midfield grouping as Canada got set for its World Cup journey.
Now, however, that’s starting to change. As two of the team’s most talented players, there’s no doubt that the pair will be relied on heavily in midfield during this World Cup, but there have proven to be limitations with the pairing against top-level opposition, and that was further shown during this tournament.
There’s no doubt that they’re good enough to hold their own, as they showed in games, but there’s just the reality that playing them in a double-pivot has its consequences - namely, the impact it has on their offensive game.
Instead of being able to influence the game in the final third as much as they do for their clubs, they’re often asked to drop deep without the ball, and often get stuck there as they’re also asked to help the team build up play from deep in possession.
Especially against teams that like to press high, that often leaves Grosso and Fleming stuck to play most of the game in their half, instead of being on the ball in the final third, where they’re truly at their best.
Considering that Grosso currently leads Serie A in assists and won last summer’s golden boot at the CONCACAF Championships, and that Fleming has proven to be a dangerous dual goal and assist threat for both Chelsea and Canada, that’s not ideal, especially for a Canadian team that has struggles scoring.
Because of that, it’s no coincidence that Canada didn’t actually score an open-play goal this tournament, with both goals coming off set pieces (which, not coincidentally, were delivered in by Fleming), showing the impact that playing Grosso and Fleming deeper had on the team.
Not only that, but Canada only had 1.66 Expected Goals (xG) on 17 shots across the three games, too, which isn’t exactly a recipe for offensive success, further highlighting those struggles.
Yet, adjusting the position of Grosso and Fleming can change that. If they were able to play as offensive #8s in a midfield trio in front of a #6 such as Quinn or Desiree Scott, there’s no doubt that the pair could get back to the offensive ways they’ve shown in the past, which would then help the attack out big time.
There’s no doubt that there’s talent in Canada’s attack, as the likes of Évelyne Viens, Jordyn Huitema, Cloé Lacasse, Janine Beckie and co have proven to be able to put the ball in the net in the past, but they can’t do that if they don’t get chances, and Canada’s imbalance in midfield made those hard to come by this tournament.
Given how important Grosso and Fleming are to this team, figuring that out as soon as possible has to be a priority for the next camp, something that head coach Bev Priestman will look to tweak for April.
What happened to the defence?
Yet, for all of the offensive struggles, those actually haven’t been too big of a problem over the past year, with Canada only finding themselves shut out three times in 2022, compared to the two times in three games that they were shut out at She Believes Cup.
Why, one might ask? Their strong defence, which typically gives their offence enough chances to make a difference in games.
For example, consider this - of those three shutouts in 2022, Canada also only allowed two goals in those three games, as they lost two of the games 1-0 to the US and Spain, and drew the other 0-0 with South Korea, doing well to keep those games close even if they didn’t score.
In this tournament, though, their two shutouts were a 2-0 and a 3-0 loss to the US and Japan, as not only were they blanked, but got hit heavily at the other end, too.
And that’s a big worry, as that doesn’t happen very often for Canada. In fact, before this tournament, Canada had just given up two or more goals four times in 34 games during the Bev Priestman era, a total they are halfway to matching in 2023 alone, in 31 fewer games.
Because of that, it’s going to be crucial that Canada gets back to their defensive ways soon, as they did not look like themselves in this tournament. Part of that can be chalked up to the ongoing off-pitch battle, but even despite that, Canada just overall looked stretched and sloppy on the field, struggling to maintain the tactical discipline that they’re known for.
Yet, interestingly enough, that also ties into the first point - these games highlighted how important Quinn and Desiree Scott are to this team.
Not only does having one of those two on the field as a #6 help Canada get the likes of Grosso and Fleming pushed higher up the pitch, but it also gives Canada back four some defensive support, of which was sorely lacking in this tournament.
I'm broken record but the #CanWNT/#CanXNT needs to fix their midfield balance by at least trying Grosso/Fleming as #8s with Quinn as a 6— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) February 22, 2023
The same way Scott/Fleming/Quinn gave 🇨🇦 defensive balance for the gold in 21, this trio can bring the balance they need to keep up for the WC pic.twitter.com/BVYDq1jseR
In fact, when you look at Canada’s defensive struggles this tournament, it all of a sudden makes a lot of sense that Scott was injured for this camp and that Quinn missed two games due to illness, as it then left Canada without a natural #6 in their squad for most of these games.
Because of that, look for the return of that pair to be a huge boost for Canada defensively ahead of the next camp, because their absences left a lot of strain on the likes of centre backs Kadeisha Buchanan, Vanessa Gilles and Shelina Zadorsky, who struggled more than many are used to seeing from them, especially given how dominant that trio usually is defensively.
Yet, that just shows how important the play of Scott and Quinn has been for this team under Priestman, and why the return of one of them as a #6 could be what the doctor ordered for Canada - both in attack and defence.
The battle for spots remains as fierce as ever:
Less than six months away from the World Cup, Priestman faces an uphill battle in terms of whittling down a 23-player squad, and this camp didn’t make things any easier to help her decide what that team might look like.
Pretty much, other than in goal and at centre back, question marks remain all over the squad, as Priestman tries to pick the best balance between profile, age, and experience to ensure that her squad is best equipped to handle the rigours of the World Cup.
Cloé Lacasse has been the best addition to this #CANWNT squad. A breath of fresh air to connect midfield with the attack and is a quick thinker. Starting her at the WWC seems like a no-brainer.— Emily Wilson (@wilson_emt) February 20, 2023
For example, take the battle for midfield spots. There, Quinn, Scott, Fleming, Grosso, Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Simi Awujo are all fighting for spots, and that’s without counting out Victoria Pickett, who could storm her way back into that conversation with a strong start to the NWSL season.
For those keeping track at home, that’s eight names battling for what would likely be only six or seven spots in a 23-player squad, which could mean potentially leaving a Schmidt or an Awujo at home, despite the pair showing well over the last year.
Yet, those are the sort of battles that Priestman will have to look at, with her young players, in particular, giving her the biggest headaches.
Every time they see the pitch, for example, youngsters Awujo and Jade Rose look like they should be at the World Cup, so it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine either of them staying home, but bringing them also means leaving a key veteran back.
Of course, those are the natural transition periods that teams go through, but it has come sooner than many expected in this Canadian cycle, which could make some interesting decisions for Priestman to have to make over the next few months.
Especially as she welcomes back the likes of Jayde Riviere and Deanne Rose to her squad, things are only going to get more complicated, yet, these decisions could very well be the difference between Canada doing well at the World Cup and struggling.
The good news? This isn’t Priestman’s first crack at such an exercise, as she had to only pick 18 players for the 2021 Olympics, where she made the tough decision to include Julia Grosso over Schmidt (who later made the squad as rosters were expanded to 22).
And this time around, more similar decisions loom, making it interesting to see what way Priestman will lean come July.