GANGUE-RUZIC: 3 takeaways from the CanWNT's World Cup opener versus Nigeria
The CanWNT kicked off their 2023 World Cup campaign on Thursday, as they took on Nigeria in their opening match of the tournament in Melbourne, Australia.
After winning their last two opening matches of World Cups, however, Canada missed a chance to make it three-for-three in this one, as they drew Nigeria 0-0 in a frustrating clash with the 11-time African champions.
Especially after having a chance to make it 1-0 via the penalty spot in the 50th minute, where Christine Sinclair’s spot-kick would be confidently stopped by Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie, it’s one that Canada won’t forget anytime soon.
Now, it’s put them behind the 8-ball early in the tournament, raising the pressure for the rest of the group stages. It’s not a worst-case result, which would’ve undoubtedly been a loss, but it’s still a painful one, especially given that they had a chance to win the match.
With two tough matches awaiting them in Ireland and Australia, they’ll now have to find their feet quickly, or else an early exit could be awaiting them.
Before looking ahead to those matches, however, here’s a look back at what stood out from this one for Canada.
Canada brings new tactical tweaks, but were they enough?
Heading into this tournament, it was going to be fascinating to see what Canada was going to look like tactically, as they certainly had questions to answer in that regard after the last few months.
Intriguingly, however, they did well to answer some of those questions off the bat, too.
Their build-up play was one big area, in particular - they spent a lot of the first half sitting patiently in possession, while sometimes forming a back three to help create triangles and a numerical superiority at the back.
Either done through Quinn or Jayde Riviere dropping back, that helped them immensely in the build-up, as they did well to play around the wave of Nigerian pressure.
We’re seeing signs of some good build-up play for the #CanWNT/#CanXNT— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 21, 2023
Quinn and Jayde Riviere are alternating dropping into the back 3, Christine Sinclair and Quinn have had some build-up moments, and Julia Grosso is getting more involved
Just need that final ball now
Frustratingly, Canada then undid a lot of the positive work that they did in their build-up in the midfield and final third, as they struggled to play that killer pass, especially on the final action.
As a result, it led to some sequences where they’d string together a nice sequence of passing, but would have nothing to show for it.
To be fair, Jessie Fleming was sorely missed in the final ball department, as her absence through injury left a big hole in midfield, but between Christine Sinclair and Julia Grosso, those were two players who could’ve certainly filled that void.
Instead, the pair created zero chances between them, as Sinclair’s touch let her down on several occasions, while Grosso just didn’t get as high up the pitch as often as one would like her to.
Speaking of that latter point, it’s worth expanding on, as it leads to another tactical wrinkle Canada will need to address - some of their key players are being deployed in positions that don’t necessarily suit them.
Grosso is a prime example of that - as seen with the eye test and through her stats, she’s proven at Juventus that she’s an elite ball progressor, one who can make things happen in the final third, making her an excellent #8 or even #10.
Instead, Canada continues to deploy her in a defensive double-pivot, forcing Grosso to drop deep to receive the ball, keeping her far from the opponent’s goal. That’s not a bad thing, per se - Grosso’s good enough on the ball to play deeper, as she showed by completing 31/38 of her passes, but it feels like she’s far from her best there.
Especially when you factor in Canada’s chance generation struggles, it feels strange to put one of the players who could really help with that in a limiting role, when she should arguably be one of the centrepieces of the attack.
Yet, that leads to the last point about Canada’s tactical set-up - it remains quite rigid, even despite some of the positive tweaks.
That’s not a bad thing - there’s value in having a clear tactical identity, but at the same time, it’s important to get the most out of your best players and to maximize your strengths.
And between Grosso playing deeper, Sinclair being tasked as a Fleming replacement (when she's been more of a box-arriving #8 than a creator like Fleming), and the front three looking disjointed, it’s hard to say Canada did that versus Nigeria, especially in the attack.
Defensively, things are continuing to work (more on that later), but at the end of the day, Canada needs goals to have any chance at going far, so even if that means tweaking from a midfield double pivot to a single pivot to get more out of Grosso, or to adjust the front line, all options should be on the table for them.
The good news? They’ve shown some tactical flexibility by adjusting their build-up patterns, but they’ll need to find similar tweaks across the field to help fully solve their offensive woes, beyond banking on Fleming’s return to fix things on her own.
If not, it’ll feel like a lot of any potential struggles will have been self-inflicted, which is far from ideal.
Is it Viens and Lacasse time?
Speaking of Canada’s attack, it’s worth noting that they actually had a pretty solid showing statistically - they managed to muster up 1.91 xG across 15 shots, and even if you take out the penalty, they still had over 1.2 non-penalty xG.
That’s encouraging, as a big question heading into this tournament was chance generation, so for them to do that with Grosso having a quiet game offensively, and no Fleming, is a step in the right direction.
At the same time, despite the chances they created, it also felt that Canada weren’t as dangerous as they could’ve been. Often, when they had chances, they’d take an extra touch, or struggle to get them on frame, taking away some good opportunities.
An example of that is the play of Jordyn Huitema - despite her having five shots, two were blocked and none of the other three were on target, as she just couldn’t find that ruthless touch in front of goal.
Then, other than Huitema, her fellow attackers, Adriana Leon and Deanne Rose, just couldn’t find free space in the final third, finishing with just one off-target shot and no chances created between them.
Priestman sensed that, too - Rose came off for Cloé Lacasse at half time, while Leon was replaced by Evelyne Viens in the 64th minute. There, Canada opened up an intriguing selection question, as Viens and Lacasse then brought some attacking life to the game.
Despite only playing 25 minutes, Viens had two shots (one on target) and two chances created, and while Lacasse only had one blocked shot in 45 minutes, she seemed to find herself in open space a lot more often than anyone else.
More importantly, the pair just seemed lively and likely to pounce on opportunities, which they nearly did on a few occasions.
Also, not sure what more Evelyne Viens and Cloé Lacasse need to do to get a start (together?). To use a French term, they provoke when they’re on the field— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 21, 2023
Canada just had nothing going in the final third today, but they had some of the best looks#CanWNT/#CanXNT
Therefore, while one can look at their performances and argue that they might not have changed Canada’s fate given that neither of them helped push a win over the line, one can only wonder what they could’ve done if deployed from the start.
Because of that, it’ll be intriguing if this was enough to earn them a start against Ireland. In a game in which they’ll need to be the aggressor offensively, the energy Viens and Lacasse can bring could be valuable, giving Canada a little more oomph in the final third.
Especially since this isn’t the first time that the pair have done well with cameos off the bench, it feels like they’re overdue for a start, which would also give Canada a bit of a different look up front.
A return to form for the defence a silver lining
It’s easy to forget in the aftermath of this game, but a big positive for Canada?
That they kept just their second clean sheet of 2023 (third if you count a recent closed-door game vs England), and allowed less than 1 xG in a game for the first time since October, keeping Nigeria to just 0.75 xG on 11 shots.
Yet, that’s a credit to their defensive play in this game, as they looked very good off the ball, doing well to mostly limit Nigeria’s attack despite their threats, with Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere and Quinn shining, in particular.
Canada wasn’t perfect - a couple of individual errors nearly cost them, but given that they kept the dangerous Asisat Oshoala to just two shots (none on target), that’s a good day at the office defensively.
That’s key, because if Canada is to have any chance at winning this World Cup, their defence will need to be perfect.
Heading into this tournament, they didn’t look themselves in that area, but after the closed-door clean sheet and now this one, that appears to have been just a blip on the radar, as they’ve returned to usual service.
Now, they’ll need to put together the pieces offensively, but it’ll be a lot easier to do that with a solid defensive foundation, reducing the pressure of needing to score boatloads of goals to have any chance at winning games.