Octavio Zambrano promised attacking intent and delivered in his first match in charge of Canada’s men’s national team. Les Rouges attempted 19 shots against Curacao and 10 different players created a chance in their 2-1 victory at Stade Saputo.
Canada were passable through the first hour, but really sparked into life following the introduction of Alphonso Davies and Anthony Jackson-Hamel. Those two combined for eight shots and shortly after Junior Hoilett knocked a penalty Davies had won against the post, Jackson-Hamel fired in the winner.
Zambrano’s assertion when he took the job that he had discovered “a lot of players with the qualities that I would love to have in my team” in the Canadian player pool was not mere flattery; he started Hoilett, Cyle Larin and Raheem Edwards in a front three here, had Patrice Bernier supporting them from midfield and Davies and Jackson-Hamel among those ready to emerge from the bench. Despite the absences of Tosaint Ricketts, Scott Arfield, Tesho Akindele and Lucas Cavallini for various reasons, Zambrano had a number of weapons at his disposal.
Canada’s biggest attacking strength is their pace, and Zambrano is attempting to make the most of that by asking his players to put pressure on the ball and play with passion and enthusiasm. If they are to exploit the threat offered by Hoilett, Davies and Edwards, the ball needs to be won back in midfield with regularity and moved quickly through the lines, giving those wingers a chance to run into open space and attack isolated defenders on the back foot.
There is some intriguing potential there as far as this summer’s Gold Cup is concerned; if Canada can beat French Guiana, could their comfort playing on the counter-attack trouble either Costa Rica or Honduras?
It’s not out of the question, but Zambrano has two big problems to solve.
The first is that his defence does not inspire confidence. There is little depth or competition beyond Manjrekar James and Dejan Jakovic at centre-back and no established right-back, with Fraser Aird a much better attacker than he is a defender. Unless Juan Cordova, Milovan Kapor or another of the wild cards in the 40-man group can spring a pleasant surprise, though, Zambrano is going to have to work with what he’s got.
Curacao played most of the game on the break and lacked quality in the final third, testing Milan Borjan only once beyond their goal, but they were able to play a worrying number of balls across the face of the goalkeeper’s penalty area.
The second problem is Larin’s inability to replicate his goalscoring prowess with Orlando City in a red shirt. It’s a vicious cycle; when he is not seeing enough of the ball he starts to drift wide and deep to pick it up, but by doing so takes himself out of the dangerous positions he might otherwise be in when some decent service does arrive.
There is a little bit of evidence of this being a habit in Larin’s form with Orlando, for whom he has scored in five of nine home matches this season but only one of five on the road. Everyone would like to see him to develop into a complete, well-rounded striker capable of acting as a focal point as well as a poacher, but not at the expense of his ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
Larin had 26 touches against Curacao; only four of them came within the width of the 18-yard box and fewer than 30 yards from goal. When such little action is compounded by a miss of the type he was guilty of in the second half from Hoilett’s low cross, it starts to become a psychological battle as well as a tactical one.
Overall, though, this was a decent start for Zambrano and will have taught him plenty about the group. We all hope to eventually live in a world where it can be assumed Canada will see off a country of 160,000 people like Curacao with few problems, but the new coach has arrived at a time when very little can be taken for granted.