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Herdman vs. the Low Block and Potential Adjustments Going Forward

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Reviewing Canada’s match against Costa Rica, the tactical adjustments Herdman made throughout the game and some further adjustments he could use going forward.

Canada v Martinique: Group B - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Now that more than a week has passed since CanMNT last played, it would be a good time to briefly review their November 12th match against Costa Rica, the tactical adjustments that Herdman made during the game and identify further areas of improvement to break down a low block.

It was clear that Costa Rica was happy to cede possession to Canada, as we almost doubled their possession (62% to 38%) and actually doubled their shot total (14 to 7). However, despite this dominance in possession and shots, Canada only mustered two shots on target and had a relatively low expected goals number of 1.16. Costa Rica’s low block defensive strategy worked very well against Les Rouges, as we are still a team getting used to being favoured and having to execute while enjoying the lion’s share of possession.

Looking ahead at CanMNT’s remaining fixtures in the Octagonal, it’s very possible that Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Jamaica could all look to put Canada in an uncomfortable position by ceding possession and playing a low block - all this despite playing on their home turf and needing maximum points themselves to catch up to other countries in the CONCACAF 2022 World Cup Qualifying table.

A low block is a defensive strategy that sees the entire team defend well inside their own half, and is typically focused on being compact in the middle of the pitch and forcing play to the perimeters of the field. The team looks to eliminate space for the opponents to create any attacking momentum.

So then, what are the common strategies used to break down a low block?

There are three common strategies (aside from set pieces and shots from distance, which are useful tactics against any defense):

  1. Crosses into the box
  2. Intricate passing and movement to pull defenders out of position
  3. Quick switches of play from one side of the field to the other to create numerical advantages

Strategy #1 capitalizes on the space in the wide areas afforded by a low block and can be effective when the crosses are made early before any defense can be set (a variety of both high and low crosses is ideal) or when the ball is cut back to attacking players making late runs into the box between the lines of the defensive low block.

Strategy #2 requires a high level of technical ability and familiarity between players - something that is developed over many decades of playing in a high performance program under Managers with the same footballing philosophy (think of countries like Spain, Germany, Italy etc. as the best examples of this). Even though we are slowly becoming a force in CONCACAF and starting to develop more of a cohesive playing identity, we aren’t fully there yet. With dual national players developing in other countries and also playing in domestic leagues all over the world, it is even more difficult to establish this chemistry and trained pattern of development in its players.

Strategy #3 necessitates having players that can accurately play long balls to the opposite side of the field, as well as fast teammates that can capitalize on the small window of space that is afforded to them from the switch of play. It is important for the players receiving the ball to then work with their teammates on that side of the pitch to quickly and decisively create attacking movements before the low block resets itself.

John Herdman’s build up strategy relies heavily on vertical, diagonal passing to stretch the opponent’s defensive line and to provide wide players the opportunity to receive the ball facing the opposition goal with lots of open space to attack up field. When this build up strategy is executed properly, it can also effectively shift a defense in two different directions at the same time and that opens up gaps for teammates.

Canada struggled to create consistent attacking momentum for most of the first half, with the team relying more on straightforward horizontal and vertical passing. When Costa Rica were out of possession, they also boxed in Canada’s central midfield by having four players in that area to prevent Kaye and Eustaquio from playing those vertical, diagonal passes. The onus to play the preferred build up strategy then fell to the back line of Miller, Vitoria, Adekugbe and Laryea - none of those players are quite at the technical level yet to consistently play accurate cross field long balls or vertical, diagonal passes into tight windows.

After the 30’ min mark, Herdman adjusted the tactics to have one of Kaye or Eustaquio drop deeper to receive the ball from the CBs and to build in a 3-4-3 instead of a 4-4-2. Still, this adjustment did not produce much success, as Canada again had trouble progressing the ball through Costa Rica’s low block. It is difficult to adjust tactics in-game on the fly, so it was not until half time that Herdman was able to find some success against Costa Rica’s defense. He had Davies drop deeper to pull more defenders in, which then opened the vertical, diagonal pass to David where he then linked play to either Adekugbe or Millar on the left hand side. The second tactical adjustment that Herdman made was moving Kaye to the right and Eustaquio to the left side of central midfield. This balanced the long ball switches available to Canada by having Laryea on the right and Eustaquio on the left, while also allowing Eustaquio to be more involved in the build up play down the left where Adekugbe, Davies, David and Millar were having more joy.

Despite these tactical adjustments, it was still evident from the stats and eye-test that Canada struggled to break down Costa Rica’s low block. Going forward, it will be important for Herdman to continue with his half-time adjustments and to try and employ strategies #1 and #3 more frequently against the block. A formation that includes Alistair Johnston in the starting line-up would be one way to get more switches of play, as he is a good passer and comfortable sending crosses from one side of the pitch to the other. Starting Atiba over Kaye is also recommended, as he is more technically proficient, a better passer and more intelligent with his runs to pull defenders out of position.

What other tactical adjustments did you see in the game against Costa Rica? What else do you think Herdman should try and do against future low blocks?