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Non-Fungible Tactics: Observations from Canada’s first World Cup match against Belgium

Now that Canada has finally played their first match in the 2022 World Cup, what tactical observations can we take from the game?

Belgium v Canada: Group F - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Wu Zhizhao/VCG via Getty Images

The CanMNT lost their opening 2022 World Cup game to Belgium 1-0. This was the team’s first game at the tournament in 36 years. Despite losing this game, Canada were clearly the better team. Unfortunately, the better team does not always win in sports.

For those that are close followers of the CanMNT, yesterday’s strong performance is not shocking. This team is capable of playing well and challenging the best teams in the world. Still, the dominance that Canada held over Belgium throughout large portions of the match was likely unexpected.

So, what did John Herdman tactically do to get Canada playing on the front foot and to prevent Belgium from ever properly settling into the game?


Three tactical observations from Canada’s match against Belgium

  1. Pressing higher than normal to take advantage of the CanMNT’s advantages in speed, athleticism and youthfulness.

Canada’s defensive position was very high upfield against Belgium. They looked to make Belgium as uncomfortable as possible by preventing them from building out from the back. Despite showing a high press, Canada did not always press intensely though. Their main pressing triggers appeared to be when the ball was played to the wide areas, specifically targeting the two outside CBs, Leander Dendocker and Jan Vertonghen, and the two wingbacks, Timothy Castagne and Yannick Carrasco.

This strategy worked for most of the game. The inherent risk to this strategy is being beaten by long balls over the top of your defense.

Aside from the goal above, Belgium only succeeded in breaking Canada’s press on a small handful of occasions. As the CanMNT starters began to tire, we began to see the team take a more cautious, shepherding approach to the press. Instead of pressing as intensely as they did in the first half, they began to slowly push the ball to one side of the field before pressing.

But why did Herdman set up the team in a high press? Herdman likely realized that Belgium are:

  1. Older as an overall team;
  2. Slower and less athletic; and,
  3. A bit less technically sound and progressive in wide areas.

He also likely factored in that European teams are not as used to defending ultra fast and athletic teams in the International game that also play at an above average technical and tactical level. Thus, in theory, the high press coupled with Canada’s physical advantages would effectively stymy Belgium and pin them deep in their own end (exactly what happened).

It’s impossible to predict how Herdman will change tactics ahead of the Croatia match. From assessing Croatia’s squad, they typically play in a back four formation. Their fullbacks are more attack minded and are faster than Belgium’s wingbacks. Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic are three extremely talented central midfielders playing at three of the top clubs in the world. They all excel at picking up the ball in deeper positions on the field, spraying passes all over and can even drive play forward themselves.

Given that Croatia are younger and faster than Belgium and have three midfielders who are just as comfortable playing deeper to collect the ball, pressing high may not work quite as well as it did against Belgium. It should be interesting to see if and how Herdman adjusts for Sunday’s game.

2. Emphasizing attacks down the right side and overloading that flank.

To the surprise of some, Richie Laryea got the start against Belgium. Many likely expected Sam Adekugbe to start ahead of Richie given he was so heavily relied upon by Herdman throughout World Cup qualifying. Strong performances by Laryea and Junior Hoilett in Canada’s final warm-up game against Japan likely had some influence in the decision to start both (and to play Davies a bit further back than normal at left wingback).

Herdman’s decision to start Laryea to overload the right side against Belgium paid off. He correctly identified that Belgium would be weaker down their left side with Vertonghen and Carrasco. Many of Canada’s best attacking moments came from crosses or runs from the right side, as Tajon Buchanan, Alistair Johnston and Laryea bullied that flank.

In my opinion, Laryea was deserving of the Man of the Match award. His key passes leading to shots, directness in attack and strength and tenacity at both ends of the pitch allowed Canada to dominate the right side. Canada’s emphasis on the right side of the pitch is evident from the heat map graphic taken from WhoScored below:

WhoScored

On paper, Croatia’s left side is faster than Belgium’s. Canada will likely not have the same dominance that they had down that flank as they did in their first match. Herdman is unlikely to change his starting lineup given the team’s strong opening performance. However, if he does decide to make an adjustment, bringing in Adekugbe into the starting 11 for Hoilett and playing Davies at LW could be a shrewd move.

Both Croatia’s fullbacks, Borna Sosa and Josip Juranovic, are attack minded and a bit susceptible defensively. Dejan Lovren has never been fast and can also get caught out of position. The ability to make accurate vertical passes and leveraging the speed of Davies, Adekugbe, Laryea and Buchanan could be the tactical advantage Canada needs to get a result.

3. Crossing will be an integral part of Canada’s attacking strategy to break down teams with good defensive structure.

Canada were not at their best in the final third against Belgium. Despite their 22 shots, they still struggled to create the crisp, clear cut scoring chances that we’ve often seen from them. Cutbacks and quick, direct vertical attacks have typically been the CanMNT’s primary way to attack their opponents.

Against Belgium, we saw a lot more crosses into the box than we’ve traditionally seen. Belgium and Croatia are both more talented and defensively organized than any team they’ve faced throughout CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and in their lead up friendlies to the tournament. As a result of it being harder to break down these well structured defensive teams, crosses will have to continue to be an integral part of Canada’s attacking strategy.

As Tifo IRL highlighted in their YouTube tactical breakdown video of Group F, Croatia also love to cross the ball a lot. In fact, this is their main attacking strategy. Canada’s ability to defend these crosses will be crucial to keeping their opponents off the score sheet.

Croatia’s defense is relatively tall to defend against crosses (Lovren, Sosa and Josko Gvordial are all taller than 6’0) and the entire team is well structured defensively. For Canada, continuing to diversify their crosses will be important. High, lofted crosses should probably be avoided if Jonathan David is starting at ST (he hasn’t scored off many of those in his career). Early, driven crosses into the box for Buchanan, Davies and David to run onto, along with low, ground crosses should be used instead.


Other game notes:

  • Every CanMNT player wants to be the first ever scorer for the country at the men’s World Cup - This led to a lot of poorly taken chances from outside of the box.
  • Canada needs to trust their patterns of play in the final third - Their best scoring chances came when they didn’t individually try to do too much and trusted their normal attacking patterns of play (most often from crosses into the box).
  • Canada lacks the speed in central midfield to defend in transition - Whenever Belgium’s defense created their own turnover or beat Canada’s press, Eustaquio and Hutchinson struggled to close down and contain the opposing team.
  • Canada’s set pieces were not executed well - 40% of goals at the 2018 World Cup came from set pieces and Canada will have to capitalize on any chance they get in such a short tournament. Synchronization between the set piece takers and intended targets was not even close against Belgium.