It was a pressured series of games for the men’s national team, but perhaps no one was in a hotter seat than coach John Herdman.
In the end, Herdman’s team made it to the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifiers relatively comfortably – they scored 31 times while conceding only once in six consecutive wins.
Known in Canadian football circles for his motivational skills rather than tactical masterclasses, the 45-year-old has not been afraid of rolling the dice in some of the Les Rouges’ most important games recently.
“It happens. We did it.”
John Herdman thinks about it #CanMNTThe wild way into the final stages of the World Cup qualification, and the big mountain that is now in front of them and waiting to be climbed 🧗🏽♂️. pic.twitter.com/h6iTMASd5V
– OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 16, 2021
Overall, most of these gambling games paid off in full as he put in place a roster and system that got the most out of his key players while also relying on some fresh faces on the international stage.
Here are three of the key tactical tweaks Herdman made to get Canada into the “Octo”.
Deployment of Davies at LWF
Canadian soccer fans and media representatives had a lot to discuss and analyze in the 16 months between November 2019 and March of this year.
Probably the hottest topic Alphonso Davies would field in Canada’s top team: Would it be left-back – the position he calls home at Bayern Munich at club level? Or to get the best out of his pace and skills, a left winger in 4-3-3?
In the end, it wasn’t either as Herdman chose to start Davies as a left-back in a 3-5-2 for the last three qualifiers, first against Suriname and again in the two-legged against Haiti.
The freedom in that role allowed Davies to be truly successful on the left, with the license to move forward without worrying too much about leaving defensive holes with the safety of three center-backs behind him. When he didn’t overlap or go to the front, the Bayern man often pinched inward to get the ball and overload the opponent in the middle of the park.
Say it out loud to us now:
– OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 9, 2021
Another nuance of the 3-5-2 system is the scope for Cyle Larin and Jonathan David at the front without pushing any of the traditionally central attackers far to the right – the pair scored 10 of Canada’s 31 rounds of goals in their two qualifiers.
If you have a generation talent like Alphonso Davies on your team, the goal should be to find the best system to get the most out of that player. Herdman did just that in a 3-5-2 with Davies as full-back.
Play your kids: Kennedy and Johnston thrive on the third row
When the stakes are at their highest, managers have relied time and again on their skilled players to get the job done, for better or for worse.
In the decisive duel of Canada against Suriname and in the first leg against the Haitians, Herdman decided instead to use both Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston in the back three. The selection caused a sensation before kick-off when Kennedy made his international debut against the Suriname, while Johnston, traditionally a full-back, joined the eleven as a right center-back in only his third appearance in the senior team.
Herdman’s brave decision to rely on the youngsters was a brilliant move as the duo thrived in the group of three thanks to their composure on the ball and passing skills.
Elsewhere, big game for Alistair Johnston who played as CB like he had:
45/47 passes (96%)
2/2 long balls
4/5 ground duels
2/3 air duels
– Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) June 12, 2021
In the second duel against Haiti, Herdman Johnston moved up to the right-back, while Kennedy retained his place in the top three with veterans Doneil Henry and Steven Vitoria, each playing one of the previous two games in a crowded series of games. Without the versatility of Johnston and the reliability of Kennedy, it would never have been possible to keep Henry and Vitoria’s aging legs fresh for their last game by the window.
It’s fair to say that the stock of two CanMNT players has risen higher than Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston’s in the past two weeks thanks to the trust of Herdman.
Formation of a balanced, mobile midfield unit
At the start of the Suriname game, the midfield unit seemed to lack balance and cohesion, but in the end Canada got the job done.
Herdman clearly saw the need to adjust when he ditched the ever-dependable Samuel Piette for Mark-Anthony Kaye for both competitions against Haiti. As reliable as Piette has been to the national team over the past decade, a midfield with CF Montreal and Stephen Eustáquio has the potential of not having the momentum needed to beat better quality opponents.
Kaye brings an element to the center of the park unmatched by Piette or arguably any other Canadian midfielder. His range of progressive passes, his ability to slide past his opponents and deliver the ball with his left foot are a perfect match for the Energizer bunny Eustáquio.
There will be a place for Atiba as long as he wants one, but in Eustaquio-Kaye #CanMNT have a midfield partnership that could last for years to come. Two great footballers who should have even more influence if the game is not played in the sandpit.
– Oliver Platt (@plattoli) June 13, 2021
Although Atiba Hutchinson is sure to return to the team in the next qualifying round and Piette’s influence with Canada is far from over at just 26, Herdman recognized the strengths of a Kaye-Eustáquio combo ahead of a tough test against Haiti. It should come as no surprise if the Herdman duo become a fixture in Canadian midfield.