Analyzing the CanMNT's & Costa Rica's tactical profile ahead of their crucial World Cup qualifier on Friday
Ahead of the CanMNT's key clash with Costa Rica in Edmonton on Friday, I dive into both teams' tactical profiles, seeing what to expect from them in this one.
It promises to be a crucial matchup for the CanMNT.
As they get set to face off against Costa Rica in a chilly Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Friday night, Canada is well aware of what’s at stake for them in that game, as they know how important it could be on their journey towards the 2022 World Cup.
Sitting just 4 points ahead of Costa Rica in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, Canada has a chance to create some separation between themselves and Los Ticos with a victory in this game, putting them in a great position as they reach the midway point of this final round journey, a mark they’ll officially pass after this match.
Having played 6 games out of 14 in the Octo, Canada currently sits in 3rd place with 10 points, which is pretty good considering that the top 3 teams at the end of this final round will qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while the 4th will get to go to the intercontinental playoff.
So now, should they beat Costa Rica, that’ll put them up to 13 points through 7 games, good for 1.85 points a game, well above the 1.6 points per game that is expected to be needed to finish in the top 3 of the Octo.
Because of that, it’s imperative that they find a way to pick up a result on Friday. With a win, they’d create a bit of separation between themselves and the rest of the pack, especially considering that Costa Rica currently sits 5th out of 8 teams in the Octo, but on the flipside, Costa Rica’s proximity to Canada in the standings also means that a loss could drag Canada right back into the fight, putting them within 1 point of their Central American foes should that happen.
Canada is well aware of that, though, and is looking to come out strong in this game because of that. Having brought Costa Rica to a frigid Edmonton, where the temperature is projected to be just below freezing by kick-off on Friday night, that was done with the intention of freezing their opponents, giving them an edge.
Along with the boost that playing in front of 45 000+ screaming Canadian fans will provide, everything is set up for Canada to have the best possible home advantage here, and they’ll look to make the most of that on Friday.
At the same time, though, they must be careful. While Canada will feel confident about themselves, having picked up some big results against some good teams, only sitting behind the 2 giants of CONCACAF in Mexico and the US, Costa Rica is a good team.
There’s a reason why they’ve qualified for back-to-back World Cups, and while this campaign hasn’t gone as they would’ve for them so far, they still gave the US and Mexico a good run for their money in losses, while remaining undefeated in every other game they’ve played.
So while Canada will be focused on themselves and what they can do to win, and rightfully so, they’ll have to be very careful with how they approach this Costa Rica side, because if they aren’t, they could come back to bite them, something they’ll have to be wary of on Friday.
Costa Rica: A sleeping giant?
And when looking at Costa Rica’s statistical profile, you can certainly see why they’re a team to keep an on, even if they haven’t necessarily shown that in their results.
With a record of 1 win, 2 losses and 3 draws, it’s been a mixed start to the Octo so far for the Ticos, but as mentioned earlier, those 2 losses did come against Mexico (home) and the US (away), which are certainly not bad results for Costa Rica, who lost both of those games by 1 goal.
So while their record in the other games hasn’t been much better, as they did beat El Salvador at home, while also drawing Panama (away), Jamaica (home) and Honduras (away), the good sign for them is that all 6 of their games have been drawn or decided by 1 goal, which shows that they do a good job of staying in games, no matter the opponent.
Their offence might not be in the greatest form right now, as they’ve got just 4 goals in 6 games, tied for 5th in the region, but they have also only conceded 5, which is good for 4th in the region, showing that they tend to try and keep their games low event.
And a look at their squad suggests that they’re built to do just that. Just look at their most recent lineup, the one they used in a game against the US last window, as an example of that.
With a solid backline led by the likes of Keylor Navas, Oscar Duarte, Francisco Calvo and Ronald Matarrita, and midfielders such as Celso Borges, Brain Ruiz and Yeltsin Tejeda, Costa Rica most definitely prides itself on being solid at the back and then paving the way for their wingers and forwards, in that game led by Johan Venegas, Jonathan Moya and Keysher Fuller, to get going in transition.
So while they won’t be fully able to commit to that plan once again this camp, as they’re missing Navas for this game with an injury, and will be short on full backs with Matarrita and Cristian Gamboa both out for Friday, they still have the pieces to do some damage in the final third, especially considering they’ll be welcoming back the always-dangerous Joel Campbell for this camp.
They might not be the Costa Rica of old that struck fear into CONCACAF in those last 2 World Cup runs, as a lot of that generation aged out, but they still have plenty of quality at their disposal, and a look at their squad indicates as much.
What to expect from Costa Rica’s attack:
Speaking of that playing style, though, it’s pretty interesting to dive a little deeper into how that might look on Friday, as it’s clear that Canada will have to be prepared to face a pretty organized Costa Rican side.
But the good news for Canada is that they’ve got plenty of footage to use to help prepare for this game, as they actually played Costa Rica at the quarter-finals of the Gold Cup this summer, a game in which they won 2-0 thanks to goals from Junior Hoilett and Stephen Eustaquio.
And considering that the Costa Rican team they faced in that game will be relatively similar to the one they’ll be expected to face on Friday, that’s huge, especially since Canada didn’t use an A-team in that game.
But with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin, who all missed that game, set to be in the lineup for this game, that’s only an added bonus for Canada, just giving them more weapons to break down Costa Rica’s resolute defensive line.
Before diving into what that means, though, it’s important to break down Costa Rica’s offensive profile, because when looking back at the footage, it’s quite the interesting one.
If you were to use one word to describe it, the word that would probably come to mind first would likely be direct, and that’s fitting, as there’s no better way to put it.
Just a look at some of the clips of their offence from that Canada game shows how so.
And when it’s said that it’s direct, make no mistake - it’s very direct.
Here’s a perfect example of that.
There, as soon as Costa Rica got the ball, they sent forward numbers in a hurry, and did so with a purpose, intent on pushing the ball as quickly from north to south as possible.
It didn’t end up working for them in that situation, as Canada tracked back nicely, but there were a few moments where Costa Rica had some nice overloads, and had they taken advantage of them, they could’ve made something happen on that run.
But that’s just what they do.
Here’s another example of that.
Again, in this clip, they’re let down by some poor decision-making, but it’s still intriguing to see how quickly they were able to break into Canada’s final 3rd from their own half, despite only really playing through 2 of their guys.
Instead of slowing things down and trying to control the ball in midfield, they seem to prefer to just throw bodies forward in transition and unleash havoc, and it’s going to be important for Canada to deal with that early, or else Costa Rica could find themselves in some dangerous positions on Friday.
Just imagine what they could do if they get a scenario like the one in the next clip, but instead of slowing down at the wrong moment and misplaying the ball, they play a quick ball to a player in the box, and fashion a chance off of it.
And that becomes especially true in moments where you do see them play with that sort of quick decision-making, because it’s on those kinds of plays where they appear to be at their best, making you wonder why they don’t play that way more often.
Here’s an example of that.
Here, sensing that Canada’s defensive line had drifted forward, Costa Rica elected to play a ball right over the top, and they nearly punished their opponents with that, showing that sometimes a simple play can be the right move.
So while that sort of directness comes at a cost of midfield play, and intricate spells of possession, which can be so gruelling to defend, that also means that they can switch on at any moment, which is more of a mental challenge for defenders.
But the good news for Canada is that Costa Rica’s midfield play, or lack thereof, does come at a cost, and that cost is that they can be high pressed out of games at times, something Canada did very well in that Gold Cup game.
Just take a look at the next few clips as an example of that.
First, we’ve got one of the rare sequences where Costa Rica held a bit of possession.
Here, sensing Canada’s press, they tried to go over the top with a long ball, but that just played into Canada’s hands, as they were able to overload the Costa Rican attacker, forcing a turnover.
And that’s just one of many examples of that from that game.
In this next clip, Costa Rica actually does a good job of ignoring the long ball at first, playing the ball into midfield to try and push forward, but then, sensing Canada’s secondary defensive pressure, they were then forced to retreat, leading to a needless turnover.
And lastly, in this 3rd clip, Costa Rica actually gets a chance to build out of the back, theoretically giving them more time on the ball, but Canada does a good job of closing that down, forcing a pretty needless long ball, one that gave the ball right back to Canada.
So the lesson here for Canada is that while they’ll have to be wary of the potential Costa Rican counterattacking threat, they can press the Ticos into turnovers, so as long as they find a good balance in their press, they should be fine in that regard.
Again, it won’t be easy, but having done it before, it only makes it that much easier, so Canada will want to draw into what they showed in that Gold Cup game to help them do that.
The more of this they can do, the better, provided they don’t let anything squeak through too close to their goal, though.
Some areas for Canada to exploit:
But while Canada will want to be wary of Costa Rica’s offensive threat, they’ll also have to find a way to keep things tidy defensively, all while finding a way to break down the Ticos resolute backline, which will certainly be a challenge of its own.
As seen by the numbers, Costa Rica has some of the best defensive statistics in the Octo for a reason, and that’s because they don’t really allow all that many clearcut chances for their opponents.
And Canada got a glimpse of that first-hand in that Gold Cup matchup.
Yes, they did score 2 goals, but the first of those goals came off of an inch-perfect attacking move, while the second came when the match opened up as Costa Rica searched for an equalizer, as Canada otherwise found it relatively difficult to create any clearcut opportunities.
Despite that, though, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have some very dominant spells of possession, however.
With Costa Rica having a bit of a weaker midfield, Canada was able to have a field day in the middle of the park, and that allowed them to put together some nice passages of play, of which they’ll want to replicate on Friday.
Just take this clip from that game, as an example.
There, Canada fashioned together what might’ve very well been their best spell of possession of 2021, doing everything but score a goal, yet it all originated from some straightforward midfield play.
Thanks to a few progressive passes, some good off-the-ball movement and some nice awareness, combined with just overall good decision-making, Canada carved through Costa Rica like butter, just missing that final action to put a cherry on top of the move.
Yet, if you watch that game back, there were countless examples of that. Costa Rica might have a resolute back 4, but by playing a double-pivot of Celso Borges and David Guzman, Canada was able to carve through that pairing with their midfield trio of Mark Anthony Kaye, Stephen Eustaquio and Jonathan Osorio, creating all sorts of dangerous triangles.
Here’s another example of that.
In this clip, Canada just lost a handle of things right as they were about to enter the box, but the work from Kaye and Osorio to isolate Borges and Guzman in 2 different 2v1s was exemplary, showing why Canada had such a strong advantage in that area in that game.
So heading into this match, it’s important that they do the same thing, as Costa Rica just couldn’t keep up with those sorts of sequences in that game, and given the quality in Canada’s midfield, that should remain the case once again in this match.
Just look at this clip as yet another example of that.
Here, despite being pressed by Costa Rica, Canada was able to create a nice transition moment, one they nearly created a high-danger chance out of.
If they can keep doing that in this game, but throw in the addition of Alphonso Davies into the lineup, too, Canada will feast, so it’s important that they keep up this sort of play on Friday.
I mean, just looking at these sorts of sequences, it’s hard not to imagine some of the possibilities.
So as long as if they can keep that up, but add the sort of ruthlessness that they showed on their first goal, they should be in business offensively in this game, hopefully allowing them to break through that resolute Costa Rican defence.
How should Canada line up?
So seeing all of that, the question for Canada is simple - how should they line up in this game?
And based on what we saw above, there are plenty of good options, but seeing what they showed at the Gold Cup, a 3-5-2 might make the most sense.
First, there’s the value that deploying a 3-man midfield offers, and given how much better Canada has looked whenever they have 3 midfielders on the park, that’s a must.
But then, secondly, there’s the value of having 2 strikers, which suits Canada’s front 2 of Cyle Larin and Jonathan David, who both play better in a partnership versus when they’re deployed as lone frontmen, which makes it important for Canada to play with a 2-man frontline.
Lastly, seeing how good Canada’s been with a 3-man backline, a 3-5-2 allows them to keep doing that, while also allowing them to shift back into a 4-4-2, which they also like to play in, offering them the sort of flexibility that they’re starting to be known for.
So seeing all of that, here’s a look at what a potential Canadian 3-5-2 could look like.
To start, it’s a pretty expected back 4, so there are no surprises there, as Milan Borjan looks to be Canada’s #1 to start this camp, while Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria and Alistair Johnston have formed pretty good chemistry as a trio in recent months.
Then, in midfield, a trio of Atiba Hutchinson, Mark Anthony Kaye and Stephen Eustaquio makes the most sense for Canada to use in a 3-man midfield, although Jonathan Osorio does remain as an option, too, but either way, the key thing is that Canada has good options here, no matter in which direction they choose to go.
Over at wing-back, Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea should be expected to hold things down, as Laryea has quietly become one of the team's most important players this year, while Davies, is well, Davies. If not, Tajon Buchanan can also be deployed at wing-back if Canada wants a bit more offensive punch, giving them all sorts of options there, too.
Lastly, Canada will be expected to be run Larin and David up front, as that’s been a partnership they’ve been working on for a while now, and if not, Buchanan can also be deployed up there, too, as can Davies.
So overall, looking at that, Canada has options, especially in attack, giving them all sorts of things to consider as they work on picking a lineup ahead of this game.
As long as they stick in a 3-5-2, though, they should be in good hands, allowing them to attack some of the Costa Rican strengths and weaknesses that I highlighted above.
So seeing all of that, it’ll be interesting to see how this matchup unfolds, especially after how the first game between these two teams went.
Because of that, Canada has the edge heading into this game, but as we know in CONCACAF, that doesn’t mean anything, especially in the case of a team such as Costa Rica.
But as long as Canada sticks to their game plan and plays to their strengths, they should be more than alright, allowing them to pick up a massive victory, one that could be crucial on their road to the 2022 World Cup.
Through the first 6 games of the Octo, they’ve done that, at least for the most part, but they’ll need to continue that in this game, pushing them one step closer to Qatar.
As seen here, it’s all lined up for them to make some noise, but it’s just up to them to actually do that, and based on what we’ve seen from them so far, they’ve got what it takes to make that happen.
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Canada’s Stephen Eustaquio looks on during a clash vs Panama last month (Keveren Guillou) (@kevereng)