Better with age: Analyzing how Atiba Hutchinson continues to hold down the CanMNT midfield as he nears 39
Atiba Hutchinson had a performance to remember vs El Salvador on Wednesday, scoring the winning goal in a big 2-0 win. In this, I dive into his performance from that game.
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He continues to age like a fine, fine wine.
But in a sense, there is no better way to describe Atiba Hutchinson’s game as he nears the ripe old age of 39, as despite being at least a decade older than over half of his CanMNT teammates, he continues to play like a man half his age.
Thanks to that, it’s allowed him to play a massive role for the CanMNT on their current World Cup qualifying push, one that now sees them sit just 1 win away from qualifying for Qatar, leading the race in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.
And not only that, but Hutchinson, who is in his 20th year of playing for the National Team, sitting with 92 caps to his name, still isn’t missing a beat for this Canadian team, either.
Having played 8 out of a possible 17 games so far on Canada’s World Cup push, including 7 out of a possible 11 in the Octo, Hutchinson continues to remain a key part of Canada’s midfield, and for good reason. Despite being in his fifth World Cup cycle with Canada, he still has the same youthful energy as someone playing in his first, finding a way to play with freedom and joy each and every time he sees the field.
So while his legs might not allow him to play every minute of every game for Canada anymore, especially given how brutal this World Cup qualifying schedule has been for them, you know that when he’s called upon, he’ll don the armband and do his best, no matter how big the occasion.
A must-win game at home against El Salvador to close out the first window of the Octo? Hutchinson went 70 minutes and scored the game-winner in a 3-0 victory. A home clash against a Mexican side Canada last beat in 2000? He went 90 in a 2-1 win. An away clash against a Honduras side you last beat away over 30 years ago? He went 90 in a 2-0 win.
Then, just continuing that theme of wanting to step up in big games, he was once again front and centre in Canada’s latest triumph, a big away game against El Salvador, going 90 and scoring the winner in a crucial 2-0 victory, one that has Canada on the brink of the World Cup.
But that’s Hutchinson for you. The most-capped player in CanMNT history, he has given back to this program time and time again over the years, and continues to do so as they reach a golden age of Canadian soccer.
And because of that, it just makes it so fitting that he’s enjoying a fine run of form in the heart of Canada’s midfield on this magical run, the sort of one that Canada has never really been on before, as they’re not only on top of the Octo with 3 games to go, but are currently riding a 6-game win streak.
Considering that he wasn’t even supposed to still be here at this stage, as it looked like he was going to retire after the last cycle, it feels wild to imagine that he’s not only still around, but playing a starring role, yet it also feels so right.
And there might not be a better example of that than the El Salvador game. In a hostile environment, one that Canada last won in over 20 years ago, Hutchinson stepped up and donned the armband once again for his country, putting up a game-winning performance in a crucial win.
So now, as Hutchinson heads back to his club, Besiktas, after this game, it only feels fitting to dive a bit deeper into the film from his performance in that El Salvador encounter, as it was certainly quite interesting to watch. Plus, with his 39th birthday also just right around the corner, this is also a good chance to see how Hutchinson has continued to plug away for Canada as he nears his 40s, finding ways to not just stay at a top-level, but seemingly improve each season.
His play might not stand out to the naked eye at first glance, but make no mistake, part of the reason why he’s so good is the little things that he does in games, and here’s a look at some of them, and how they benefit Canada.
Holding down the midfield defensively:
To play at a high level for a season is hard enough. To play at a high level for 5 years is even harder.
But to play at a high level for as long as Hutchinson has? That is nearly impossible in the modern game, which is why we often see players often move to smaller clubs or accept reduced roles for their teams as they age.
Yet, 2 decades after he turned pro, he’s continuing to plug away in Europe, a star man for Besiktas, where he has been holding down the midfield for almost a decade now.
And to be able to do that, it takes massive skill, as coaches have no problem moving on from older players for the newer, shinier toy that shows up on their doorstep, especially at a club like Besiktas, who is expected to contend domestically and continentally year-after-year.
So the key for Hutchinson to be able to maintain his spot as he nears 40? Consistency, hard work, fitness and a commitment to getting better each year. It sounds simple, but it’s a lot easier said than done.
At the same time, though, you always have to be very good at something to play at a high level for so long, and for Hutchinson, that’s where we find his main calling card - defending.
Be it as a #6, or as a box-to-box #8, the two positions that he has played most over his career, you know that defending is going to be a prerequisite of Hutchinson’s game, who is a master of his craft off the ball. That’s shown in his stats, which are typically dominant, and that’s just felt whenever he’s on the field.
With his height, which sees him measure in at almost 6’2”, and his lanky legs, which earned him the nickname of the ‘Octopus’, he combines his physical gifts with a knack of reading the game and strong positional awareness.
So when returning to this El Salvador game, you can see both of those things manifest themselves throughout the match.
Playing as a double-pivot with Stephen Eustaquio, they were everywhere defensively, helping keep El Salvador to just 0.37 Expected Goals (xG) on 7 shots in what was a pretty stingy defensive performance for Canada.
And despite having a quiet night for his standards in terms of defensive actions, as he didn’t finish with any tackles or interceptions, which is a rarity for him, Hutchinson still found a way to have a massive impact off the ball.
Not only did he win 7/8 of his duels, including 5/5 of his ground duels, but he also did a lot of things that aren’t measured on a stat sheet, such as pressuring players into mistakes, and funnelling them into areas of no return.
But that’s something that he just does so well, as he uses his long legs and smart positioning to cover as much ground as possible, allowing him to either make the defensive actions, or push opponents to areas where his teammates can make them.
Here are some examples of what that might look like.
To start, here is a case of what the stats don’t measure from his game. In this first clip, Hutchinson doesn’t make a defensive play, nor do his teammates, but make no mistake, it is a perfect example of how Hutchinson can make life difficult for his opponents in the midfield.
Just look at how he runs to close down the space with the El Salvador #6, Narciso Orellana, before setting himself up in a jockey position with his knees slightly bent and his hips in an open posture, which allows him to react to any movement from his opposite number.
Thanks to that, Hutchinson is able to react to Orellana’s movement, forcing him into a backpass, one that leads El Salvador to reset their possession, giving Canada a chance to reset their defensive posture.
And that’s crucial. Often, midfielders can tend to sag back in those sorts of situations, inviting their opponents to drive the ball forward into dangerous areas, which isn’t ideal.
But not Hutchinson, who will look to push forward at every opportunity, and doesn’t often get burned for it. That was the case for the El Salvador game, where he was dribbled past a grand total of 0 times, and reads like that was a big reason for that.
Here’s another example of what that looks like.
In that clip, Hutchinson once again doesn’t register a defensive action, but reacts very quickly to the El Salvador midfielder receiving the ball in a great position, stepping up to disrupt his desire to turn forward.
So instead of being able to turn forward into space, he was forced to stop his turn and play backwards to recycle possession, once again allowing Canada to reset their defensive line.
Again, it might not feel like much, but it makes such a difference, as A) it slowly kills the clock and wastes opponents’ possessions, and B) it increases the likelihood that Canada will complete the defensive action.
If that El Salvador midfielder makes that turn forward, for example, managing to drive towards the Canadian defence with the ball, he easily could’ve created a nice transition moment, which are often seen as the phase of play where the highest-quality scoring chances are created in soccer.
Instead, he was forced to recycle the ball, buying Canada time to get set, which is never what you want as an attacking team.
But for all of those examples of Hutchinson’s pressure forcing the other team to reset their possessions, it’s worth noting that there are also moments where he can win you back the ball from those situations.
Here’s an example of that.
Here, El Salvador’s #12, Marvin Monterroza, is a little slower than his teammates on the ball, and seeing that, Hutchinson pushes up, realizing that he has a good opportunity to engage in a duel.
From there, he sticks his long legs into the duel, establishes body position, and then it was game over for Monterroza, who didn’t just end up losing the ball, but ended up committing a very sloppy foul.
And it’s hard to pinpoint what is more impressive from Hutchinson on the clip.
Is it his ability to push up and engage in a duel in a blink of an eye? Is it his strength in the duel? Is it the fact that he had a burst like this in the 83rd minute of a game?
Either way, though, it was a key moment for Canada, who were able to turn what could’ve been a dangerous spell of possession for their opponents into a set-piece of their own, buying them time at a crucial moment of the game.
Yet, it all came from the hard work and intelligence of Hutchinson, who knew that he could win the ball, and made sure that he did. Many other midfielders would’ve either sat back, conceding possession, or stepped forward a little too gung-ho, committing a foul or getting burned.
Not Hutchinson, however, but that’s just one reason among many why he’s so good at what he does.
But speaking of those reasons, another important one worth exploring is his ability to track back in certain situations, as he does a great job of getting himself back behind the ball when he gets caught high up the field.
As we’ll explore shortly, since he’s often deployed as a #8, that means that he tends to push forward to help the attack, as one would be expected to do in that position, but that means that he often has to track back a lot as a consequence of that.
That’s completely normal, of course, and part of the description of a box-to-box midfielder, but in reality, not everyone is able to fulfill those demands, especially not over the course of the game.
Hutchinson is not one of those players, however, as he rarely misses a defensive assignment, no matter where he finds himself on the field.
Just take this next clip as an example.
Here, he gets caught high up the field, but he recovers quickly, getting back in time to get into a 50/50, where he does enough to force a turnover in a great area.
And there are a few details that really stand out from that clip.
First, look back at how hard Hutchinson runs when he realizes that his marker, Monterroza, burst into a sprint off the ball. Often, many might’ve just ignored that run to start, and then tracked back when they received the ball, going ‘oh damn, that’s the guy I’m supposed to be marking’.
Instead, Hutchinson ensured that he’d stick with Monterroza, and did a good job of staying on him by the time that he received the ball, shutting down a key attack.
Secondly, look at how Hutchinson positioned his hips to run and then stick his leg out to make the challenge. It might have seemed effortless, but had he been slightly off-balance, or lazy with his leg, he could’ve easily given away a needless foul, but he did enough to keep good body position and make an effort to win back the ball.
Lastly, just look at the speed that he shows on that clip. That’s impressive.
But that’s just what Hutchinson will look to do off the ball. He is very committed to the cause defensively, and is always ready to track back and cover his position, knowing that even if he doesn’t always win the ball back, he can still help his team defensively.
A lot of players don’t want to make those sort of selfless runs, as it’s a lot of work for a minimal payoff, but Hutchinson has no qualms with it.
Here’s another instance of that.
Again, he doesn’t win the ball there, but he helps his teammate, Doneil Henry, do so, just by applying strong backpressure as soon as the ball drops.
And the good thing about this sport is that there’s a mantra ‘you get back what you give to it’, which Hutchinson often bears the fruits of in his game.
As a reward for all of his running, he’ll often have a moment or two in games where he wins back the ball in a great position, helping his team fashion together a great chance.
Here’s an example of that from this game. In this clip, Hutchinson does well to track back and stick out his leg to stop what was shaping up to be a nice bit of possession from El Salvador, who were about to break Canada’s press.
Instead, they were left to watch on with worried eyes as Hutchinson’s long legs emerged from nowhere to win the ball back, before teeing up Jonathan David for what was almost a golazo.
Had he been flat on his feet, he wouldn’t have been able to make that play, but with his tireless running, he was able to be there in the right moment, nearly helping Canada score a great goal.
And that’s not the only example of him doing that, either.
Here’s another one from later in the match, as Hutchinson does a great job of bringing down a 50/50 ball, and then doing a quick Lionel Messi impression before unleashing a shot that was just blocked.
Ultimately, it didn’t lead to much, but it all came off the back of his own hard work, which is key.
But for all of the running that Hutchinson does to ensure that he’s often in the right position defensively, which we often see from him as a #8, he also does show good #6 attributes when given a chance to sit deeper, too.
He didn’t have many of them in this game, as he often had to push forward, but when he did sit back, he did a good job of snuffing out El Salvador attacks.
Here are two examples of that.
First, there’s this clip from deep in the second half, where Canada had adopted a bit more of a defensive posture, and Hutchinson did well to grab what should’ve been jotted down as an interception, doing well to stay ready for this sloppy pass in midfield.
It might’ve been more of an error from El Salvador, to be fair, but with his good positioning, Hutchinson was ready to be there for that mistake, and based on what we know about his game, that’s no accident.
Otherwise, here’s another clip that shows those deep-lying instincts.
He’s a bit higher up the field than a typical #6 would be in this instance, yes, but look how he tracks his marker, and gets up for a strong duel, one that helps his team win back possession (or so it seems, as the broadcast feed cut out right at that moment).
It might not seem like much special, but as a #6, you often have to be ready to close down space for your opponents, and in that case, Hutchinson does just that, helping turn a routine header into a contested 50/50.
But that’s how Hutchinson is so effective off the ball. He blends the different things I looked at here, and puts them into practice, finding a nice balance between being aggressive, engaging in duels, and tracking back.
So fittingly, to close out this section, here’s a clip of him doing all of that in one sequence, just summing up what he can bring to a team defensively, and showing why Canada is happy to have him still playing big minutes on this team.
Play in possession remains tidy:
For those who know the name of this newsletter, ‘Destroy and Progress’, you may or may not know that it’s named after the archetype of a special type of midfielder, one who likes to make defensive actions and progress the ball forward, of which someone like Stephen Eustaquio is well known for being, for example.
But while Eustaquio is one of the more well-known for being that kind of midfielder, make no mistake, Hutchinson is every bit that kind of player, which is partly why they have such great chemistry together.
He might have more of a reputation of a ‘destroyer’, but when you look at his game, his passing ability is a lot better than people realize, making him every bit a ‘destroy and progress’ sort of player as Eustaquio is, instead of being just the one-dimensional ‘defensive stopper’ or ‘destroyer’ that some pin him as.
And when looking at some of the passes that he made in this El Salvador game, you can see that manifest himself.
Hutchinson might not be someone that will exclusively play with one touch, as he prefers to take a touch before moving the ball, but when he makes a pass, he often doesn’t miss it, which is reflected in the fact that he completed 33 out of 36 of his passes (92%) in this game.
Here are some examples of that.
First, we’ve got this clip from kick-off, where Hutchinson quickly shows the three pillars of his possession game - move into space, receive the ball, find a teammate, and then repeat step 1.
As seen here, not much happens, since it’s off the kick-off, but how he opens up for the ball, plays forward and then moves into space is the hallmark of a good possession player, make no mistake.
So remember those three pillars, as they’re the foundation of Hutchinson’s possession theorem.
And here’s a prime teachable example of that theorem being applied in a much more difficult situation, showing why it makes him so effective.
Here, seeing that his teammate, Alistair Johnston, was under pressure, Hutchinson ran into a pocket off-camera, opened up his hips to receive the ball, signalling to Johnston that he was an option.
From there, when he received the ball, with his hips already open, and his head scan already complete, he’d picked out Richie Laryea as an option alongside him, allowing him to take the ball in stride, and then play his teammate in space.
And it’s once again Hutchinson’s hip movement which is so elite on that play. Had he been too stiff with his hips, he wouldn’t have been able to turn from looking at Johnston to playing it forward to Laryea, but with how he is standing, he was able to execute the play with ease.
But that’s just the sort of thing that Hutchinson excels at in possession, which we see more of in this next clip.
Here, he once again receives the ball in the middle, and then does a good job of pivoting his hips, and playing Johnston on the other side of the field with a nice switch.
Not only that, he was able to use his hip movement as a way to elude the defender that was coming on his back, making it look like he was going to go forward, drawing the defender far back enough to open up the pass that he wanted.
And there are countless examples of Hutchinson’s ability to do that.
How about this one where Hutchinson is just denied of a breakaway pass by a great interception, but did so well to receive the ball, look up, and play what a ball that nearly broke 2 lines?
Or how about this one from later in the game, where Hutchinson once again applies the three pillars of ‘Hutchinson possession theorem’ (working on a title for that), and springs Richie Laryea with a line-breaking pass, not too dissimilar to the one that just got intercepted in the clip above?
It might not be an overly complicated theorem, but man, does it work well, and that’s the beauty of what Hutchinson can do in possession.
Those line-breaking passes can be so destabilizing to a defence, yet Hutchinson does such a good job of opening them up for himself, allowing him to help his team out massively in possession.
He might not be the one completing the key passes in the final third, say, but he has a knack of unleashing his teammates in transition, which for a team with the game-breakers that Canada has, is massive.
So when you get a chance to watch Hutchinson, just watch for those three pillars whenever Hutchinson receives the ball, as he just does such a good job of receiving the ball, turning, and then playing a pass, as he does in these next two clips.
When put together as in this next clip, where Hutchinson’s interpretation of space is fantastic, those three pillars help him stay very involved in the attack, showing his value as a #8.
He might not rack up the goals or assists, but with his ability to make incisive passes and run into space, he often opens up space for his teammates in key areas with his runs, helping them do the sort of damage that they’ve shown to be able to inflict in those areas.
Still racking up the (Air)miles:
And speaking of his running, it feels fitting to round off this piece with a look at that side of his game, because while it might seem a bit boring, Hutchinson turns it into an art form.
Obviously, it helps that his running is often done with a purpose, be it defensively, or offensively, but even then, you can only admire what it can do for a team.
Here are some examples of that.
First, there’s this instance where Canada loses the ball, partly off of a tough pass from Hutchinson back to Scott Kennedy, but fear not, as Hutchinson absolutely kicked up the afterburners to force a turnover.
It could’ve been easy for him to throw his hands up and complain about the pass, or track back half-heartedly, but instead, he just put his head down and got going, showing his leadership on the play.
And that selflessness goes a long way in games.
Here’s a second example of that.
In this clip, after Canada lost the ball high up the pitch, look at how fast Hutchinson gets back, covering 50 yards in seconds, allowing his team to recover in time to avoid a potentially dangerous counter-attack, turning a 5v5 into a 5v6 with his run.
Already high up the pitch, he could’ve had an excuse to run back doggedly, or not track back up at all, but once again, he just put his head down and got running, and it helped Canada force a sloppy pass.
But it’s those sorts of runs that you have to admire from Hutchinson, who despite his age, just is still able to cover ground on the pitch like a man half of his age.
Just look at this next clip, one where he ran into space for Doneil Henry, but saw the play just overhit as Henry was fouled off the ball.
Despite that, Hutchinson remained dogged, and almost made a play of a seemingly nothing situation, almost getting to the ball.
And the reason that I’m highlighting all of those clips, which aren’t particularly special, is just to give an idea of the sort of output that Hutchinson puts into games for Canada, often unnoticed.
Not only that, I also highlighted the clips because it transitions perfectly to the last clip I have here, which is Hutchinson’s game-winning goal from the game.
For those who have seen it, you’ll know that the goal wasn’t exactly a Puskas nominee, as it came after Hutchinson hit a shot off the post, before seeing it ricochet off of an El Salvador defender, his own back, and then up in the air and into the net, but ignore that for a second.
When watching the clip, just look at Hutchinson’s run, which begins close to the edge of his own box, and finishes with him at El Salvador’s goal line, where he scored the goal.
Despite it seeming like a lost cause at times, Hutchinson just kept on running, eager to provide Cyle Larin, who crossed the ball, with any sort of option to play a pass to.
It could’ve been easy to slow his run, and instead tell Larin to go back and recycle possession, but instead, he just kept on running, eager to give his fellow Besiktas teammate something to aim at the near post.
He did just that, and while the goal won’t be one that either of them planned, it was a very deserved tally for Hutchinson, who was rewarded for the selfless running that he did at that moment.
As we saw here, he made those sorts of runs all game, be it to track back, to provide space for teammates or to make himself an option for a pass, so it was nice to see that selflessness rewarded in this moment.
But if anything, it’s that one word that best sums up Hutchinson’s tenure in a red shirt so far - selflessness.
Be it always travelling across the world to play in games, no matter the size of the game, or the state of his team, or constantly putting his body on the line for his team, playing hard minutes, Hutchinson is always willing to get stuck in for the cause.
So now, it’s nice to see him get to enjoy this run that Canada is on, as he’s given so much over the years to get to this point.
Because of that, when that goal went in during this game, you couldn’t help but feel happy that it came off of Hutchinson’s back, as it was often there where he carried this Canadian team over the years, making it a ‘full circle’ moment of sorts.
He’s more than earned a chance to get a run like this before his career came to an end, and while it’s unfortunate that it’s come so late on, as a wise person once said, ‘there’s no better time than the present’.
And on this run to Qatar, Hutchinson has continued to play a big role in Canada’s fortunes in the here and now, with this game just being another example of that, showing how he’s been able to hold it down in the midfield 20 years after he began his now-distinguished international career.
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Hutchinson celebrates his game-winning goal against El Salvador (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)