Breaking down Sam Adekugbe's big performance vs Costa Rica on Friday and seeing why it might lead to more minutes with the CanMNT going forward
CanMNT defender, Sam Adekugbe, had a night to remember vs Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying action on Friday. In this, I break down what he did so well in that one.
(This article contains a lot of GIFs. If you’re reading this via email, not all of them will load, so it’s recommended that you head to destroyandprogress.substack.com to get access to all of the GIFs.)
It was a performance to remember.
He might not have been the player that was expected to steal the headlines coming into the CanMNT’s game vs Costa Rica in Edmonton on Friday, but Sam Adekugbe did everything in his power to change that, putting up a performance to remember at left back.
From his bone-crunching tackles, to his bursting runs forward, with some cheeky dribbles thrown in there, Adekugbe was everywhere on Friday, helping Canada pick up a crucial 1-0 win over Los Ticos, pushing one step closer to the 2022 World Cup.
In just his 23rd cap for his country, the 26-year-old showed why he’s been one of Canada’s biggest risers this year, having taken all sorts of strides forward for both club and country in 2021.
And this game was just the latest example of that.
It seems that every time Adekugbe takes the field for Canada, he finds a way to improve on his last outing, showing his skill as a player.
So while this Friday game was supposed to be Alphonso Davies’s big homecoming, it should’ve been no surprise that Adekugbe, a fellow Alberta native, would also respond kindly to his first Canada game in his province.
Heck, that should’ve been obvious as soon as he came out of the tunnel on Friday, as he was the only player on both teams to not wear any sort of under-armour or gloves, just instead choosing to rock the bare arms despite the 0-degree weather.
Clearly, that should’ve been a sign that he was going to bring it, and boy did he ever, earning a deserved nod as his team’s man of the match after the game.
On a pitch with several Champions League players, including 1 winner of the competition, Adekugbe stole the show in a big way, only adding to his star this year for Canada.
So seeing all of that, it only feels fitting that I dive into what Adekugbe did so well in this Costa Rica game on Friday, breaking down what made him so effective.
And from a look at the work that he did defensively, to his ability to progress the ball from deep, along with his overall effectiveness in the final third, here’s a deeper look at what made his game tick in that one.
Putting in a huge shift defensively:
And to start, let’s dive into some of the work that he did on the defensive side of the game, because while his offence might’ve stolen the show on Friday, at the end of the day, he’s a defender, and that’s a big part of his game.
So seeing that, it’s almost no surprise that he had some strong numbers in that area of his game on Friday, as he was locked in defensively right from minute 1, knowing that his team needed a big performance from him there.
Because of that, he was able to make an impressive 2 interceptions, had 4 clearances, won 8 of his 13 duels and wasn’t dribbled past a single time, playing some overall lock-down defence down that left-hand side.
It made for a long night for Costa Rica’s right winger, Joel Campbell, who despite being one of the more dangerous attackers in CONCACAF, was a lot quieter than usual on Friday, as he just couldn’t escape from Adekugbe’s shadow in that game.
Yet, that was just another indicator of how good Adekugbe was in that match, as he really stepped up big defensively, playing just some overall solid lockdown defence all game long.
Just a look at some of the clips from that match indicates as much.
First, he always made sure to stay in a good defensive position, ensuring that no Costa Rican players got behind him, allowing him to make some quick reads.
Here’s an example of that.
In that clip, he doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but just does such a good job of first engaging in the duel, and then recovering after it’s over, dropping into a good defensive position.
Because of that, he was able to pick up an easy interception, allowing his team to go back the other way, kickstarting another dangerous attack.
And what’s nice about that play is that he just made so many of those sorts of reads all night, doing such a good job of getting between the Costa Rican attackers and the Canadian goal, making it hard for them to play down the left-hand side.
Just take a look at this next clip as an example of that.
Here, Adekugbe does such a good job of staying behind Campbell, before pouncing when he realizes that the pass to him was sloppy, allowing him to jumpstart a nice counter-attacking opportunity for Canada.
Afterwards, the play broke down, as no suitable passing options emerged for Adekugbe on the play, but that he created such a play off of his own defensive instincts is so key, showing why his play in that area of the game is so important.
But at the same time, while Adekugbe was usually in position defensively, there were sometimes where he was caught out a bit in terms of where he was supposed to be.
And that’s not a bad thing. Obviously, you’d like to see him stay in position as often as possible, with how much work that he has to do at both ends of the field, there’s going to be times where he isn’t in position. That’s just the reality of being a modern left back.
The good news, however?
That doesn’t bother him. He might not be a speedster in the realm of an Alphonso Davies, say, (and to be fair, not many people in the world are), but he’s not far off of his Canadian counterpart in the wheels department, and he showed that on a few occasions in the last game, especially defensively, where he did a good job of helping close down Costa Rican counter-attacks.
Just take a look at the next clip of an example of that.
There, after a sloppy Canadian turnover high up the pitch, Adekugbe does such a good job of tracking back and getting stuck in for a textbook tackle, one that nullified a good Costa Rican break.
And that’s just a prime example of the sorts of things that Adekugbe found a way to do so well on Friday night, allowing him to be such a force defensively.
But while a lot of his best work came in terms of his positioning, as well as his tackles, there was also one area in which he excelled in, and that was in his aerial duels.
Despite not being the biggest guy, Adekugbe just seemed to soak up aerial duels on Friday, winning 5 of his 6 aerial battles on the night, and that was huge for Canada, as he won some massive 50/50s for them at some crucial moments.
Here’s an example of that.
There, despite a good kick from the Costa Rican defender, he did so well to anticipate the landing, creating a bit of separation between him and the attacker, before managing to jump up for it, easily winning the duel for his team, earning them back possession.
But again, that was just the sort of thing that he was doing such a good job of executing on Friday, as he kept finding a way to get stuck into all sorts of duels, doing a solid job of winning them.
So overall, it made for a good defensive performance from him.
In typical Canadian fashion, he just rolled up his sleeves, let his bare arms get exposed to the wind, and just got stuck in as hard as he could, putting up an honest performance.
And heck, he was so Canadian that he was even playing the role of peacemaker in certain battles, just only adding to his overall successful night defensively.
Providing deep progression for days:
But while Adekugbe’s defensive work was so sturdy on Friday, it’s important to highlight the work that he did offensively in that game, as he often acted as a key outlet for his team, both from deeper positions, as well as in the final third, and that played a big role in their attack.
So to start, let’s take a look at some of the work that he did from deep, before delving into what he was able to do in the final third in a bit.
And make no mistake - when I say he put in work at progressing the ball from deep, I mean that he truly *put in work*.
With Canada playing a sort of 4-4-2, one that sometimes morphed into a 4-2-4 and a 2-4-4 at times, a lot of how they built up actually went through the full backs up the wings and into the middle, meaning that Adekugbe played a massive role in how Canada built out of the back in that game.
Just to know how much? Consider that of all of the players on the field, Adekugbe was second to just Stephen Eustaquio in touches with 98 (Eustaquio had 105), showing how involved he was in how Canada built up play.
A look at the clips from that game show as much.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Here, he received the ball in a bit of a weird position, as it first came off of a failed Costa Rican free-kick, but Adekugbe did well to win the ball back before progressing the ball down the wing to Tajon Buchanan, helping jumpstart a good Canadian attack.
Ultimately, it amounted to nothing, but it all started from such a simple yet effective pass into space from Adekugbe, who did well not to bomb the ball too far in front of Buchanan, but not get it stuck in his feet, either.
But that was just something that he did so well on Friday.
It might not be talked about as much as some of the other areas of his game, but Adekugbe is a sneaky-good passer of the ball, and that’s indicated in the fact that he completed 52 out of 66 of his passes on Friday (79%), many of them difficult ones.
And here’s an example of the sort of passes he was playing.
Sometimes, he kept it simple, doing a good job of entering open space in the middle on an underlap, before playing an easy ball out wide.
And sometimes, he went for the more progressive pass, helping Canada break through the resolute Costa Rican defensive line with some good inside passes.
But while those sorts of short passes were effective, they were far from his ‘pièce de résistance’, which was the low turf-grazing progressive missile, which he ripped out on multiple occasions.
And just look at how effective that pass can be.
First, there was this line-breaking dart right to Jonathan David, one that broke two and a half of Costa Rica’s defensive lines, nearly putting David clear through on goal.
And then there’s this simple, yet effective, line-breaking pass that carved through one of Costa Rica’s defensive lines right to Tajon Buchanan, helping create a decent Canadian attack.
And lastly, there was this progressive dribble that came as a result of Costa Rica’s attacker trying to close down that pass, opening up the middle for Adekugbe to run into and create a different option.
But that’s such an underrated part of Adekugbe’s game.
It might not be as noticeable as the big tackles, or the bursting runs, but those kinds of incisive passes can make such a difference for a team, as it makes it so much harder for opponents to press Canada.
That’s why they used Adekugbe as an outlet on Friday, though, and it made a lot of sense, because any time you’ve got someone playing line-breaking passes like that, it can only be a good thing, and some of those clips are a good example of why.
Heck, Adekugbe’s was doing such a good job of progressing the ball forward that he was even doing so with his head at times.
So be it with his feet, or even his head, he was very involved in his team’s buildup in this game, and that made a massive difference for his team, as these clips showed.
Getting involved offensively:
At the same time, though, while Adekugbe was doing a good job of getting stuck in, as well as at progressing the ball, where he truly seemed to come alive was in the final third, where he just seemed to always find the right pocket or channel when he pushed forward, doing such a good job of both finding and creating space for himself and his teammates.
As a full back, that can be hard, because you’re always running forward from a deeper position, meaning that you’re often going to have to cover a lot of ground to get into the right attacking positions, which isn’t always easy to do.
Despite that, though, Adekugbe didn’t really have a problem with that in this game, because while he made sure to track back and stay in position defensively, he was also quite committed to the cause offensively.
In attack, once he or his teammates progressed the ball forward, he took up a very advanced spot on the left wing, helping his left winger, usually one of Alphonso Davies, Liam Millar or Tajon Buchanan, to shift inside, where they’re more dangerous.
And to get an idea of what that’d look like, here’s a screenshot, with Adekugbe circled.
As you can see here, he’s really pushed high up the field for a left back, playing almost like a wing back, helping Canada create a numerical superiority down that left hand side.
Plus, with that, he was really able to help his team stretch the pitch out, allowing them to really open up the field at times.
That was at full display on clips such as this one, where Adekugbe managed to get right up the pitch, giving his team an outlet to play through, allowing Mark Anthony Kaye to find him with a nice long ball, nearly creating a great chance for their team.
But you could just tell that was Adekugbe’s role on Friday, and he executed it to a tee, making sure to push forward to help his team in attack at every opportunity.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Here, he did well to make himself an option for a nice Steven Vitoria switch, and then from there, he did the rest, taking the ball down calmly before playing a nice 1-2 with Liam Millar, opening up all sorts of space for himself to deliver a nice ball in.
Thanks to that, it helped create one of his team’s best chances of the first half, and it all came from Adekugbe’s willingness to help his team stretch out the field, giving them that extra option in the attack.
And that was just the start of what was to come from him in the game.
Taking a look at some of his sequences from the second half show as much.
Firstly, he did well to stretch out the pitch here, making a great overlapping run past Stephen Eustaquio, helping create the space that led to one of Canada’s best chances of the game, which was an audacious Tajon Buchanan bicycle kick that rang off of the crossbar.
It might not have been an overly complex play, but it was a great example of why the overlapping runs that he made were so important, because while they might not seem all that game-changing when they happen, they open up so much space in the middle.
And here’s another prime example of that.
In that clip, the play eventually died out, but thanks to Adekugbe’s run and subsequent spin, he opened up a lot of space for a dangerous ball, one that took an acrobatic clearance to keep out.
On another day, that sort of play finds a Canadian head and turns into a great chance or a goal, so while the result wasn’t the intended one, you can certainly applaud the idea.
Yet, those were the sorts of runs that Adekugbe was doing such a good job of making in this game.
Here’s another example of that from later in the game, and in this case, it nearly led to a spectacular goal.
In that case, thanks to yet another bursting overlapping run, he got into a great channel out wide, where he then had the space to whip in a dangerous ball, one that found its way into the sorts of areas that you want to get the ball into, nearly leading to a goal.
Usually, you’d expect someone like Alphonso Davies to bury that, so that Adekugbe got him the ball there, via a nice flick from Jonathan David, is huge, showing why it was so important that he got up the pitch at every opportunity.
But that’s just what he did all night, sometimes receiving the ball, sometimes not, but always doing so with the goal to open up space, giving his team the numbers that they needed in attack.
And thanks to that, Canada were able to fashion up some solid opportunities right into the late stages of the game, such as on this clip below, showing the importance of such runs.
But that was just what Adekugbe did so well in this game, and was why he was so involved offensively.
Even if he didn’t receive the ball on every sequence, the sort of space that he created was important, no matter if he was involved or not, helping his team massively in the attack.
That’s huge, as it makes such a big difference for a team’s offence to have players constantly in movement, opening up space for their teammates, and as he showed on Friday, Adekugbe can help do that.
So when you look at the work that he did offensively, combined with the ball progression and defensive ability that he brought to the table, you can see why Adekugbe was so noticeable on Friday night, earning himself a deserved MOTM nod.
Obviously, the big things that stood out were always going to be the big tackles and the fancy dribbles, but as seen here, it was the little things that truly made a big difference for him, such as his consistent defensive positioning, his relentless overlaps and his constant overlapping runs.
But it’s those sorts of details that are so important in this sport, especially for a player like Adekugbe, who plays in a position where attention to detail is paramount, especially given how much work that he has to do on both sides of the ball.
As seen on Friday, though, he has the capacity to fulfill those duties, and thanks to that, it certainly gave him a claim towards potentially earning more minutes going forward.
It’s going to be hard, as this Canadian team is quite deep, but as he showed in this game, when he’s feeling it, he can certainly be an asset for this side down the left flank, giving them another name to consider going forward.
And that’s a good thing, highlighting Canada’s growing depth, of which seems to grow by the game, with Adekugbe’s performance on Friday just being the latest example of what that’s looked like this year.
Destroy and Progress - A Canadian Soccer Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Sam Adekugbe in action for Canada vs Costa Rica in Edmonton on Friday night (Beau Chevalier) (IG: @shotby.beau Twitter: @beauchevalier_)