Breaking down Stephen Eustaquio's vital performance vs Mexico at the 'Iceteca' and why he's become such a key part of the CanMNT in 2021
Stephen Eustaquio had a performance to remember vs Mexico in the Iceteca last week. In this, I break down what he did so well in that game, and why he's become such a key part of the CanMNT in 2021.
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He just seems to get better by the game for Canada.
Yet, that’s been Stephen Eustaquio this year for the CanMNT.
Despite having entered this year with just 1 cap to his name for Canada, which came in a 28-minute cameo in a 4-1 loss vs the US back in November of 2019, Eustaquio has quickly become one of not only the most important players for Canada, but one of the better players in CONCACAF in 2021.
No matter the magnitude of the game, or the calibre of opponent, that just doesn’t seem to bother Eustaquio, who seems to thrive in those bigger games, where he just seems to find another level to his game.
Thanks to that, he’s played a big role in Canada’s surprise push towards the 2022 World Cup, as they look to return to that tournament for the first time since 1986.
Even through a long journey that has included navigating several rounds and all sorts of opponents, Eustaquio has remained a constant for his team, helping Canada currently sit atop the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, through 8 out of 14 games.
As a result of that, Canada sits closer than ever to returning to the World Cup, knowing that they have pole position for one of the 3 spots that CONCACAF gets to send to Qatar next year, giving them a leg up as they get set to navigate the last 6 games of the Octo.
And a big reason for that has been Eustaquio, the 24-year-old Portuguese dual-national midfielder, one who only pledged his future to Canada at the beginning of 2019, but has since grown into an integral part of this Canadian team.
Just look at Canada’s most recent game, a clash with CONCACAF giants, Mexico, in Edmonton last week, as an example of that. In a 2-1 win against Mexico, Canada’s first win over El Tri since 2000 (and first in World Cup qualifying since 1976), Eustaquio might have very well had one of his best games in a Canadian shirt on that night, helping control proceedings from midfield.
Despite the magnitude of the occasion, knowing that a loss could’ve thrown them right back into the middle of the fight in the Octo, Canada stepped up big, and Eustaquio played a big role in that.
Yet, that was just the sort of performance that we’ve gotten used to seeing from Eustaquio in 2021. Just take a look at any sort of big game that Canada has had this year, just to get an idea of how much so.
From their win over Suriname in Round 1 of qualifiers, to their pair of wins against Haiti in Round 2 of qualifiers, along with a big 2-0 victory over Costa Rica at the Gold Cup, as well as wins over El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and now Mexico in the Octo, Eustaquio played a role in all 8 of those games, starting all 8 of them, going the full 90 minutes 6 times (he went 78 and 81 minutes on the other 2 occasions).
So in a sense, it maybe shouldn’t have been all that surprising to see Eustaquio perform as he did against Mexico, because that’s just been what he’s done in 2021, quickly making himself one of Canada’s most important players.
But seeing all of that, a question can be asked - what does Eustaquio exactly bring to the table for Canada?
In this, I’ll dive into the film from that Mexico win in the ‘Iceteca’ to help answer that question, looking at why his play on both sides of the ball has won him praise from many onlookers this year.
Getting stuck in:
And to start, it only feels right to begin proceedings by looking at the area where Eustaquio really made a name for himself, which is on the defensive side of his game.
From his days back with Chaves in the Portuguese 1st division, to his trek to Cruz Azul in Mexico, and now in his journey back in Portugal with Pacos De Ferreira, Eustaquio has always had the reputation of a no-nonsense defensive stopper, and for good reason.
Often as a traditional #6 for both club and country, he just has the attributes of that sort of destroyer type midfielder that used to rule the day back in the 2000s, and that’s been massive for Canada.
On a team that had all sorts of question marks defensively heading into this year, it feels like no coincidence that Eustaquio’s integration into the team has changed things, as Canada has only conceded 11 goals in 19 games in 2021, keeping 9 clean sheets along the way, which is quite the impressive defensive record.
He might not be the main reason why that happened, as a lot of credit can be given to the improvement of Canada’s defenders this year, as well as the work of Canadian head coach, John Herdman, to help create a team-first defensive system, one that his players have bought into, but make no mistake, Eustaquio is as important to that system as anyone.
Just use this Mexico game as an example.
Despite facing off against a team that has served as a bogey team for so many in this region, Eustaquio wasn’t fazed by that, putting up a very solid defensive performance.
The stats back that up, too, as Eustaquio made a game-high 5 tackles, and won the 3rd-most duels of any player by coming out on top in 8 of his 11 duels, all while adding 1 interception, 1 clearance, and managing not to get dribbled past once along the way.
Thanks to that, Canada were able to limit Mexico to just 1 big chance, as well as only 1.57 Expected Goals (xG), which is pretty good, but especially so when you realize that most of Mexico’s xG and 12 shots (6 on target) came in a late flurry of chances after Canada had already gone up 2-0 (aka score effets).
And Eustaquio played a big role in that, as some clips from the game showed.
From his willingness to get stuck into tackles, to his ability to know where to sit in order to intercept the ball, along with his relentless pressure, he’s quite the consistent defensive presence in midfield.
Take this first clip as a prime example of that.
Here, this clip may as well be framed as “Stephen Eustaquio Defensive Theory 101”, as this is such a good example of what Eustaquio likes to do on defence.
First, he does well to stop Mexico’s Hirving Lozano from pushing forward by getting stuck into a duel, one that he pretty much wins, even though his team doesn’t recover the ball. Then, he keeps his feet moving, and then makes a quick interception, one that almost led to a glorious attacking chance, one that could’ve become something if the referee applied the advantage law.
So while not all of those clips that I’m about to dive into from that game are what we’d deem as poster material for “Stephen Eustaquio Defensive Theory 101” (working name still in progress), there’s a lot of them that establish some key principles.
And here’s some of them.
Principle 1: A challenge is not to be backed out of.
First, there’s the main principle, which is that for Eustaquio, no challenge is too dangerous to avoid him engaging in, leading to some strong duels.
Despite suffering a horrible knee injury back in 2019, one that actually came off of a very hard 50/50, Eustaquio just doesn’t shy out of those sorts of duels, and that’s a big part of his defensive play, as we saw versus Mexico.
Just the fact that he made 5 tackles and got stuck into 11 duels should have been enough of an indicator, but a look at some of the clips only applies that idea.
For example, there’s this very hefty duel, one that nearly wins back the ball for Canada, only if not for an unfortunate bounce off the surface.
It might not have led to anything, but if Eustaquio doesn’t make that tackle, that ball could’ve led to a dangerous counter-attack, so that he stepped in when he did is key.
And interestingly enough, that sort of approach paid off for him later in the game, when he got a toe in on this 50/50, unlocking Sam Adekugbe for a nice Canadian counter.
This also didn’t lead to anything, and wasn’t the meatiest tackled that Eustaquio will drop, but it was another prime example of principle #1, showing why it’s important for him to stick to it.
And there are just so many examples of this principle #1 on display throughout this Mexico game.
How about this nice 50/50, one that almost led to a nice Canadian chance?
Or how about this 50/50, one that led to Eustaquio nearly streaking away on a nice counter-attack?
It isn’t a ground-breaking philosophy, but it’s the exact sort of principles you want to see from your defensive midfielder, and Eustaquio understands that to a tee, showing so in these clips.
Principle 2: Sometimes, you need to work smarter, not harder.
But while his first instinct might be to get stuck in, that doesn’t mean that Eustaquio isn’t a fan of a good old-fashioned interception, either.
That’s indicated in principle #2, one that might not necessarily describe his game, but certainly is one that is quite important in how he plays.
Just take the 2 next clips as an example of that.
Here, he doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but he does such a good job of pushing Mexico backwards at a moment where they were really pushing forward for a goal, killing a few seconds off the clock.
Some midfielders might have had the temptation to get stuck in and engage in a duel, but Eustaquio will only do so if necessary, so even though principle #1 is to get stuck in, that’s only the case because he does such a good job of setting himself up to be in such positions.
In situations where he doesn’t need to, though, he has no problem with that, either, and that’s key.
And this next clip is an example of that.
Here, thanks to his defensive awareness, he was already a step ahead of Raul Jimenez, who had been dropping deep all game, allowing him to easily intercept a pass that could’ve turned into a 50/50 duel had Eustaquio been positioned a little deeper.
He wasn’t, though, thanks to his positional awareness, which not only plays a role in reads like that one, but his hard-tackling ways of principle #1, too.
Principle 3: It’s not always about the end result
Lastly, though, is principle #3, and that’s his willingness to just defend no matter the end result, not often finding himself giving up on a play.
Eustaquio doesn’t always succeed in his tackles (who does, to be fair?), but even if he doesn’t, he doesn’t give up on the play, and that’s key.
Just use this next clip as an example of that.
Here, he actually gets turned inside out by a nice turn by Hector Herrera, but he does so well to A) not overcommit on the original tackle and B) not open up his hips too wide, allowing him to quickly pivot and push Hererra backwards, where he’s met by a backtracking Tajon Buchanan.
It’s such a hard thing to pick up when first watching, but when you watch it back, it’s actually such a smart bit of defending to help close down a very good midfielder in Herrera, one that would’ve likely turned most other midfielders inside out when the ball fell to him.
Instead, though, Eustaquio just kind of pushed Herrera into a trap, one that he laid thanks to some good defensive awareness combined with some quick thinking.
And there are countless examples of that. Take this next clip as an example.
Here, he doesn’t actually win the ball back, but he does so well to get himself into a duel in the first place, before hounding Mexico into recycling possession, giving Canada time to reset their defensive formation.
But that’s just what he does so well, as he takes all 3 of those defensive principles into most scenarios, allowing him to hold things down in midfield, where it just seems he rarely gets beat, doing such a good job of winning the ball back for his teammates.
It isn’t anything super fancy, but it’s just so effective, and it makes a big difference for this Canadian team.
Staying involved offensively:
But while Eustauqio is mostly known for what he does defensively, which he does quite well, make no mistake - he’s actually quite the important attacking piece for Canada, too.
And that’s what makes him so key to this Canadian midfield.
Obviously, the defensive work is massive, no doubt, but Canada does have some pretty good defensive stoppers, such as someone like Samuel Piette, who is a very good #6.
What sets Eustaquio apart, though, is that he combines the work that he does defensively with some pretty good attacking instincts, both on and off the ball.
That was once again on full display in the Mexico game, one where he made a solid 33/42 passes (79%), which was the 2nd-most completed passes from the Canadian player, along with 4 key passes, 2nd-most in the game from any team, and a tidy 4/7 long balls.
Despite having what was an off-night in terms of passing, as he missed a lot of routine passes we don’t often see him missing, he was among the best passers on a field filled with all sorts of Champions League calibre players, yet that’s just what he’s done this year.
But, when seeing that, you can only wonder - what does Eustaquio do so well to make that happen?
And when diving into some of the clips from his play offensively, it comes down to 2 things - the work that he does on the ball, and the work that he does off of it.
Finding the pockets:
So first, let’s dive into the work that he does off of it, because while it isn’t flashy, it’s such a key part of his game.
To return to the idea of principles from earlier, there might not be a complex formula such as the one that we saw defensively, but when Eustaquio doesn’t have the ball, he has one clear idea in his head: “how can I make myself available to get it back?”
So to build off of that, the main principle for Eustaquio can be described as such - to regain the ball, one must enter a consistent state of movement. Plus, to add to that, there are also the sub-principles to that idea, too, which are one must keep thy head on a swivel, and an important one, which is one touch is preferred, if not recommended.
Here’s what that looks like.
First, there’s this textbook example of those principles, one in which Eustaquio does well to find a soft spot in the Mexican midfield, before playing a nice one-touch pass, one that unlocks a decent Canadian move.
He might not have been running all that hard or fast, or ended up playing the most complex pass, but he just does such a good job of moving enough to consistently find those sort of pockets, which is key.
Plus, due to his ability to scan and play a quick one-touch pass, that means that the pockets that he aims to operate in do not to be all that large, as he can play out of them so quickly.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Here, Atiba Hutchinson has the confidence to play Eustauqio the ball despite Eustaquio having a defender right on his back, knowing that while it wasn’t a big pocket, that his teammate would be comfortable enough to receive the ball and get rid of it, allowing Canada to open spaces in other areas of the field.
And that’s just another thing that Eustaquio does so well. There are so many instances of plays like that which might not seem like much, but they’re so crucial, as they move players around in midfield, which opens space up for Canada in other areas of the pitch.
This next clip is a prime example of that.
Here, Canada doesn’t actually fashion an attack off of this, but thanks to a nice run into space and subsequent quick one-touch pass from Eustaquio, he opens up all sorts of space for Adekugbe, who nearly finds Alphonso Davies with a nice pass.
Had Eustaquio not made that run, Canada would’ve likely been stuck playing a much more speculative pass out of the back, and had he not been able to play that one-touch pass, it would’ve likely put himself or a teammate in trouble.
Instead, though, with one quick burst and pass, he opened up all sorts of space elsewhere on the pitch, attracting a few white shirts within his midst.
So while not every one-touch pass will come off, such as in this clip below, that he looks to play that way is huge, and is key to helping Canada consistently find a way to build out of the back, no matter the opponent.
That final delivery:
At the same time, though, as mentioned before, while Eustaquio is good at playing the role of facilitator in midfield, when given a chance to get on the ball and play around with it, he can also make things happen as a creator in the final third, too.
There’s a reason why he had 4 key passes and an assist in this Mexico game, and has 3 goals and 2 assists overall for Canada this year, because while he might not be a line-breaking #10, he still does a good job of consistently creating chances for himself and teammates.
And here are some examples of that.
First, there’s his willingness to drive the ball forward, which might not seem like much, but can help put Canada in some good positions.
Take these next 4 clips as an example of that.
To start, you’ve got this sequence, one in which Eustaquio helps restart a Canadian attack after a failed corner, almost leading to a penalty.
Despite having to deal with a bouncing ball, and an onrushing defender, Eustaquio does well to play that ball on a sort of lobbed volley right to Davies, who quickly sets Richie Laryea free for a nice run.
Yet, that’s just something that Eustaquio does such a good job of consistently doing on offence.
Here’s another example of that.
Again, this isn’t anything too extraordinary, but it’s key, because in that sequence, despite having a bouncing ball to deal with, Eustaquio does such a good job of settling it down for Davies, who was able to whip in a dangerous ball.
Many other players would’ve either tried A) to take a touch, B) play it backwards, or C) overhit the pass, so that Eustaquio was able to not only play it on the first touch, but even take a bit of the bounce out of it is impressive, and gives an idea of how technically skilled he is.
He might not show it every time that he’s on the ball, but he just seems to consistently have those sorts of plays in his locker, and that’s huge.
Just use this next example to get an idea of how so.
Again, this clip might not have been anything extraordinary, at least not upon first viewing, but if you look back at it, Eustaquio managed to not only create a nice opportunity for Tajon Buchanan to shoot, but he does so by killing a bouncing ball and directing it into Buchanan’s path, all on his left foot.
To do all of that quickly, on one touch, all with a quick scan and reaction is massively skilled, but it just gives an idea of what Eustaquio can bring to the table offensively, and why there might honestly be more to unearth on that side of the game.
And that clip isn’t even the best example of that, either, because the next one only blows it out of the water, too.
Here, Eustaquio plays what might very well be his best pass of the game, somehow plucking a hard ball out of the air and then hitting it on the half volley, splitting 2 Mexican midfielders and putting it into Buchanan’s feet, on the run, setting up a counter-attack.
That’s a hard enough ball to play without pressure, with the ball settled at your feet, but to do that, all on the half volley, with pressure, is ridiculous, yet that’s the sort of technical skill that Eustaquio has in his locker, even if he doesn’t always use it.
And that’s what sets him apart as a #6.
Obviously, he’s a force defensively, but that he can do that, and combine it with these sorts of offensive instincts is quite impressive, really, and helps show why he’s become such a key part of this Canadian team.
There’s a reason why despite being a #6, he also splits corner-taking and wide set-piece duty with Alphonso Davies when he’s on the pitch (unless Junior Hoilett is in the lineup), because he has that sort of quality in his locker.
That was on full display in this Mexican game, too, one where he really left his mark offensively, both in live and dead-ball situations.
And speaking of dead-ball situations, here are some examples of that.
First, he almost manages to find Lucas Cavallini with a nice corner kick here, one that Cavallini seemingly gets up to meet, but the ball somehow went through his head, at least based on what it looked like on the broadcast.
And then, came the “pièce de résistance”, one that helped truly make this Canadian victory possible.
Off of a set-piece that he won, Eustaquio then stepped up to take it, and despite protests from some attacking teammates to pass it quickly, took his time, and then put in a ball that gave Canada a 2-0 lead, all but winning them the game.
First, here’s him doing a good job of winning the set-piece.
And then, here’s the heat.
In fact, it was such a heat-seeking missile from Eustaquio that he apparently had to go lay in the snow for a few seconds afterwards at the end of that last clip, and when watching that back, could you blame him?
So while his delivery has also had games where it leaves a lot to be desired, when he’s on his game, he can be so deadly, and that ball may as well be the perfect example of that.
But that’s Eustaquio for you.
Again, the defensive part of his game is what he’s known for, but as seen here, he’s so much more than that, and that’s what’s made him so key for Canada in 2021.
Obviously, having a defensive-stopper of his calibre has been huge, helping this Canadian team find the sort of defensive stability that they’ve craved for a while now, but that he can combine that with some pretty good offensive chops is massive, and helps explain how they’ve been able to improve their defence without any cost to their defence.
Yet, that’s just what Eustaquio brings to the table. He is close to the perfect epitome of the ‘Destroy and Progress’ midfielder that this newsletter is named for, and as seen throughout this year, was clearly the sort of player that Canada really needed in midfield heading into this year.
Now, though, they’ve got him, and that’s allowed them to push forward, putting them on the cusp of the World Cup.
Plus, based on how young he still is, and some of the clubs that he was linked to in the offseason, this appears to be just the start of what he can do in a Canadian shirt, which is quite exciting, and is why many are keeping a close eye on Eustaquio as he continues this meteoric rise for both club and country.
So based on that, look for Eustaquio to keep on playing a big role for Canada, much as he did in this Mexican game, allowing him to add to his impressive and rapidly growing resume for his country.
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Stephen Eustaquio celebrates Canada’s win vs Mexico at the ‘Iceteca’ last week (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)