Reviewing a mixed November window for the CanWNT/CanXNT
The CanWNT/CanXNT closed out their 2021 year last week with a pair of games vs Mexico. In this, I look back at what we learned from this camp.
It was a tough way to end the year.
Having accomplished so much in 2021, the CanWNT/CanXNT were looking to end off the year with one last victory this past weekend, as they jetted down to Mexico for a pair of friendlies against El Tri.
After a big year, one that saw Canada become Olympic gold medallists, they were looking to finish things off on a high note down in Mexico, jumpstarting their journey towards the 2023 World Cup in the process.
Instead, though, they were left reeling after a surprise loss and draw in those 2 matchups against Mexico, who entering this camp, hadn’t beaten Canada since 2004. Despite that, however, they showed no signs of inferiority against their northern CONCACAF foes, and that allowed them to not only pick up 2 good results, but be full value for them, too.
Ahead of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in the summer of 2022, it was a big boost for Mexico, who believe that they can make it to the 2023 World Cup as one of the 4 representatives from the region (and if not, via the playoff).
As for Canada, it wasn’t the end of the world, however, because while they’ll feel like they should’ve done more in those games, they still learned a lot about their team in them.
Missing over a half-dozen regulars, they got a chance to test out a few things, and while not all of them worked out, in a pair of friendlies like this, that’s all you can ask for, at least beyond the results themselves.
So although Canada will be left with a sour taste in their mouth after these games, the sky isn’t falling down for them quite yet, making it important that they channel this into their next games, which will come in February against 3 solid sides in England, Germany in Spain.
After starting 2021 with a brand-new head coach, and a squad that was seemingly going nowhere, the fact that they even went on to win a gold medal is a sign of what they can do when obstacles are thrown up against them, so although it might hurt to take a step back here, it’s not anything they haven’t been able to handle this year.
Because of that, when looking back at this camp, there’s still a lot to take away from it, something that you imagine Canada will look to do, as they now turn their attention to what lies ahead of them in 2022.
And speaking of such, here’s a look back at some of what stood out from this camp, as I dive into my usual camp review.
A tough 2 games:
And to begin, it’s worth just looking back at how these games went for Canada, because they were certainly both quite unique in their own way, especially in retrospect.
First, Canada took on Mexico bright and early on the Saturday over at the Mexican training centre, in a semi-closed door friendly that was only viewable by a single-camera stream.
There, in an environment that paled in comparison to some that Canada had played in this year, Mexico dominated, coming out with a game plan that just seemed to keep their opponents in first gear.
From their aggressive high press, to a solid mid to low block, Mexico stayed resolute, and that allowed them to pick up an early lead via the penalty spot, one that they added to in the second half, putting them up 2-0 by the 76th minute, and it was fully deserved, too.
But then, realizing that they hadn’t offered up much resistance to their foes, Canada woke up, mustering up a late push that resulted in them scoring in the 86th minute, putting some life back into the game.
Despite that, though, they just didn’t find a way through the resolute Mexican defence, failing to convert on any of their other late chances, giving their hosts a deserved victory.
There was a lot to like with the late push, and there was certainly some dubious officiating on Mexico’s opening goal and on a late Canadian penalty shout that went uncalled, but ultimately, Canada didn’t do enough to win, and that was reflected in the scoreline.
Even though they outshot Mexico 11 to 9, most of that came in the last 15 minutes when Mexico had already built their 2-goal lead, putting score effects into play.
So heading into the second game of this doubleheader, which was played in Estadio Azul in Mexico City in front of fans, they looked to come out with a bit more fire, making up for the first game.
And to be fair, they did just that, putting up a much more balanced performance, dominating proceedings in the first half.
Despite that, however, they just couldn’t find a breakthrough, missing some glorious opportunities, and while that didn’t end up costing them, it led to a quiet 0-0 draw.
There was a lot more to like with that second game, at least, as Canada hardly gave Mexico a sniff other than a late breakaway, and had the far better chances to win, but they just didn’t do enough to bury them, and that proved to be the story of the game.
So seeing all of that, it really was a tale of two games, and both of them are a bit worrying for Canada.
On one hand, you’ve got the first game, one where Canada just didn’t get into the game until too late, yet, despite that, had every chance to draw or even maybe win right at the end. On the other, you’ve got a game where Canada was in control for most of the match, but didn’t make the most of that, almost throwing away things right at the end.
Had they put everything all together, they could’ve won both games, no doubt, but at the same time, they were also dangerously close to losing both of them, giving an idea of where things went wrong for them.
Because of that, when looking back at these games, it just shows that how important it is that Canada needs to be dialled in from minute 1 right to 90, as they were at the Olympics, and to capitalize on their chances, or else things can change really quickly.
On the flipside, however, considering that they were missing those aforementioned regulars in the first place, these sorts of growing pains were expected, and at least they came with some positive moments, ones that Canada can build off of going forward, which should ultimately be the main takeaway from this camp.
In friendlies, lessons learned can mean just as much as a victory, if not more, so at the very least, while Canada won’t be happy with the results on the pitch, at least they learned some key things about their process for future matches.
Canada’s Jessie Fleming and Christine Sinclair fight for the ball against Mexico on Tuesday (Canada Soccer)
Some tactical experimentation:
And speaking of that process, a big part of that comes down to tactics, and when it came to tactics, Canada certainly learned a fair bit about themselves in this camp.
Here are some of those takeaways.
The 3-4-1-2 gets a shot:
It made sense in theory, no doubt. For a team that was strong at the back, loaded with good full back options, and had built a solid base in midfield, a 3 at the back was always going to be attractive to Canada.
So when Canada came out in the formation in the first game, it wasn’t that much of a surprise, as one could only wonder how long it’d take for them to start experimenting with it in the first place.
But then, it went horribly wrong.
The 2 goals against aside, as both came off set-pieces, the defence did alright, limiting Mexico to just 1 other shot on target, so that was positive.
Where things went south, however, was with their offence, where Canada just seemingly got nothing going, leading to a lot of toothless attacks, ones that ended with Mexico winning back the ball before they really got threatened.
It’s one thing to struggle to put the ball in the back of the net, as Canada has had to endure for most of the year, but at least in most other games, they were getting the ball to the final third, before seeing things break down there.
In the 3-4-1-2, however, they then struggled to even get to the final third in the first place, not really coming close to doing so on most attacks, and it wasn’t until they switch back to their more usual 4-3-1-2 before that really changed, helping explain their late push.
But seeing that, what went wrong?
And it’s a good question. Most would suggest the formation itself, and understandably so. The 3-4-1-2 is a complex formation, one that takes time to get used to, and Canada clearly hadn’t mastered the intricacies of it quite yet.
At the same time, though, they’d essentially been playing with a modified version of the 3-4-1-2 before with the 4-3-1-2, with the only difference being that they’d had an extra body in midfield with the latter versus the former, making it hard to believe that moving that one midfielder back had changed everything.
But that’s because it wasn’t due to the formation itself, but instead, the personnel within it, as that’s where Canada had their most struggles.
In a 3 at the back formation, the main thing that you need is strong wing backs, as they do the most work in that set-up, followed by a sturdy midfield, and a solid back 3.
And it’s in the wing backs where Canada got hit the hardest in that game.
Missing usual attacking full backs such as Ashley Lawrence, Jayde Riviere and Gabrielle Carle (and even though she isn’t technically a full back, we’ll count Janine Beckie here, especially when considering what she could do as a wing back), that already left Canada behind the 8-ball with this formation before they took the pitch.
Because of that, while the pair of Victoria Pickett and Marie Levasseur certainly did solid at wing back, they weren’t able to fill the role to the level that you need to make the most of it.
That’s no fault of their own, as Pickett is nominally a midfielder, not a full back, and while Levasseur is a full back, she didn’t really get the support that she needed on her side.
And that led to the second problem: the midfield.
In a 3-4-1-2, a lot of emphasis is put on the play of the double pivot in midfield, as well as the #10, which in this case, were filled by Julia Grosso, Desiree Scott and Christine Sinclair, respectively.
That’s where Canada also went wrong, because while all 3 players certainly had decent flashes individually, they just didn’t seem suited for either of their roles in this formation.
In midfield, the double pivot needs to cover a lot of ground, doing a lot of dirty work in progressing the ball, which just isn’t Scott’s game, which is to be more of a traditional #6 destroyer, and while Grosso is a bit more suited to that box-to-box role, with that lack of support beside her, she struggled to push the ball forward, as well.
As for the #10, they also have to drop and get involved in helping progress the ball forward, and while Sinclair did that, with the lack of ball progression from deeper, it left her isolated.
Because of all that, it made it hard for forwards Nichelle Prince and Jessie Fleming to really get into the game, as they only really received the ball in isolated pockets, left to chase the game as Canada’s build-up play didn’t really get them involved.
So ultimately, those factors combined to make Canada’s build-up play a lot more stagnant than they would’ve liked, which is why they struggled to generate chances until they went back to the 4-3-1-2, gaining that extra body in midfield.
At the same time, though, while the 4-3-1-2 (or some variation of it) makes the most sense for Canada right now, that shouldn’t completely kill the 3-4-1-2, either, but it’ll just come down to the personnel that Canada uses, instead.
Firstly, they’ll need Lawrence, Beckie, Carle and Riviere back to fill in at wing back, giving them a bit more of a presence there. Then, in midfield, they’ll probably want to run a double-pivot of Grosso and Quinn, who are probably Canada’s best progressive midfielders, but can also defend, too.
After, they should put Jessie Fleming at the #10, as she is so deadly in that role, and then roll with whomever they feel is best suited up top, be it more of a speedy front 2 of say, a Prince and a Deanne Rose, or more of a technical front 2 of a Jordyn Huitema and Christine Sinclair (or some combo of those 4 or any of the other many forwards that Canada has at their disposal).
With that, Canada would then at least be better suited to fulfill the philosophies to the 3-4-1-2, giving them more fluidity and cohesion in the formation, at least compared to what they showed in this game.
Until they feel comfortable in trying that, though, they should just stick with a 4-3-1-2, but they should definitely keep the 3-4-1-2 in mind, provided that they do make those tweaks to make it much more effective than it looked here against Mexico in that first game.
Jessie Fleming’s role:
Otherwise, one key thing to keep an eye on going forward will be on Fleming’s role, because in this camp, she played 2 very different roles, to mixed results.
As mentioned above, she played as more of a forward in the first game, but then returned to more of her natural position as an advanced #8 in the second game, which made sense given that Canada returned to more of their natural formation.
And seeing that she’s been one of Canada’s best players all year long, it was almost no surprise to look more like her normal self in the second game, returning to her usual standards.
So seeing that, it makes you wonder - why did she even get a shot up front in that first game in that case?
But to be fair, it actually makes sense, because if you’ve been tracking Fleming’s progress at the club level as of late, one might know that she’s been playing as a sort of inverted forward/winger of sorts for them, to great results.
And seeing that, you can’t help but wonder what she could do in that sort of role for Canada going forward, as you can only imagine that a similar role could unlock some of Canada’s offence going forward.
When you realize that, it all of a sudden makes a lot of sense as to why Canada tried it out, even though it didn’t work out.
At the same time, however, there could be some merit to leaving the door open to the idea in the future, even despite the mixed results.
One key difference between this Canadian team and Fleming’s Chelsea side is that Chelsea loves to hold onto the ball more, and has a solid midfield that can get the ball up to their forwards, whereas for Canada, with Fleming in a higher role, they immediately get a little worse in those 2 areas.
So for Canada, that’s why she plays as more of an advanced #8, with her role being to get the ball to the forwards to progress it forward, instead of playing that final ball as she might with Chelsea.
On a Canadian team that wants to score more goals, you can’t help but wonder if she could do more of that for country, but until they find another midfielder or 2 that can fill her role, it’ll leave her to play a bit deeper.
Because of all that, it leaves the Fleming in an attacking role experiment on ice, but at the same time, it could be one worth revisiting in the future, making it one to keep in the vault for now.
Fleming fights for a loose ball against Mexico on Tuesday (Canada Soccer)
Where were the goals?
Lastly, it’s important to point out Canada’s offensive struggles in this camp, because while it might feel like a bit of a broken record, the fact that they went from scoring 6 goals in 2 games in the October window to bagging just 1 in 2 games in November is a bit of a concern.
Again, without many of their regulars, it’s not the end of the world, but at the same time, Canada is looking to build a flexible attacking system that works with no matter who has to slot in, instead of falling apart when certain individuals are missing.
The good news, however, is that across 2 games, Canada actually generated 21 shots, 12 of them on target, which compared to the October camp, where they had 34 shots (but just 14 of them on target), isn’t that far off from what we saw them do last month.
What that suggests is that while Canada had some struggles at controlling play at times this camp, which is suggested in their overall shot volume, they still generated a decent amount of chances, of which they need to bury.
If they can keep doing that, you just feel like they’ll be able to find a bit more consistent offence, provided that they get those finishes.
And the good news out of all that? They’ve got some decent finishers who could stand to help that problem.
Obviously, they’ve got someone like Sinclair, the all-time top international goalscorer, leading the way, but with attackers such as Huitema, Evelyne Viens and Cloe Lacasse all due bigger roles, without mentioning the likes of Rose, Prince and Adriana Leon, they should be alright, provided that they strike a formula that works.
So while it might take something bold, such as starting a front 2 of Huitema and Viens in a game, for example, there are pieces to be tried out, which should hopefully give Canada enough punch to bury more goals going forward.
Players of the Camp:
Lastly, though, that leads us to the final section of this camp review, and that’s our players of the camp, which is always the hardest section to write, and that was no exception in this window.
Despite that, I still had to pick 3 names, so without further ado, here they are.
Player of the Camp: Jordyn Huitema
And to start, we’ve got our player of the camp, which without a doubt has to be Huitema, who despite not starting in either game, had the camp’s lone goal for Canada.
But while the goal certainly stole the headlines, it was her overall play that got her this distinction, as she just had a good all-around impact when she was on the field.
From her hold-up and link-up play, which looked much improved, to some of the work that she did off the ball, she had 2 of her best showings of the year here for Canada.
And that’s key, because as mentioned above, with Canada’s ongoing hunt for goals, you have to imagine that Huitema could be part of any solution there, in some form or another.
In a camp where all of those regulars were out, one thing that you wanted was to see some players who might find themselves on the outside looking in step up, and Huitema certainly was one of those who managed to find a way to do that here.
Hopefully now, she can continue this now, both for club and country, because if she does, with how young she still is (just 20 years of age), it feels like she has a breakout just waiting to happen, which for Canada, they’ll hope comes as soon as in 2022.
Honourable Mentions: Vanessa Gilles, Cloe Lacasse, Quinn
Breakout Player of the Camp: Cloe Lacasse
Otherwise, though, shifting to the breakout player of the camp, we’ve then got a new face, and that’s Lacasse, who made her Canada debut this past weekend.
And while that’s an awesome story on its own, as it’s not often that you see a 28-year-old make a long-awaited debut like this, what’s most impressive about all of that is how she looked in that debut, as she looked like someone who could really help this team going forward.
She might’ve had a small role coming off the bench in both games, but she was lethal, using her combination of speed, attacking instincts and technique to cause all sorts of problems for defenders.
Because of that, she was able to help some of Canada’s best chances this camp, and while there are a few shots she’d certainly like to have back, you can’t help but be encouraged by what she showed here.
So seeing that, expect some more call-ups for her down the road. In great form for Benfica, a chance like this was long overdue, and seeing how good she looked in her short time on the field, you can’t help but wonder what she can do with a bigger opportunity now.
Honourable Mention: Jordyn Huitema
Unsung Hero: Vanessa Gilles
Lastly, we’ve got our unsung hero, and that nod has to go to Gilles, who despite some tough moments, overall had a really solid camp.
Even though she conceded the penalty in the first game (which to be fair to her, was a bit of a dubious call), she was overall solid in the rest of the games, helping Canada concede no goals from open play, keeping a clean sheet in the second game.
Yet, that’s just what Gilles has done all year long for Canada. There’s a reason why she was able to win a starting spot over usual starter Shelina Zadorsky at the Olympics, becoming Kadeisha Buchanan’s regular partner in the process, and that’s because she is just so solid every time that she’s on the pitch.
She might not be able to pass the ball like Buchanan or Zadorsky, but she can sure defend like no one else, which along with the threat that she provides off of offensive set pieces, has made her an indispensable part of this Canadian lineup.
That much has become clear as the year has gone along, and that much was clear in this camp, showing why Gilles has quickly become a fan favourite among Canadian fans, who certainly recognize her importance to this team, even if it isn’t talked about as much as it should.
So overall, there was still a lot to like with this camp, even if the results don’t show it.
It might not have been Canada’s best camp this year (and to be fair, they’ve got a lot of competition in that regard), but it wasn’t the worst, especially considering the circumstances.
They would’ve liked to end off 2021 on a higher note, but sometimes, it isn’t meant to be, and considering all that they’ve accomplished this year, they won’t complain.
Now, as they really start to focus on their World Cup journey, one that is very important to them, they’ll want to put this camp in the rearview mirror, taking what they can from it and moving forward as smoothly as possible.
Even though it might be seen as a blip in the road, it’s an important part of the journey, and it’s important that Canada recognizes that.
With much bigger games ahead, starting with that trio of friendlies against England, Germany and Spain in Feburary, the stiffer tests are going to start coming thick-and-thin for Canada, and they’re aware of that.
So as they prepare for those matches, sometimes a setback like this isn’t the worst thing in the world, provided that you learn from it, and that Canada will look to do as they really start to begin their World Cup journey in earnest in 2 months time.