The magic of the Iceteca, solving the double-pivot problem, Sam Adekugbe's breakout & more: Reviewing a November window to remember for the CanMNT
Despite early concerns, there's no doubt that the CanMNT smashed it out of the park in terms of how they managed a tough November WCQ window. I dive into how it all went down in my latest camp review
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It went about as well as anyone could’ve envisioned.
And considering that there was so much that could’ve gone wrong, that’s huge for the CanMNT.
Obviously, Canada entered the November international break with the idea that they could leave it with 6 out of a possible 6 points in their back pocket, but even they probably didn’t envision it going down as they did.
Having to face off against Costa Rica and Mexico in a pair of crucial CONCACAF final round World Cup qualifiers in Edmonton, Canada were no doubt hoping to get 6 points from both of those games, giving a big boost to their World Cup hopes, but at the very least, you had the feeling that they’d settle for 4.
A win against Costa Rica was a must, putting some distance between them and the 5th placed Ticos in the ‘Octagonal’, the nickname for CONCACAF’s final round, but it felt strange to suggest that Canada would need to go out and beat Mexico in the 2nd game, making it hard to set expectations for that one.
So to then see Canada go out and actually win both of those games is massive, giving them 6 crucial points on their journey to the World Cup, of which they sit in full control of through 8 out of 14 games of the Octo.
Now, with just 6 games remaining in the Octo, Canada sits atop the group standings with 16 points, giving them a headstart on one of the 3 automatic qualifying spots that CONCACAF is sending to Qatar, as well as the 4th-placed intercontinental playoff.
The sledding is about to get tough for them, as 4 of their last 6 games will be on the road, where some brutal travel awaits them, but having already played Mexico twice, as well as the US away, Canada has also gotten some of their tougher games out of the way, yet still remain as the only undefeated team in the Octo.
And when you see all of those things written out like that, it shows truly how strong of a start it’s been to the Octo so far for Canada. When they first kicked off this final round journey, you’d have been good with Canada fighting for 3rd or 4th spot, but now they feel like a genuine favourite, one that can keep this perch atop the group through the rest of the 6 games.
But now, they’ve got to be careful.
As mentioned above, they’ve got a tough schedule, and more importantly, they’ve got a target on their backs now, as everyone always wants to beat the 1st-placed team.
So while it certainly feels nice to see Canada closer than ever to returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1986, they’ve got to tread carefully now, as their job is far from over, with plenty of challenges still lying in wait.
Despite that, though, you also can’t help but point out how big of a November window this was for Canada, one that could very well end up being the difference between Canada going to Qatar, or staying home, making it one to remember.
And seeing all of that, here’s a look back at what stood out from this camp for Canada, and why it was so huge, as well as what they should take from it as they get set to tackle these last 6 games.
November window goes as planned:
And to start, it’s important just to note how important that it is that Canada navigated these games as they did, finding a way to avoid falling into any of the potential traps.
That was always the plan for Canadian head coach, John Herdman, of course, but with it being CONCACAF, you also didn’t want to rule out the possibility for any surprises, which always seem to be hiding right behind the corner in this region.
Yet, despite that, Canada managed to avoid any of them.
First, versus Costa Rica, they did well to shut down the Ticos defensively, keeping them to an impressive 0.31 Expected Goals (xG) against, while also finding a way to generate 1.1 xG at the other end, which was just enough to pave the way for a clutch Jonathan David winner for the 1-0 win.
On a night where so much could’ve gone wrong, from the temperatures, which were just below freezing, to the turf, which just seemed to hold up in weird areas, to Costa Rica’s game plan, which was to sit back and absorb pressure, you just wondered if Canada would find a way to slip up in the face of all of that.
And up until David’s 57th-minute winner, it seemed a real possibility. Considering that they rang the ball off the crossbar twice before that point, it just felt like it was going to be a night of ‘what-if’s?’ for Canada, making it a devastating result for their World Cup hopes.
Instead, though, as this Canadian team has done all year long, they found a way, and thanks to that, they picked up a massive victory, one that kept them comfortably in a spot in the top half of the Octo.
But then, heading into the Mexico game, you could only wonder if they’d have similar magic that time around, especially considering that El Tri were coming off of a tough 2-0 loss to their rivals, the US, their 3rd loss against them in 2021, which had them all kinds of fired up.
Because of that, as well as the fact that Canada last beat Mexico in 2000 (and in World Cup qualifiers in 1976), it just felt like a draw in that game would be seen as a good result, one that Canada could hang their hat on.
Even as the weather advantage that they craved from Edmonton started to set in, first with the snow, which caused all sorts of MD-1 headaches, to the temperature, which dropped rapidly ahead of that 2nd game, falling to as low as -10 degrees celsius by kick-off (with a windchill of around -20), that still felt unlikely, though.
Yet, as that game kicked off, it then quickly became a reality. Not only did Mexico not really seem up for the game, but Canada were far the more dominant team, as well, pushing out to a 2-0 lead by the 52nd minute thanks to a Cyle Larin brace.
That didn’t last all game, though, as Mexico woke up in the 89th minute, nearly winning the game on a 5-minute flurry, but by the end of the battle, Canada stood as the only team still standing with a 2-1 win, one that put a cap on a successful window.
Despite worries about the cold, the stadium and the turf, Canada showed up big time, and got the job done in both games, giving them 6 massive points.
Plus, off the field, Edmonton showed up for Canada, too, attracting over 90 000 fans across both games, showing that even in bad weather, the city can show up for their national team.
So because of that, it ultimately proved to be a perfect window for Canada.
They got the 6 points, they got some great crowds, and, as a bonus, they also avoided any big injuries or suspensions, too, overall just making it a good week of soccer in Edmonton.
It’s not what anyone would’ve expected going into this, especially after the rollercoasters that were the first 2 windows of the Octo, but it was a welcome surprise, one that Canada will look to build off of going into their next 6 games.
Canada’s head coach, John Herdman, celebrates their win over Mexico (Keveren Guillou) (IG: @kevereng)
Tactical profile continues to evolve:
And a big part of Canada’s success in these games came down to the work that they did tactically, as they had an overall solid gameplan across both matches, and that made a big difference for them.
What’s nice, too, is that they’re continuing to be a very flexible team, one that can change how they play on a game-to-game basis, and that’s allowed them to adjust their game plan for different opponents.
That was no exception in this camp, as they first came out gung-ho against Costa Rica to try and beat down their low-block, before offering up a bit more of a cautious approach against Mexico.
They weren’t perfect in their execution (who ever is, to be fair?), but they certainly had the right ideas for the most part, other than their decision to be too top-heavy in the Costa Rica game (as they removed some key pieces in midfield), and their adjustments in the Mexico game (which pushed them too deep at the end of the game).
Other than that, though, they did a good job of recognizing the areas that they needed to be strong in to beat these 2 teams, and seeing the scores of both games, they clearly succeeded in that mission.
But to shift away from a more global tactical perspective, to more of an individual one, here are some specific tweaks that I noted from these games.
Full backs play a big role for Canada:
And a big one to start off with was the importance that Canada placed on their full backs in these 2 games, which was quite interesting to see.
A big part of that? The deployment of Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe together, something we haven’t seen all that often year.
From the role that they played in the first game, which was as full backs in more of a back 4, to the role that they played in the second game, which was as wing backs in more of a back 5, a lot of how Canada played went through the legs of Laryea and Adekugbe (and a bit of Alistair Johnston for a chunk of the first game when he replaced Laryea).
From Canada’s ability to build out of the back, which mostly went through Adekugbe and Laryea, to the job of providing width in attack, which also mostly came through Adekugbe and Laryea again, the pair were seemingly everywhere in both games.
And that was key for Canada.
Knowing that both Costa Rica and Mexico would want to clog up the midfield, which has quickly become an area of strength for Canada, they tried to instead go through the full backs, which made a big difference in terms of how they built up.
By doing that, they were able to either stretch out their opponents, opening up key pockets in central areas, or keep them compressed, opening up space out wide.
Because of that, it became a kind of ‘pick your poison’ scenario for both Costa Rica and Mexico, as they either had to choose between keeping things tight, leaving Canada space on the wings (where they’re quite deadly), or stretching things out, leaving Canada space in the middle (where they’re also quite deadly).
And that’s important.
Before, in other games in this round, Canada would be susceptible to teams wanting to just shut down the middle and turn the game into a bar-fight, such as in their opening game of the Octo against Honduras, where they drew 1-1, or in their away game against Jamaica, where they drew 0-0.
But now, thanks to this key adjustment, they’ve appeared to find something to counter that.
Seeing that, though, the question has to be asked - what changed for Canada from those games in this camp?
And the main answer has to be the insertion of Sam Adekugbe into the squad.
As we saw earlier in this cycle, Laryea has had a big role in how Canada progresses the ball for a while now, but that also meant that a lot of how Canada played out of the back went through him, given that his other full back/wing back partner would either be Alistair Johnston, who was tasked with progressing the ball via his feet from deeper positions, or 1 of Tajon Buchanan and Alphonso Davies, who prefer to stretch higher up the field.
In Adekugbe, though, Canada has found a player that has the passing ability of Johnston, but the desire to push up and drive forward of Buchanan and Davies, making him a much more similar match to Laryea than any of them.
And as we explored after the Costa Rica game, those skills that Adekugbe has are a huge difference-maker for Canada, as it gives them something to match Laryea’s threat on the right side.
Because of that, Adekugbe ended up playing a massive role in these 2 games.
First, against Costa Rica, he made 52 out of 66 passes (79%), 4th-highest on Canada, doing so on 98 touches (2nd-most) and 2/3 dribbles (2nd-most), before doing much of the same against Mexico, making 37/50 passes (74%), most on Canada, doing so on 75 touches (most on Canada), and 1/2 dribbles (3rd-most).
And when you combine that with what Laryea brought on the other side, that gave Canada a nice dual-threat, one that allowed them to play out of the back from both sides, something they haven’t always had the luxury of, since they’re usually staggered towards one side of the pitch.
Seeing how effective they were doing that, it was key, and it’ll probably be a tweak that Canada will want to explore more going forward, especially in big games, and for good reason.
So while doing so might mean leaving out one of Canada’s many talented attackers, it’ll be worth it, because it’s not worth having 4 dangerous forwards on the pitch at a time if they can’t get the ball, making the likes of Adekugbe and Laryea so key.
3-4-3 helps Canada find midfield balance:
And to add to that last point, which is the idea of progressing the ball up the pitch, don’t discount the role that Canada’s midfielders play in that, either.
I’ve mentioned it a lot this Octo, so it’s not anything new, but with each game, it remains as true as ever, showing why Herdman needs to keep focusing in on it.
That Costa Rica game was a perfect example of that, too, because while Canada ultimately controlled most of that match, keeping 62% of possession, out-shooting the Ticos 14-7, they could’ve done so much more with that had they controlled the midfield a bit more.
As highlighted earlier, that also came from how congested the midfield was, to be fair, but at the same time, Canada did no favours by playing a 4-4-2 that looked more like a 4-2-4 in attack at times.
Because of that, it got the Canadian midfield very stretched out, and while the full backs did their best to aid that, there was only so much that they can do.
Interestingly, though, Canada then adjusted by dropping a forward for a defender in the front 4 for a defender in the Mexico game, making it more of a 3-4-3, and that made a massive difference, showing why it’s so important to control the midfield in some form or other.
Usually, the best way for Canada to do that has been via a midfield trio, creating the sort of triangles that can just be so lethal in the right circumstances, but what that Mexico game showed is that just by offering the right amount of support in certain areas, a double-pivot can indeed work for Canada.
And that’s an interesting development to note.
When you see how Canada struggled in a double-pivot in that aforementioned Honduras opener, or in the Costa Rica game in this window, it just felt like there was no situation in which a double-pivot would ever make sense for them, especially given how much better Canada looked in games where they had 3 in the middle.
But here, seeing that they were able to go toe-to-toe against a Mexican midfield consisting of Edson Alvarez, Hector Herrera and Orbellin Pineda (along with quasi-false #9, Raul Jimenez), with a double pivot of Stephen Eustaquio and Atiba Hutchinson, that changes things.
The big change from the previous games, though, was that they struck a much better balance between defence and offence in that game, which made a big difference.
In the Honduras and Costa Rica games, Canada ended up going quite aggressively on offence, playing that sort of 4-2-4, but in this Mexico game, they really stuck to a 3-4-3, giving them way more support in the midfield.
That was indicated in the fact that Canada’s top 5 passers in this game were Adekugbe (LWB), Eustaquio (CM), Hutchinson (CM), Miller (LCB) and Johnston (RCB), showing the sort of triangles they could create in this formation.
And with that, it could present a potential new roadmap to how Canada could play going forward.
Given how much talent that they’ve got in the attack, they’ll want to deploy as many of those attackers on the pitch as once. And you can hardly blame them for wanting to do that.
But, the problem with that is that it leaves you destabilized elsewhere on the pitch, and then there’s no point in having all those attackers on if you can’t get them the ball.
In this 3-4-3, though, thanks to the 3 centre backs, be it Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria, Doneil Henry, Derek Cornelius or Scott Kennedy (who can all pass), as well as the 2 wing backs, Sam Adekugbe and Richie Laryea, that gives Canada the ability to A) support their double-pivot, which in-turn B) offers more support to the attack.
And with that, it also allows you to then get 3 forwards on the pitch, which gives you the chance to do things such as deploy any of the 3 of Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Liam Millar or even now Iké Ugbo in an attacking trio together, which is a plus (as you’d only be able to use 2 of them in a 3-5-2, unless you shift one of Davies or Buchanan to full back).
So overall, there’s a lot to like with this 3-4-3, as long as Adekugbe and Laryea are there to offer support to the midfield pivot, because as we saw against Mexico, it can make a big difference in terms of keeping Canada balanced.
Where should Davies play?
But then, that leads to the big question - where does that leave Alphonso Davies?
And it’s a good question. Obviously, if he’s healthy, he starts, but what is the best role for him with Canada?
Ultimately, though, as we learned this camp, there’s no easy answer, because it’s quite fluid.
Against Costa Rica, he struggled in an attacking role, as Costa Rica closed him down every time that he got the ball, making it hard for him to progress the ball forward. As a result, he finished that game with an unusual 5/13 dribbles, only completing 67% of his passes, which isn’t what we’re used to seeing from him.
Against Mexico, though, things got a bit better, as he finished with 1/3 dribbles, completing 70% of his passes, doing a better job of progressing the ball forward.
But what changed from those 2 games? It wasn’t Davies’s role, as he played as a sort of inside forward/winger in both of those games, and it wasn’t like it was the level of opponent, as he actually played better against Mexico than he did versus Costa Rica.
What it was, though, was how the opponent set up.
In the Costa Rica game, they sat deep, choosing to swarm Davies every time that he got the ball. And considering that Davies was playing so high up the pitch, that worked to perfection for them, as they were able to stop him before he started any of the mazy runs that he’s known for, reducing his effectiveness.
You compare that to the Mexico game, where they pushed a bit higher, and weren’t so intent on swarming Davies, at least not like the Costa Ricans were, it gave him a bit more time to play, even if he still didn’t get his legs going as much as he would’ve liked to.
And what that shows is that how Davies is deployed should depend not on the opponent’s level, but how they prefer to set up.
Just look at the last window as an example of that. It’s no coincidence that Davies had one of his best games of qualifiers as a forward against Panama, a team that likes to play a pretty high line, at least compared to Costa Rica.
So what that shows is that if Canada is playing a team such as Mexico or a Panama, say, they should play Davies in more of a free role, putting Adekugbe in behind him at left back, but if they play a team that sits deeper, that Davies is actually best attacking those blocks from a deeper position, which is where you’d likely take out Adekugbe.
It’s what Davies for Bayern, and he does it so well for Canada (think of that game against Suriname earlier this year as an example), so there’s no reason why against the right opponent, you can keep Davies at left back, and then unleash him as a forward against a team that will try and play a high line and be aggressive, especially since you now have Adekugbe to use to support him in those instances.
As seen above, Canada now has a formula that works to deploy both a 2-man midfield and take on bigger games, one that has Adekugbe and Laryea playing at wing back, while freeing up Davies, but that doesn’t mean they should forget the idea of playing Davies at wing back, either, because it still has its place.
Otherwise, though, here are some players that really made a name for themselves in this camp.
Player of the camp: Cyle Larin
Canada celebrates their winning goal vs Mexico in front of their home fans (Keveren Guillou) (IG: @kevereng)
And to start, we’ve got the player of the camp, and this one is probably the hardest one to pick, because there are so many good options.
But given that the ‘big game’ of this camp was the Mexico game, it only makes sense to give the player of the camp award to the player that made a win in that clash possible, and that’s Cyle Larin.
You can also give a massive shout to Milan Borjan for that too, to be fair, but Larin’s 2 goals were key, as they gave Canada the belief that they could make the win happen.
Yet, that’s just been what Larin has done all year long for this Canadian team.
Right from game #1 in 2021, which was his clutch hat trick in a 5-1 win over Bermuda to kick off World Cup qualifiers, to this Mexico game, he’s just come up with big goals all year long for Canada.
There’s a reason why he has an impressive 14 goals in 13 games this year for Canada, and why he leads CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers with 11 goals (including a leading 4 in the Octo), and that’s because he just knows where to find the goals, and that was on full display this camp.
So for a player who was on the outside of the national team fold just 2 years ago, it’s been quite the rise for Larin, who is now tied as the top all-time CanMNT goalscorer with Dwayne De Rosario, a record you figure he probably breaks next camp.
What it shows, though, is how quickly things can change in this sport, and why it’s important not to give up on a player too early.
And thanks to that, Larin has now found the form of his life, and that allowed Canada to pick up a crucial win, one that could very well prove to be the difference when it comes to them making a World Cup, or staying home.
Honourable Mention: Sam Adekugbe, Milan Borjan
Breakout player: Sam Adekugbe
But while Larin stole the headlines, as he has all year long, one name that many will remember from this camp is Adekugbe’s, who certainly left an impression on those who watched him here.
From his iconic dive into the snow, to his fantastic play in both games, he ended up stealing the show in many ways this camp. In what was supposed to be the ‘Alphonso Davies homecoming’, Adekugbe reminded folks that he’s from Alberta, too, and proved it with how he embraced the cold.
And because of that, he also showed why he’s a name to keep an eye on in this Canadian set-up.
After a big move at the club level, one that saw him move to the Turkish Super Lig, where he sits 2nd in the league with Hatayspor, that’s translated over to Canada, where it seems like every game he plays is somehow better than his last.
All of a sudden now, it makes him hard to leave out of your best XI for big games, as we saw above, but that shows how good he’s been.
This is just the start of what’s to come from Adekugbe, because as he showed in this camp, when he’s on his game, he can be hard to stop, and Canada is quickly starting to realize that.
Honourable Mention: Iké Ugbo
Unsung hero: Stephen Eustaquio
Lastly, though, we’ve got our unsung hero, and while this was another tough one to pick, Eustaquio just edges it out here, as he once again put in a massive shift for Canada this window.
He might not always be the flashiest player, but he just continues to do so much work for Canada defensively, while also chipping in with plenty of quality offensively.
When he’s at his best, so is Canada, which is why it feels so fitting that across these 2 games, Eustaquio helped Canada only concede 1 goal and keep a clean sheet defensively, while also pitching in with an assist on 1 of their 3 goals offensively.
Arguably, he might be the most important cog in this Canadian team, at least in terms of how they overall aim to play, and he continues to show that each window that he plays.
So while he won’t steal headlines, don’t forget his impact, because, without it, it’s hard to imagine Canada being in the position that they’re currently in.
That was on full display this window, which was just another continuation of what Eutaquio has done in the Canadian shirt in 2021.
Honourable Mentions: Kamal Miller, Milan Borjan
The road to 21+:
Otherwise, that just leaves us with one last thing to look at - how is Canada tracking in terms of World Cup qualifying?
And the answer? Pretty good.
Being in 1st will do that, of course, but by averaging 2 points per game, Canada is well over the 1.5 points per game line that is seen as enough to at least make the playoff, and is even above the line of around 1.7 to 1.9 that is seen as enough to finish in one of the guaranteed qualification spots.
So heading into the last 6 games, it’s imperative that they maintain that. To stick at 2 points per game, that’ll require 12 points, which is certainly doable, but a tall ask.
Because of that, it’s probably more reasonable to ask them to get to 25 points (1.78 ppg), which should be comfortable enough to finish in the top 3, and to do that, they need 9 points in their last 6 games, which is a lot more realistic.
With 4 of their last 6 games on the road, it won’t be easy, of course, but if they win both of their home games, 3 away draws also gets them to that number, so it’s not that outlandish considering that they’ve won 4 of 5 home games so far, and drawn all 3 away games.
Overall, though, they’re more than on track to qualify as it stands, provided that they maintain this pace (or something close to it), which is good news, especially after a bit of a slow start.
One wrinkle to watch for, however? Panama.
Due to their form, they’ve ensured that there’s a clear disparity between the top 4 in the Octo, and the bottom 4, and while they’ve been the story of this final round so far, that’s given Canada (as well as the US and Mexico), a bit of a headache.
By now, those 3 would’ve ideally liked to have pulled away as the clear top 3, leaving the other 5 teams to fight for the playoff, but now, thanks to Panama, they have to be wary, knowing that even though it’s becoming less and less likely that any of them slip out of the top 4 completely, that it isn’t unrealistic to finish in the playoff now.
Because of that, it makes the next window so key for Canada. With 2 away games against the bottom 2 teams in Honduras and El Salvador, two wins would be massive for them, all but confirming a top 4 spot, especially if they can get something in their home game against the US in that window, too.
It’s no easy ask, of course, as Honduras and El Salvador are not easy to play on the road, no matter their current form, and the US is, you know, the US, but it shows that with another strong window, Canada could create a bit of separation heading into the last window.
Ultimately, though, it feels like this race will drag out into the last 2 matchdays, making for a fun March window, although Canada will want to head into those games on the front foot, making it imperative that they take care of business in January.
Now, they’re at the top, but that just puts a target on their back, so each matchday they can survive with that pressure gets them one step closer to the World Cup, and they’ll be aware of that.
Canada’s Steven Vitoria celebrates the win over Mexico with his teammates and fans (Keveren Guillou) (IG: @kevereng)
Elsewhere, to end things off, here are some key stats from the Octo so far through 8 games.
Overall Octo standings:
Home Octo standings:
Away Octo standings:
CWCQ Golden Boot standings:
Cyle Larin (Canada) - 4 goals
Jonathan David (Canada), Cecilio Waterman (Panama), Rolando Blackburn (Panama), Ricardo Pepi (United States) - 3 goals
Tajon Buchanan (Canada), Brayan Moya (Honduras), Shamar Nicholson (Jamaica), Michail Antonio (Jamaica), Jairo Henriquez (El Salvador), Brendan Aaronson (United States) - 2 goals
Cyle Larin (Canada) - 11 goals
Tony Rugamas (El Salvador) - 8 goals
Jonathan David (Canada) - 7 goals
Candian Suspension Watch (every 2 yellow cards):
Steven Vitoria, Richie Laryea (3 yellow cards)
Doneil Henry, Samuel Piette, Sam Adekugbe, Mark Anthony Kaye, Stephen Eustaquio (1 yellow card)
Canada’s Expected Goals stats:
xG for: 12.52
xG against: 7.99
xG difference: +4.53
But overall, though, it has to be said - this was a massive window for Canada, as these 2 results were everything that they needed, and then some, as they get set to tackle the last 6 games of the Octo.
At the same time, though, they’ll be aware of the fact that things are about to ramp up here, in a big way, as teams start to realize that it’s do-or-die time in terms of their World Cup hopes.
So while it’s nice to see Canada atop the Octo now, through 8 games, hopefully we can see them maintain that position, and possibly even build on it, allowing them to power to that long-awaited World Cup bid.
It won’t be easy, but with both of their Mexico games out of the way (and 4 points to show for it), you can’t help but wonder - why not?
There are some tough away venues still to navigate, and the 2 home games that await them aren’t exactly easy sledding, but based on what we’ve seen from this team so far, there’s no reason why they can’t believe that they can get something out of all of those matches.
Because of that, it’s going to be fun to keep an eye on them in the January window, one that will prove to be so intriguing in so many ways, including the hectic schedule and the team selection headaches, adding to the drama.
Based on what we saw from them this window, though, they have what it takes to handle all of that, they just need to buckle up and dive into it, something that they haven’t shied away from doing so far this year.
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