CONCACAF Qualifiers: What is the Best Formation for Canada’s Men’s National Team?

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Written by Sam the Man

It’s early days for the Canadian Men’s National Team, but there is a lot to be optimistic about. After a 5-1 win to open their 2022 World Cup Qualifying campaign, here are some thoughts on the way that John Herdman is lining up players and moving them around the field. In a world where just a few years ago, the biggest club representative of Canada was Unattached FC™, it is nice to see some healthy competition and tough decisions for the coach.

Formation: 4-3-3 … sometimes

Canada’s first big competitive games of the Herdman era were in the 2019 Nations League, with Herdman utilizing both the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. The shift in formation often depended on the wide variety of CONCACAF opposition, with the former Women’s team coach opting for a 4-4-2 against stronger opposition, and strutting more attacking presence in a 4-3-3 against weaker nations. One trademark of Herdman’s play going back to his time as the Women’s coach has been attack-minded fullbacks. This was put into great use when Alphonso Davies transformed into the world’s best a few years back (see: Bayern Munich). When Davies flew forward, a defensive midfielder like Samuel Piette dropped back. If Davies started in a naturally more advanced position on the left wing, Herdman would either opt for Kamal Miller or Sam Adekugbe at left back. Richie Laryea meanwhile has been a consistent presence up and down the right touchline, operating in many similar ways to Davies with his electric pace and power.

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However, this March window of fixtures has brought about a new formation for Les Rouges: the widely popular 4–2-3-1. The adoption of this model in the Canadian system could come down to two factors: one, that weaker opposition allows Canada to employ an attack-minded ‘number 10‘ who does not need to track back as methodically as if the number 10 was part of a midfield trio (which might be the case with Jonathan Osorio in the team). The second factor is that Canada currently has two top “second strikers” playing in Europe: Cyle Larin and Jonathan David. Neither are out-and-out number 9’s a la Lucas Cavallini, and both play (and even score) best when they are involved in the build-up. As a result, both players will often drop deep to pick up the ball in central areas lower on the field. This flexibility could be utilized to the same extent in a 4-4-2, but a 4-2-3-1 allows for a more naturally defined role for the attacking midfielder in the build-up.

This will likely be a massive attacking weapon for Canada as they navigate the qualifiers. One might wonder how Canada’s embarrassment of riches in midfield with the likes of Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Atiba Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Scott Arfield and Piette could then be squeezed into two spots. These options all provide different strengths: Hutchinson the most talented and experienced, Osorio the most attack-minded, Arfield the one with a goal-scoring presence, Eustaquio with excellent vision and the most potential, Piette a safe stay-at-home cover, and Kaye a physically robust ball-mover with pinpoint passing.

But the selection headaches don’t stop at the midfield. The 4-2-3-1 means that one of Larin, Cavallini or David is either played out of position or succumbs to the dreaded position of left bench. 4-4-2 has the same disadvantage, while a 4-3-3 might not get the best out of their strengths, particularly the fact that all three operate best in central areas. However, this is more of a positive than a negative for Canada, meaning they have several options to break the deadlock whenever they are feeling frightened in front of the net.

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Out wide, Alphonso Davies has established himself as an out-and-out left winger for Canada, and that looks to be his permanent spot. That may mean Sam Adekugbe plays more defensively, or that the more defense-minded Kamal Miller is pushed out to left back. Long term, it is Miller’s spot to lose. This provides an interesting shift from left to right for Canada’s current team. Since the left back “stays home”, Richie Laryea is often given more freedom to bomb up and down the right wing. A back-three structure is commonly used for teams nowadays when attacking, regardless of their formation. Through Laryea’s attack-minded approach, Canada can maintain that three at the back structure, while also allowing their right winger to drift inside to central channels and create overloads. With a defense-minded number 6 close and covering (Hutchinson or Piette, for example), the inside right channel is freed up for a winger like Junior Hoilett, Tajon Buchanan or Wolves’ Theo Corbeanu to become a makeshift number 8 / number 10. Depending on the opposition, players like Osorio and Kaye may take the mantle for the other holding midfield spot, to provide further energy and verve in both defense and attack. Of course, this returns to the previous dilemma of how to fit all of these talented midfielders into just two spots. Stephen Eustaquio’s recent performances have certainly warranted attention, and he may well knock out some of the more experienced players around him in the 4-2-3-1.

where are the weaknesses?

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This all begs the question: where are the weaknesses? Well don’t order yet, there’s more. Canada’s greatest weakness comes at centre-back, with the side yet to nail down a consistent partnership. Strong options exist but have been inconsistent when given the chance to shine for Herdman’s team. Miller was shaky in the 5-1 win over Bermuda, and may start at left-back rather than central defense. Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry have been the go-to options but remain error-prone despite their vast experience playing around the world. Steven Vitoria is one of the older heads in the squad, but will need a quicker partner to his left if he is to start on a consistent basis. Further potential options exist in the currently unattached Ricardo Ferreira, FC Den Bosch youngster Frank Sturing and CF Montreal’s Joel Waterman. If Canada could sort out their defense and raise the bar at centre-back in particular, it would help to push Herdman’s team “over the top” in their on-field quality. Unfortunately, it’s yet to be properly sorted out and remains the team’s greatest weakness.

A look ahead…. 3-5-2?  

Some have provided conjectures as to Canada’s best theoretical formation (both Sam and Rhys Desmond), and it’s hard to look past the 3-5-2 with attack-minded wing-backs available in Davies and Laryea. The weakness here might be the back three rather than back-four, with a weaker defensive pool still Canada’s biggest concern. However, it could allow Canada to accommodate Cavallini, David and Larin all in central areas up front, without limiting the team’s ability to field three midfield men (so long as David played as a number ten). If an exciting youngster like Toronto FC’s Liam Fraser were to make the jump this year, Herdman may be inspired to change system and have something nifty like the 3-5-2 in his back-pocket. John Herdman may want to settle into a consistent formation moving forward though, as he will need to establish greater chemistry and collaboration among his players if they are to challenge for a place among CONCACAF’s elite.

So there it is! Canada’s prospective formations and personnel for their upcoming qualification fixtures and how the team is shaping up under John Herdman in 2021. Thanks to Sam the Man for writing this great article for the site and be sure to catch more of Sam’s work on TheMastermindSite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> Looking ahead to the international break – Netherlands, Germany and Canada
-> CONCACAF Best XI in 2021 – TMS Podcast
-> 32 Greatest Canadian Men’s National Team Players of All Time – Podcast Episode


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