John Herdman – Canada – Tactical Analysis

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After years of barely even being on the football map, Canada are suddenly thriving and well under the new leadership of John Herdman. The Canadian Men’s National Team have won 71% of their matches since Herdman took over, following up from his personal successes with the Women’s team, where he helped the nation claim two Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016. His first mission as men’s national team coach was to help the Canadians earn their first qualification to a World Cup since 1986, and they have now gone 13 matches unbeaten in qualifying, with 9 wins and 4 draws. With just a few games to go in the round robin, Canada look destined to qualify for their first major international tournament in thirty-five years. Here is an analysis of John Herdman’s work with the Canadian Men’s National Team.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-3

An excellent man-manager with a heaping heart of passion for the game, Herdman has proven to be a capable tactician, changing shape and formation on a match by match basis without the team ever dropping in form. When all of his very best players are fit, John Herdman may prefer a 3-4-3 formation, which allows Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David to join forces as a front-three. The system also allows Herdman flexibility in having the dynamism of Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea further forward, rather than restricting Laryea to a more defensive back-four role. That said, Herdman has also utilized a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 with his team, allowing David and Larin to play together as a pair and operate in central areas together. Either way, Canada have flourished in World Cup Qualification, seamlessly changing shapes without any worry.

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At the back of their 3-4-3, Milan Borjan has been an integral part of the team, acting as the captain when Atiba Hutchinson’s not in the side. Alistair Johnston’s made a remarkable start to his Canadian career after breaking into the Nashville first team in 2020, and he’s been partnered by the experienced Steven Vitoria and Kamal Miller most often. Doneil Henry’s also had an important role to play in stepping in when required, giving Canada an additional option for their back-three system. Sam Adekugbe and Richie Laryea have been two more defensive mainstays in either formation, with Adekugbe particularly likely to play on the left side of a back-four. That’s down to the fantastic wide play of 22-year-old Tajon Buchanan, who’s pushed Laryea over to Canada’s left in the 3-4-3, where he can link up in close quarters with Alphonso Davies.

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Davies, David and Larin are the undeniable front three, and often interchange as they please. Junior Hoilett and Liam Millar offer Canada capable options from the bench, and Jonathan Osorio’s also played an important role in qualifying in a variety of positions, particularly during a brief injury spell to Alphonso Davies.

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While the Bayern Munich left-back has been Canada’s best player by a country mile, the success of Herdman’s team also comes down to his formidable midfield – led by the energetic, box-to-box Stephen Eustaquio. The Pacos de Ferreira midfielder has been an integral part of Canada’s attack and defense, and continues his excellence whether he’s partnered with Canadian legend Atiba Hutchinson or Colorado Rapids’ Mark Anthony Kaye. Being only 24 years old, Eustaquio is putting on quite the audition to be the next Canadian player to move onto one of Europe’s elite clubs. For now, he continues as the heartbeat of Canada’s 3-4-3/4-4-2 fluctuation.

BUILD-UP

Canada build out from the back in a 3+1 shape. In a 3-4-3 formation, one midfielder pushes higher (Kaye or Hutchinson) as Eustaquio links up in front of the back-three. In a back-four, the fullbacks will remain as high and wide as they would in the 3-4-3, but Eustaqio or Kaye will drop into the back-line as part of the three-man build-up, as the other completes the diamond. Canada play out from the back through short, progressive passes, often looking to utilize the wide areas early on in moves. Eustaquio frequently searches for vertical progressions past the half-way-line, which then find their way wide. Other times he can also float one up beautifully on a switch of play to the other side, where the wing-backs/fullbacks retain their width. When the outside centre-backs find room to progress, they will often go into the inverted wingers to then move the ball wide, or they will find the wing-backs right away. Playing Alistair Johnston in a back-three has given Canada an additional ball-playing centre-half to progress passes forward, providing an alternative to the heavy-footed robustness of Canada’s other centre-backs. Then further forward, the fluidity in the movement of Canada’s front-three allows additional options in the build-up. Davies, David, Larin, and Buchanan will all look to float into central areas in different moments, creating overloads and complicating matters for the opposition in their attempts to cover. So while their build-up relies on Eustaquio’s energetic shuffling and range, the variety of patterns and combinations once progressing into the opposition’s half will usually limit the opposition’s ability to adequately stop the Canadians in playing out from the back and progressing into the final third.

ATTACKING COMBINATIONS

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In Larin, David and Davies, Canada have the most dangerous attack in all of CONCACAF. It’s no surprise then that Herdman’s team don’t waste any time in progressing the ball forward and looking to engage their front-three. Alphonso Davies makes himself a magnet to the ball in the attacking third, taking players on in any area of the field before creating chances for his teammates. That most frequently occurs down the left, as the team switch play and isolate an inferior fullback, but the Bayern star will often be found on the ball down the right, or in the middle of the pitch, utilizing his trickery and skill to keep Canada flowing in possession. Tajon Buchanan is very similar in that sense. He will often be a driving force the Canadians in speeding forward with the ball, but can also hold his width and look to create from wide with deliveries into the box. His width down that side and the right-sided position of Eustaquio allows Canada to have a balanced attack, where they can still feed balls into Jonathan David and bring the Ligue 1 title winner into the game.

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While they may occasionally drop deep, David and Larin are more likely to peg the opposition’s defense back and create space for others to roam deeper. This means that they often require others to bring them into the game, and that their chances may be limited to penalty area strikes and “poacher’s goals”. Both strikers have a knack for scoring goals and win the vast majority of aerial duels that come their way, but neither are particularly capable in possession, whether it be creating or dribbling in tight spaces. So their role from an attacking perspective really is to wreak havoc on the opposition’s defense and make their presence known, while occupying space vacated by the opposition’s attempts to double team Alphonso Davies or Tajon Buchanan.

In attack, Canada also have a variety of combinations that allow them to generate chances. They always prioritize the wide areas, but exactly who takes up the widest position of all will fluctuate. Adekugbe is more likely to overlap down the left beyond Alphonso Davies, but Laryea can overlap or underlap Buchanan in different moments and help to create that extra number down the right for the opposition to contend with. Eustaquio also likes to occasionally underlap down the right and get on the end of through ball passes into space, where he too can deliver into the box (see above). When you add the inclination of Davies, David, Larin and Buchanan to operate in central areas, Canada easily create wide overloads on both sides of the pitch, without limiting their width. This helps to create a sort of 3-4-1-2 shape, where Alphonso Davies or Jonathan Osorio can provide further support to the front two.

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With so much attacking threat, Canada have scored 11 goals in the last 7 matches at this final stage of qualifying. It’s not an incredible Bayern Munich level of goals, but it is the joint-most in the final stage of the competition. Alphonso Davies has led the charge each and every game through his incredible 1v1 dribbling, and ability to generate chances both for himself and his teammates all on his own. Jonathan David has been the unsurprising top scorer of the bunch, leading the way just as he does for LOSC Lille in Ligue 1. The 21-year-old striker currently sits atop the Ligue 1 charts with his 8 goals in 13 matches, and has carried that form over to his national team. But it certainly isn’t just the David and Davies show for Canada, and the entire team have played a part. With so many threats, Herdman’s team have been successful in winning fouls, and then create chances from Eustaquio’s set-pieces. They also have an unstoppable degree of electricity on the break, using their raw speed and elasticity to break away from the opposition and create from counter-attacks.

Under previous managers, Canada were always a team that lacked an identity in attack. Since John Herdman’s taken over, the Red and Whites have been formidable in both defending and attacking, getting their best players involved whenever possible, whilst prioritizing specific patterns of attacking play.

PRESSING & DEFENDING

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John Herdman’s team don’t just have the best attack in World Cup Qualification, they also have the best defense. Canada have conceded just 4 goals in this final stage of the competition, and had an insane goal differential of +26 in the previous round, through conceding just a single goal. They’ve accomplished such formidable defensive solidity through a mix of quickness in transition, pressing from the front, and sound defensive structures that place several men around the ball at all times.

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Given that Canada often throw so many numbers forward in attack, who often interchange as they please, it’s important that they have a solid midfield base to quickly break up counter attacks. This is where Stephen Eustaquio has again shown his incredible promise, always acting as the first line of pressure to break up the play and restart attacks. Hutchinson no longer has the legs to do the same, and is often pushed forward as an additional attacking creator as a result. Mark Anthony Kaye meanwhile is more likely to stay reserved and help Eustaquio cover the ground in behind. With two solid midfielders providing cover in behind, Canada can then counter-press with greater ferocity, where the likes of Buchanan, Adekudge, Laryea, Davies and David surround the player in possession and stop them from progressing. This quickness in transition transfers over to the team’s pressing structures, where David and Larin lead the press in a 4-4-2, or combine with Davies to do the same in a 3-4-3 defensive block.

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While Canada press fantastically well in the wide areas, their forwards will often angle their bodies to force the opposition inside, which goes against the grain of what most teams playing out from the back want to do. If the opposition finds their way into the wide area, Herdman’s men will press vigorously through triangular combinations of wing-back, central midfielder, and centre-back. The inverted winger/near-sided striker or even the other central midfielder can then add an additional body to make up the diamond. This makes it very difficult to break Canada down in the wide areas, especially with the likes of Laryea and Buchanan often being overzealous in their tackling, and breaking up attacks with some accidental aggressiveness. At the very back of the pitch, Johnston, Vitoria and Miller are more than capable in the air, and win the vast majority of their duels. That’s not even to mention Doneil Henry, who is perhaps the most robust of all. So everywhere you look, from front to back, Canada have a capable defensive unit, and one that is well set up by their coach to frustrate the opposition. This has all culminated in a formidable defensive record, en route to Qatar.

CONCLUSION

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John Herdman has done wonders with the Canadian Men’s National Team since taking over in 2018, winning 71% of his matches, and taking Canada on an unbeaten 13-match run in World Cup 2022 Qualification. His team have seamlessly changed shape and formation on a match by match basis without suffering any consequences along the way, and have only grown in confidence and chemistry as the competition has worn on. While the individual excellence of Alphonso Davies has been instrumental to their success, the Canadian team are far from just a one-man or two-man show. The entire team have played their part, and in fact, the real star of all through qualifying might be their box-to-box midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, who’s linked up magnificently with a myriad of other young players from Buchanan to David. With just a few matches to go, Canada look destined to qualify for the World Cup, breaking their thirty-five year wait.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of John Herdman’s Canada. Be sure to check out more of our analyses, and more on the Canadian Men’s National Team. Also be sure to follow on social media via the links below, and consider becoming a paid subscriber, gaining exclusive content for just $1 per month. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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