How Canada used the 4-4-2 to success in World Cup Qualifying

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After thirteen long, hard-fought games, the Canadian Men’s National Team have officially qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. With 8 wins, 4 draws and just 1 loss in the final stage of qualifying, John Herdman’s men sealed their spot with a game to spare, after thumping Jamaica by a smashing score-line of 4-0. In the final stages of the competition, Canada smartly stuck by a 4-4-2 formation, maintaining consistency and chemistry en route to an impressive run to the finish line. Here is our analysis of how Canada used the 4-4-2 to success, and stood strong to stand on guard for thee.

CAnada’s RESOLUTE 4-4-2

In the latter stages of the competition, with Alphonso Davies out injured, Canada shaped up in a resolute 4-4-2. They swapped in and out of a 3-4-2-1 and 4-4-2 throughout most of qualifying, but a 2-0 win against the States in January meant Herdman stuck true to the 4-4-2 from then on. The consistency in shape massively benefited the Maple Leafs in their quest, allowing players to develop a clear understanding of their role in the team, and how they could best support their teammates.

Often seen as a negative approach to football in modern times, Herdman played an attack-minded, possession-based 4-4-2, that adapted adventurously between the phases of the game. While they were always resolute defensively and always brilliant on the counter-attack, it would be far too simplistic to say that the Canadians developed an identity centered around sitting deep and breaking quickly. In fact, in most of their matches they held the higher percentage of possession. The main outliers were in matches against the States and Mexico, where Canada slightly adapted their approach to be more defensive and straightforward in possession of the ball. But then you have matches like their recent 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, where they held 68% of the possession despite going down a man in the 34th minute. They never shied away from taking the match to their opposition, with John Herdman instilling a fear factor and a sense of resiliency never seen before from this national side. In this sense, Canada’s 4-4-2 gave them the natural platform to be defensively resolute, without that becoming their entire identity. They still played fast-paced, expansive, possession-based football. But they also went out on the field like they were auditioning for the Hunger Games, out for blood each and every game.

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In addition to accomplishing everything Herdman wanted to instill in his team, the 4-4-2 allowed the British manager to fit all of his essential pieces to the puzzle in one formation. Cyle Larin and Jonathan David could play as an attacking duo, Stephen Eustaquio could have a box to box partner alongside him to bring out the best in his passing range, and players like Alistair Johnston and Richie Laryea could seamlessly transition between positions without worry. A player like Sam Adekugbe absolutely flourished in the formation as the undeniable left-back in the team, constantly rampaging up the field to get on the overlap of his left winger. He provided a constant threat down the left side whenever deployed, allowing Canada to never miss the magic of Alphonso Davies. Furthering that magic, Tajon Buchanan could float in a free role down the right wing, without having the same defensive responsibilities of a right-wing-back. Jonathan Osorio also played an important part in the final few matches as he shifted inside, fulfilling a number of different roles between wing and central midfield, literally and metaphorically banging the drum to guide Canada forward. All ends up, the 4-4-2 was a perfect mix of everything Canada wanted to accomplish in the final stages of the competition, leading them to CONCACAF qualifying glory.

FLEXIBILITY BETWEEN THE PHASES

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As we all know, the flexibility of football formations is one of the more fascinating facets of the game. While Canada’s overarching shape can quite obviously be classified as a 4-4-2, we must also recognize the differences between the phases.

In the defensive phases of the game, where Canada spent less time in most matches, the 4-4-2 shape held true, but compacted incredibly close together. They left little room in between the lines for their opposition to attack, making the quests of a team like Jamaica nearly impossible. In compacting and narrowing the field, they excellently limited central penetration, forced shots from deep, and guided play into certain areas of the field where they could create defensive traps and overloads, and then utilize their speed and trickery to quickly go on the counter.

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In the wide areas, Canada were incredibly resilient in winning 1v1 duels. Players like Johnston, Adekugbe and Laryea stood up like concrete walls, and only went to ground at the exact right moment. Aiding in that cause, one of the two strikers always came to the side of the ball and made a crucial contribution defensively, as the other stayed high and central to be used as an instant outlet in attack. With the target man that is Cyle Larin, the off the ball work rate of Jonathan David could take center stage in that regard, as they magnificently dovetailed around each other in all spells of play.

Higher up the pitch, the 4-4-2 took on more of a 4-1-3-2 in initial pressing phases, with Canada pushing the envelope to win the ball back high up the pitch. Larin and David led the press with vigor and intent, backed up by the consistent energy of players like Junior Hoilett and Tajon Buchanan in the wide areas. One central midfielder then stepped up to support that process, more commonly Jonathan Osorio slightly ahead of Stephen Eustaquio. Their high-line could have been exposed had teams been more willing to go long, with Milan Borjan holding a remarkably reserved position away from the defensive line. That said, with the recovery pace of players like Adekugbe and Laryea supporting that process, the opposition’s attempts to take on that approach were always going to be more difficult.

In attack, Les Rouges built out most commonly in a 2-4-4 shape, with the centre-backs circulating the ball, and Milan Borjan relatively uninvolved. One of the two central midfielders frequently dropped to the left, right, or even in between the centre-backs, getting on the ball to drive the team forward and push fullbacks high up the pitch. Even when a centre-back like Alistair Johnston held down the right-sided role, this approach continued, with the CF Montreal man advancing up the field to allow the deeper penetration of a talented baller in midfield. Stephen Eustaquio absolutely flourished in this regard, constantly breaking lines with incisive passes up the field, long diagonals from left to right, and a brilliant sense of when to carry forward instead. With this ideology creating a sort of back-four, box-like rest defense, the fullbacks were then able to pick up advantageous positions of their own. This is where the likes of Adekugbe and Laryea were able to showcase their magic going forward, with the former arguably the best player on the pitch on Sunday, and the latter arguably the best player on the pitch on Thursday.

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But the intricacies don’t stop there. Tajon Buchanan could then pick and choose his moments to pop up in central areas, without mitigating Canada’s ability to advance down the right. Having a player like Laryea alongside him provided that freedom all the more, with the 23-year-old finding all kinds of room in the penalty area against Jamaica. As Adekugbe advanced down the left and delivered crosses toward the far-post, knock downs often fell to right-sided players like Osorio and Laryea. That then allowed Buchanan a spare moment to move himself toward the new far-post (over on the left), where he scored Canada’s all-important second goal, and should have scored another.

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This over-arching attacking approach again gave Canada a sort of 2-4-4 structure in the final third, with both centre-backs high up the pitch, central midfielders taking their moments to join in on the fun, and wingers inverting as fullbacks overlapped. This is the expected attacking shape of a 4-4-2, but Canada adapted in a way where they never took away the chaos within their consistency. It all culminated in a fantastic run to the finish line, where they bagged 8 goals in 5 matches this year.

CONCLUSION

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For the first time in my life, the Canadian Men’s Team are one of the best national sides in the world. They qualified for the World Cup with relative ease and only a single loss, beating each and every team at some point during qualifying. Smashing victories against the likes of Mexico, USA and the one that sealed the deal against Jamaica will live long in the memory of Canadians for years to come, and John Herdman deserves immense credit for the warrior mentality of the team. In the 4-4-2 formation, they found an outlet for that warrior mentality, holding down a sense of defensive resiliency, without being an overly defensive team. Now they’ve qualified with a game to spare, for the first time since 1986, with every other nation quivering in their boots.


So there it is! How Canada used the 4-4-2 to success in World Cup Qualifying! Be sure to check out more on the Canadian Men’s National Team, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

P.S. if you want to relive every moment we’ve covered of Canada’s qualifying campaign, be sure to check out…

-> John Herdman – Canada – Tactical Analysis
-> Canada 2-0 USA – Match Analysis
-> Costa Rica 1-0 Canada – Match Analysis
-> What is the Best Formation for Canada’s Men’s National Team?

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