Reflections from Canada’s loss to Croatia – 2022 World Cup

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After taking a few days to reflect on Canada’s disappointing loss against Croatia, I have been able to take away many positives from the performance. Kamal Miller won’t get much in the way of praise after being hung out to dry at the end of the game, but he had another brilliant performance at the back. Alphonso Davies meanwhile bagged the nation’s first goal at a Men’s World Cup inside just two minutes of action, waking my neighbours up as I yelled of joy. But in dissecting the game further, it’s clear to see that Croatia operated at a higher level, with their fanciful one-touch triangulations causing chaos for Canada every time they had the ball. For what feels like the first time ever, a few things will need to drastically change from a tactical standpoint heading into the next fixture from John Herdman’s team. Here are my reflections on Canada’s 4-1 defeat to Croatia.

OUT OF POSSESSION

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It was a mixed bag roller coaster for Canada against Croatia in all regards, enjoying many moments of both positivity and distraught on Sunday. Inside the first thirty minutes or so, Canada pressed from the front magnificently and vivaciously, as per usual. They shaped up in a 4-2-4 shape, with the strikers tightly squeezing Marcelo Brozovic like they wanted to give him a hug. When done correctly, Alphonso Davies nicely tracked and screened passes into Luka Modric, forcing the former Ballon d’Or winner to shift wide to receive instead.

But as expected, Croatia were incredibly intelligent about how they progressed the ball. Even in moments like this where Davies nicely screened that pass into Modric, they found a way out. Zlatko Dalić’s men usually built out in this sort of 3+1 shape, with one fullback higher than the other. So as the near-sided fullback received the ball, that could then attract the pressure of Davies, where he’d then vacate his position.

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A domino effect would then ensue, as Atiba Hutchinson or Stephen Eustáquio were then tasked with closing that gap. But the clever Croatians didn’t stop there. They were magnificent all game long in moving the ball quickly and using their midfield three in close triangulations – shifting the ball on a one-touch at every turn. This was incredibly effective in beating the press, where the quick combinations left onrushing defenders out of sight.

In other moments, Croatia nicely used the position of their fullbacks to disguise a pass out wide, and instead find a ‘third-man’ through the centre. They’d swing the pendulum of their 3+1 over to the other side, where the centre-back could fake a pass out wide and attract the attention of Davies. In falling for the fake, the Bayern wing-back would then leave Modric free to receive through that tiny gap, where the Real Madrid legend could immediately bounce the ball to that ‘free man’.

So now with one swift pass to cut through the gap, Brozovic, who had been well screened by the Canadian strikers, became completely free to burst through the centre. Speaking of bursting through the centre, the Croatian triangulations completely opened up space for the masterful Mateo Kovacic to get on the ball at any moment and drive forward through the gaps that he saw fit. Atiba Hutchinson couldn’t keep up, and the Chelsea star was free to roam wherever he pleased. The only way to avoid all of this from happening would have been against what John Herdman has ingrained in this team since the start. The intense mentality, for perhaps the first time ever, worked against them.

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Herdman’s team endeavoured to close down Croatian players in the blink of an eye, but this constantly allowed the clever Croatians to bounce the ball to a teammate on a one-touch, thus eliminating the defender from the situation. Again, this is where that midfield two got torn apart by Croatia’s three, and where Kovacic was then afforded more room to drive at the Canadian defense.

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It would be Canadian levels of rude to politely ask John Herdman to change his tactics next time out, but Morocco could easily play clever one-touch combinations in a similar vein. If they’re going to pressure the ball with an aggressive mentality and consistently vacate their positioning in favour of pressure, a third man in the midfield will make a massive difference to compacting central areas. Morocco typically shape up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, so Canada could easily get overrun once more. This would be a particular issue in creating more space to advance down the wings, where Morocco love to use their high-flying wing-backs all the way into the final third. Herdman should not abandon the tactics that have made this Canadian team what they are, but instead look to refine his team’s pressing mentality, identifying the right moments to pressure, as opposed to holding position.

See more -> When to press, and when not to press in football

IN POSSESSION

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Even despite the hefty loss, Canada had moments of magnificence in the final third, and often threatened the goal with their attacking vibrancy in full flow.

Within either the 3-4-2-1 or 4-4-2, Canada are best when they can enact the brilliance of their fullbacks high up the pitch. On Sunday, Croatia nicely shut down the potential for Canada to fully enact this brilliance, but Herdman’s team needed more moments of patience within the heavy metal guns blazing approach. Below is a great example where Tajon Buchanan found room to cut inside due to the distraction Alistair Johnston provided up the wing. We can even see Richie Laryea on the other side of the field in acres of space, where he could have been used as an option.

Tajon Buchanan and Alphonso Davies were both brilliant on the day in dribbling around the opposition, but as noted in the match against Belgium, the overall decision making of the Canadians let them down. There were some moments where they could have backed themselves to dribble all on their own, but instead slowed the play down and passed the ball. There were other moments where they rushed the decision when trying to play the ball into the box, thus failing to allow the fullbacks enough time to gallop forward and inject that chaos.

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Out from the back, Alistair Johnston had some sweet switches of play, and Kamal Miller continuously progressed the ball in a way that Croatia could not fully cope with. But once progressing into the final third, Croatia were quick to get back in numbers and make Canada’s 1v1 dribblers faced with a 3v1 or even 4v1 situation. The addition of Jonathan Osorio in the second half was Herdman’s shining light from a tactical perspective, as having that additional presence in the centre of the pitch compounded Croatia’s ability to fully overload the wide areas.

Osorio nicely roamed from side to side in that ’10’ slot, working the channels, finding gaps in between the lines, and even striking from distance when the opportunity presented itself. Junior Hoilett provided some solid attacking thrust too, but Croatia’s defensive structures were simply too sturdy. They defended incredibly narrow, with several men around the ball willing to put their bodies in the way. Throwing everyone forward to try and counter-act this at the very end left Miller alone and a mistake waiting to happen, where the Croatians were able to grab a cruel fourth.

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So it wasn’t the World Cup Canadian fans had hoped for, and tactically, we’ve learned many lessons from facing some of Europe’s best sides so far. But we can still take away many positives from this team and the way they performed, and I’d be shocked if the rumour mills didn’t start to fill with offers for the likes of Tajon Buchanan, Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller this January.


So there it is! My reflections on Canada’s 4-1 defeat to Croatia on Sunday. Be sure to check out more of our Canada coverage, World Cup action, and our social media channels @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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