As per the name of this blog and in light of the stinging disappointment in the result the other night against Mexico, a post-mortem seems necessary. The jury has been out for what seems an eternity on manager Benito Flores despite a very poor Gold Cup and similarly unconvincing Olympic qualifying tournament.
He’s maintained his position though and the squad has been bolstered by new passport holders rather than depleted by those who could’ve played for us but jumped to a faster moving ship sporting a prettier flag (of convenience). So with many saying this is the strongest Canadian squad in years if not ever and a home win against Honduras followed up with an away draw in El Salvador, the stage was set for what I think can clearly be called the biggest national team game played in Vancouver: Canada vs Mexico in front of a (pretty much) capacity crowd.
Squad selection decisions
The manager’s job here is to navigate us through six games in such a way that we finish second and advance to the final qualifying round known as the Hex. We are not going to finish first so the key is hegemony over El Salvador and Honduras. We have that so far but those teams had already played Mexico once each. They’d lost those games so clearly if we could take any points off Mexico that would be a massive edge and if that was going to happen the smart, not so smart and outright daft money was on it happening in the home game at BC Place.
That didn’t happen. We lost 3-0 to a clearly superior side. But did it have to be that way? Was there maybe a better approach we could have taken that would have at least made Mexico sweat a bit for the points rather than playing like a team vastly overestimating its abilities after perhaps gorging on their own press clippings a bit too much?
Here’s the 23 man squad that Flores selected for these two games (the next being on Tuesday at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City).
1- GK- Simon Thomas | NOR / FK Bodø/Glimt
2- FB- Nik Ledgerwood | CAN / FC Edmonton
3- CB- Manjrekar James | HUN / Diósgyöri VTK
4- CB- Dejan Jaković | JPN / Shimizu S-Pulse
5- CB / M- David Edgar | ENG / Sheffield United
6- M- Julian de Guzman | CAN / Ottawa Fury FC
7- W- Iain Hume | ESP / SD Ponferradina
8- M- Will Johnson | CAN / Toronto FC
9- F- Marcus Haber | ENG / Crewe Alexandra
10- W- David Junior Hoilett | ENG / Queens Park Rangers
11- W- Tosaint Ricketts | Unattached
12- CB- Doneil Henry | ENG / West Ham United
13- M- Atiba Hutchinson | TUR / Beşiktaş JK
14- M- Samuel Piette | ESP / Deportivo La Coruña
15- CB / M- Adam Straith | NOR / Fredrikstad FK
16- M- Scott Arfield | ENG / Burnley FC
17- FB- Marcel De Jong | CAN / Ottawa Fury FC
18- GK- Milan Borjan | BUL / PFK Ludogorets Razgrad
19- CB- Steven Vitória | POR / Benfica
20- FB / CB- Karl W. Ouimette | USA / New York Red Bulls
21- F- Cyle Larin | USA / Orlando City SC
22- GK- Kenny Stamatopoulos | SWE / AIK Fotbol
23- W- Tesho Akindele | USA / FC Dallas
Here’s who started:
First, let’s look at where and how much the defenders on the squad are playing
Doneil Henry has played four games since he went to West Ham in August 2015. He has ping ponged between the Hammers and Blackburn due to two loan spells. Injuries have also limited his availability for selection. The bigger concern though is he a central defender as confirmed by the CSA’s official roster.
Flores found himself in this situation as he opted to pick six central defenders and just two outside backs. Karl Ouimette is listed as being able to play both but when he plays for the Red Bulls, which is a bit less than half the time, he plays in the middle.
Steven Vitoria, one of the four ‘recent’ Canadians along with Arfield, Hoilett and Aird (not in the squad for these games despite being what appears to be a badly needed right back who is actually playing games) is also a central defender but hasn’t played a game since his loan to the Philadelphia Union from Benfica expired at the end of the MLS season.
Adam Straith plays in Norway for Fredrikstad in the Norwegian First Division which is of course actually the second tier of play there. That is an April to November league though so he has also not played recently. Nik Ledgerwood is due to join up with Edmonton FC of the NASL for the start of their season after these games against Mexico.
Marcel de Jong, long a lock at left back has also not been playing having finished a year in the MLS last season after a respectable career in Europe. He will play with Ottawa Fury in the NASL this season.
Of the others, Manjrekar James, who has just three caps, is playing a reasonable number of games for Diósgyőri in Hungary and Dejan Jakovic is signed to Shimizu Pulse of the J League 2nd division. He has not played yet this season.
That leaves, of the defenders, David Edgar. Only Ledgerwood has more caps than him among the central defenders but perhaps more importantly, Edgar is actually playing and with a team that is in season. He’s played in 31 league and cup games for Sheffield United this season in the English Championship.
So wrapping up this overly long precis on the defenders in the squad, the picture should be getting clearer here. Loads of centre backs to choose from and very few outside backs. Most of the defenders are either in their off season and haven’t played for their club in months (Straith, Ledgerwood, De Jong, Ouimette) or are with clubs but not playing (Jakovic, Vitoria, Henry). That leaves the inexperienced Manjrekar and the experienced, currently playing Edgar.
Edgar didn’t see the field on Friday against Mexico. Henry started at right back, de Jong at left. Jakovic and Straith were the starting centre backs. All four played 90 minutes. Of our starters, none are currently playing club soccer. Now there could be a good reason we are not aware of for why David Edgar was not chosen to start but to be honest it would have to be a very good reason.
I’m not going to go through the rest of the squad in the same manner but it should be noted that Julian de Guzman is the closest the team has to a true holding midfielder but he doesn’t play there. The problem being that he has been without a club since the end of the 2013-14 season and just turned 35. He started. Will Johnson can fill the role but is also the closest the team has to a box to box midfielder. He is more adept at the attacking end of midfield. The team’s long marquee player, Atiba Hutchinson, starts for Besiktas. He is the creative force in the team, capable of scoring but more capable of providing the service to others enabling them to score.
Choosing the tactics
So, as with all teams, managers have a set of resources at their disposal. The most critical resource is the players. After that, it’s things like home field advantage, knowledgeable staff, favourable weather, etc. National team managers have the good fortune to be able to change their roster selections between games, or groups of games, much more readily than club managers but club managers have a considerably wider pool to draw from as they are not bound to take players of a particular nationality.
Player selection is then clearly the primary task of the manager and from that flows what are hopefully options in terms of how you play.
What managers in Flores situation need to take stock of is whether to simply find a way to get your eleven most effective players on the field in the pursuit of winning and then work formation and tactics around that or to gauge what the goal, the realistic goal, of the upcoming games the team has is and pick a starting eleven and approach that will maximize the chances of getting that result.
When your end goal is to finish ahead of El Salvador and Honduras and you know they have each already lost the first of their two games against Mexico and thus a solitary point against El Tri is in essence a victory, I think the approach you must take as a manager is to maximize your chances of a realistic goal and that would be to play for a draw from the outset even though the game is at home. To that end, I would play 4-5-1 and pick players who are in form, positionally sound, mentally determined and have tremendous game sense.
- GK: Borjan (easiest pick of the lot)
- RB: Henry; CB: David Edgar and Dejan Jakovic; LB: Marcel de Jong
- HOLDING MIDS: Adam Straith and Atiba Hutchinson
- RM: Will Johnson; CM: Scott Arfield; LM: Julian de Guzman
- STRIKER: Cyle Larin
This would look like a 4-5-1 out of possession with a very low block (Larin dropping to the halfway line and the others compact in behind. In attack it would look like a 4-2-3-1 with de Guzman, Arfield and Johnson in support of Larin but only to the point where they were still able to deny balls getting behind them in transition. If Mexico were quickly getting mids and attackers able to run at our back four and holding mids then just one of the three mids would venture forward. This is designed to get a 0-0 draw, not excite fans.
Subs would likely be Hoilett in for de Guzman and Akindele in for Larin at some point in the second half. Piette and Ricketts would be used only in a pinch. I think there’s fairly serious question marks about Fraser Aird in 1v1 defending situations and his ability in the air but he’d make a decent alternate to Will Johnson as the right midfielder, a position he has played with Rangers in Scotland. Russell Tiebert’s energy and determination would also be a decent fit to defend against Mexico’s quick, technical midfielders so he may be a better fit there than the slower but positionally sound Adam Straith. He’s injured at the moment though and not in the squad.
I felt strongly this would be the best approach before the game and that opinion was buttressed while watching it live.
Run and gun or park the bus
What we did though was quite different. We opted to try to play run and gun with the Mexicans. We pressed high with up to four players at a time in the first half. This was one of three things fans, including myself, groaned about during the game. The others were Henry at right back and the half-assed attempts to play out from the back on goal kicks that led to Borjan lumping the ball up the field when it was passed back to him under moderate pressure. These were minor considerations though in comparison to the general approach of setting out to score and press high.
Watching the game a second time has proved interesting. I can definitely see now that the 4-3-3 with a high press had its merits. Until Mexico scored Canada clearly had the best chance to score, Hoilett blasting over from twelve yards out, and a second chance (Larin from an angle on the left trying to shoot with the outside of his right) that was as good as anything Mexico had had to that point. We were definitely outplayed all over the field but it cannot be denied that we had good chances and squandered them. Even with Tosaint Ricketts about as AWOL as a player can be from a game, Hoilett, Larin and Hutchinson all carved out good chances to score in the first half and it came from either a high press (Hutchinson) or getting numbers forward (enabled by starting three forwards). One would hope that the plan was to nick a goal and then drop. If Hoilett had scored, I’d have taken Ricketts off almost immediately and added another midfielder. A 1-0 lead would clearly have been generous and didn’t negate the fact that 70% of the game was being played in our half to that point.
I’m more hesitant now to say Flores got it wrong. If the goal was to get at least a point out of the game, his approach to push for a goal (with the assumption we’d park the bus if we got one) would’ve looked like genius if one of our two good early chances had gone in. My suggestion to start conservatively and stay that way may have worked as well. Both can be classified as long shots though given the defensive concerns detailed above. You can’t expect that a player who won three straight Bundesliga player of the month awards isn’t eventually going to find a way to score against defenders that have barely played in five months or more and when they do play do so in the lower divisions of what are already second tier leagues.
Doneil Henry was not bad
The other opinion that I’ve re-assessed in light of a second viewing is Doneil Henry. We all latched on to the fact that he’s not a right back and let that narrative convince us that he played poorly. He didn’t. He didn’t get forward like de Jong but he managed the defensive duties capably in the first half. De Jong meanwhile is one of those caught in transition on the second goal and not in a position to recover.
On the third goal he gets to the cross first and gets a 6/10 on the clearing header. He gets it out of the box but some height would have been nice. Not his fault that Johnson is beaten to the knockdown and a brilliant first time ball is played diagonally to the player he left to get to the header. Biting on the fake shot and sliding in won’t look good on his resume but that immediate pressure at least forced X inside towards what should have been a better coordinated effort by the remaining Canadian defenders to block the shot.
Our goal kicks: why?
The goal kicks though were poorly conceived and don’t look remotely clever the second time around. Still unsure what the intent was except to maybe draw a couple more Mexicans into pressing before launching through Borjan to the middle third where the numbers may have been more favourable for knock downs. Didn’t happen though and looked amateur-ish as a result.
Breaking down the goals
Mexico’s first goal:
The genius in this is that both Chicharito and the guy crossing the ball recognize that Jakovic has managed to get himself turned around the wrong way. His feet are going back towards his own goal and he’s looking over his left shoulder to where the cross is coming from but he’s in no position to mark up properly. Chicharito senses this and accelerated forward for two steps. This pushes Jakovic even further towards his own goal. Chicharito holds up and Jakovic’s momentum makes the space for the cross to be delivered into bigger. The crosser, recognizing Jakovic cannot possibly get turned and attack the cross quick enough whips a ball in and Chicharito gets an uncontested header from about nine yards out. Note that Straith demonstrates better body shape by keeping his back to goal so he can both see play developing and see who he’s marking while still being in a position to attack the cross if it comes towards him.
It’s really inexcusable for Canada to have nine players back within 25 yards of goal and not be in a position to pressure the crosser and have a spare defender as the cross comes in (it ends up 3v3).
Mexico’s second goal:
Touched on this above but with three forwards and de Jong pushed up this situation was eventually going to happen. Mexican middle third pressure forced an underhit pass by Hutchinson to Johnson that was intercepted and after a very quick give and go Lozano simply breezes by Straith, catches Borjan leaning to the far post and rips one past him into the near side.
Being outnumbered in midfield led to the turnover and we were simply a distant second best in transition. This was always going to be the concern if we were going to play this way. Committing players further up the field means you are sacrificing numbers in the middle third and exposing a back four with little game sharpness to more situations that could be called dangerous.
Mexico’s third goal:
Again, aspects of the third goal are touched on above when looking at Doneil Henry. The goal is the very definition of defenders at 6’s and 7’s. We have numbers back yet are unable to deal with the outnumbered Mexican attackers. We have a chance to clear but it results in a very smartly set up second chance which is convincingly taken.
Looking to the Azteca on Tuesday
It would have clearly been an advantage to have played at the Azteca first and then coming to Vancouver. If we lost the first game, it would put Mexico all but through and perhaps led to some players being rested or kept off the turf. Our odds of getting a result in Vancouver were poor. Our odds of getting a result at the Azteca are a half shade this side of laughable. I’m really interested to see what Flores opts to do. Will he dare to play the same way he tried to at home or will he sense that gambit was a long shot at home and pure folly at altitude away from home? I hope it’s the latter. As I said, I have more respect in retrospect for the gamble taken in trying for the opening goal at BC Place. I doubt I’ll feel the same way if he perseveres with this approach in Mexico City. None of these players have played at Azteca. We need to be smart and that means being conservative. Keep in mind that goal difference could end up deciding who advances as the second place team. Honduras lost by two at home to Mexico. El Salvador lost by three in Mexico. If a draw at home was going to be viewed as a victory; a one goal loss in Mexico will be the same at this stage of the competition.