Canada’s highly anticipated tactical set up deployed by Bev Priestman was finally unveiled during the SheBelieves Cup. There was much speculation prior to the tournament as to how they would line up, who the key contributors would be and what the tactical approach would be on a match-to-match basis.
Using the information gleaned from that tournament, let’s take a look at how the April friendly matches with Wales (Apr. 9) and England (Apr. 13) might play out:
Christine Sinclair marks her return to the national side, but will she play major minutes? Overcoming a recent injury, will she be used sparingly to avoid aggravating any lingering issues that she may have, or will she be rearing to go and eat up the majority of minutes in a bid to regain full fitness?
Cloé Lacasse is another attacker that will look to feature – plying her trade in Portugal and eligible for both Iceland and Canada, the Sudbury, Ont. native opted for Canada and is set for her first cap.
A back-four combination featuring Gabrielle Carle, Allysha Chapman, Shelina Zadorsky and Jade Rose were used most often in Canada’s SheBelieves Cup matches, with both Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan unavailable due to not being released by their clubs.
Will other players be given an opportunity to earn their stripes alongside one or two of these names, or will we see a full-strength backline (minus Buchanan)? Of interest is Ashley Lawrence, who can play pretty much anywhere on the pitch.
“Throughout the past years I’ve been playing in different positions,” said Lawrence. “With PSG, for example, I started off in left back, played a bit higher up in left wing, and now I’m in right back and I’ve been there for the entire season. I am aware that I could also play in a midfield role for Canada … I know for Bev whatever the game plan needing to be, I’m definitely ready to adapt … we have that mindset that if we needed to be called upon in another position we’re definitely ready.”
Sarah Stratigakis was arguably the breakout midfielder of the entire SheBelieves Cup, scoring a last-minute winner against Argentina. Samantha Chang, Jessie Fleming, Julia Grosso, Jordyn Listro, Quinn, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott round out the other midfielders, for the most part a senior group. Chang and Listro featured in their debut matches for Canada during the SheBelieves Cup, and it looks as though upon the return of a healthy Diana Matheson there will be room for just one of these two (if either) in the 2021 Olympic roster.
In goal will be one of Rylee Foster, Stephanie Labbé or Erin McLeod. Again, it’s difficult to say which of these three will start any of the matches. Foster recently signed a long-term extension with club side Liverpool FC and looks to be Canada’s keeper of the future.
Labbé is definitely the keeper of here and now, with her performances comfortable throughout the duration of the SheBelieves Cup, playing a part in each match. That being said, she’s a known quantity for Priestman; it would make sense to test Foster in some capacity.
As for McLeod, she’s coming off of a spell on the sidelines mending an injury. If there was any forecast, it would be that Foster gets a match against Wales or at least a single half, and one of the experienced duo of either Labbé or McLeod starts against England. But just as in the case of Christine Sinclair, how far along is McLeod on her path to recovery?
“I think there’s been a lot of new players in, and just seeing them even having the game time, gaining some game experience, I think that can only benefit Canada,” said Lawrence with a smile. “Now being in with the group, it’s cool to see just the different personalities on and off the field and I think that it’s a very healthy, competitive environment.
“From day one I’ve been pushed. Hopefully I’m pushing others around me. I think that having that balance of veterans and some new blood, I think that overall it’s just really good for Canada and we’ve been looking really good on the field. Our goal is to show that in the game tomorrow [against Wales] and against England.”
Bev Priestman’s version of Canada approaches possession with pragmatism. There are multiple instances in each match in which the ball could be driven forward down the wing and into space, but it’s the safe pass that the defender elects to make:
“We might be under a lot of pressure and I think just for us, how can we sustain those waves of pressure,” said Lawrence. “How are we able to really keep possession, keep the ball and just be patient and build up and just know that the chances will come … For ninety minutes it’s going to be quite intense, it’s going to be a challenge defensively but also for us to put the ball in the back of the net.”
The movement of the central midfielders is essential for Priestman’s preferred style of play. The two defensive midfielders are the impetus for every attacking progression, with the timing of their runs and spacing integral to pulling apart the midfield to create pockets of vacant space. Look at how Desiree Scott, #11, delays her run in order to create a gap in this sequence rather than coming short or overlapping:
Numerical superiority is another factor vital to how Canada controls the tempo of the match in possession. There are always at least three options available for the passer to distribute the ball:
OUT OF POSSESSION
The defensive cohesion of Canada creates a very narrow shape, prohibiting play in the central areas of the pitch, usually in a low block. This is to force the play into less favourable positions for the opposition to attack from out wide. To aid their defenders, the far side central defensive midfielder usually collapses into a faux-centre back role once Canada loses possession in the defensive third. Especially when the opposition operates in a 4-3-3, this allows the defensive midfielder and centre backs to cover the opposing striker and wingers, ideally in situations of numerical superiority.
In the following example Brazil is forced to play the ball out wide into the vast space, Canada quickly forcing them to the flanks. With the Brazilian winger under immense pressure and isolated along the touchline with two players closing them down, they are forced to play a ball harmlessly across goal. Notice how Desiree Scott drops into that faux-centre back role:
Against the United States, Canada played with a very low block, never pressing past half. This style of play is an invitation for the opponent to play long balls in to either wing or up top to their striker, usually forcing a loss of possession:
In the matches with Brazil and Argentina, Canada pressed further up the field in a mid-block to force the opposition on the back foot in an effort to promote erroneous sequences in play:
However, this approach can lead to players who press high isolating themselves and creating gaps for the opponent to exploit – just a little lob pass will do as it did here:
“I think that Bev has a lot of experience being over in Europe, being in England, and I think that she’s added that bit of European flair to our training sessions … I think that she’s really been able to introduce some of those things within our training sessions and it’s been challenging for a lot of us like it was for me,” said Lawrence. “I definitely see that it’s helping us within a game setting, having to play under pressure in tight spaces, and those little things can make a big difference during games. There’s that element, but also just her drive and her mentality to go towards being number one. She’s very clear on her vision and message for the team and we’re all really buying into it.”
As the far-side central defensive midfielder of the pair has dropped into the hole between central defenders in the defensive third, in transition this creates a highly effective method to control the play with a darting forward run. With a view of the entire pitch ahead of them, the far-side central defensive midfielder can determine which gaps in play are the most potent to exploit, but may also create space for the other defensive midfielder to run into by pulling a defender wide as you can see below:
The speed in which Canada can transition from collapsing defensively to a dynamic, expansive attack is remarkable. Here, it takes two seconds for Canada from winning possession to sparking a counterattack:
Because Canada are such a narrow side out of possession, once they attain possession of the ball, they look to advance forward via the plethora of space out wide. In this sequence, it takes just three seconds from winning the ball to opening up the pitch and spreading the play out wide into space:
Possessing only a short period of time to implement her brand of soccer, the SheBelieves Cup should be seen as merely an introduction to the style of play henceforth known as “Priestmania”. It will be exciting to witness what further tactical concepts Priestman will implement in these two April friendlies in anticipation of the 2021 Olympics, and frankly as to just how much this team can grow with each subsequent performance.