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Takeaways: Canada salvages win vs. Costa Rica despite tactical tweaks

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It wasn’t pretty, but all wins count the same.

The Canadian men’s national team scraped its way to a 1-0 win over Costa Rica at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in Concacaf World Cup qualifying on Friday night. Jonathan David scored the decisive goal off a Leonel Moreira error in the 57th minute, which moves Canada to within a point of first place in the octagonal phase of qualifying.

Here are three takeaways from the match.

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Absence of a third midfielder felt again

September was a solid if not unsatisfying three-game window for Canada, largely due to the absence of a third midfielder for the opening two matches against Honduras and the United States. Alphonso Davies was negatively affected in both games, as was the team in general.

Eventually, head coach John Herdman added a third midfielder, Jonathan Osorio, for the El Salvador match at home to close out the window. The result was a resounding victory, albeit against one of the weaker teams in the final eight.

A trio remained to start all three games in October. Then Herdman decided to change it in favour of a more attacking side.

The issues were apparent from the outset of the match. Since Costa Rica started three midfielders of their own, that allowed them to set up in a 4-5-1 shape off the ball (pictured below) for maximum cover.

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Without a third Canadian midfielder to provide an outlet for the full-backs and forwards, it was up to the strikers – Davies and David – to combine with Canada’s wide players. When that didn’t occur, it was far too easy for Costa Rica to overload the flanks with three players.

Had a Canadian forward simply drifted to the flanks to be that outlet, it would’ve solved the problem.

When this occurred, usually through Davies down the left, that is when Canada unlocked Costa Rica’s defence. Davies nearly scored off one of these sequences in the 15th minute, as did David. The Costa Rican defenders were also wary of the cutbacks from Canadian players along the byline and snuffed out the danger.

For Herdman, it wasn’t so much a midfield problem as it was the forwards getting involved

“The issue for me was just the forwards finding their rhythm and loading the line,” the coach said. “I think they were playing quite individually at times in the first half after the first 20 minutes … I think after halftime we made it clear they had to load that line.

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“The sort of threat level by just positioning creates a massive threat to that back four and then it opened more space for the Sam Adekugbe’s [and] the Richie Laryea’s wide. Then they started moving, and when they start moving, that front four connected together is a special group of players.”

That does affect things, but for a team that tends to prioritize the flanks in every game, having that third midfielder to provide defensive cover and release the onrushing wingbacks into space is a key part of the system working.

As Herdman pointed out, it was a case of facing compact blocks from the opposition. Movement from forwards is necessary, and those combinations out wide were helping. The cold, bumpy pitch affected the tempo of Canada’s play as well as other mitigating factors, too.

“I think the reality around the midfield was you are trying to break a deep block on a turf field,” said Herdman. “We were good in the first 20 and then we started to get a little bit stuck. We got involved in some of that dark arts of those little fouls and then slowing the game down and then we just lost momentum and rhythm.”

Then again, with three midfielders starting, Canada was able to comfortably defeat El Salvador and Panama at home. Tuesday’s qualifier versus Mexico will almost certainly require it for a variety of reasons.

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Full-backs shine

With Canada only starting two midfielders, a lot of the team’s buildup was expected to arrive via the flanks, as it often has this year.

However, in a lineup full of surprises, one of those included Sam Adekugbe who has been electric since arriving at Hatayspor in Turkey this summer.

“That’s really helped him,” Herdman stated. “He’s been top level in training. … When he’s in training, he’s up against some top, top wingers.”

But Alphonso Davies isn’t deployed in a wingback or deeper role, it’s Richie Laryea swapping to the left to fill in, as was the case in the October window.

To Adekugbe’s credit, he was stellar on both sides of the ball. When Canada was in possession, he’d occasionally tuck inside to form a back three with centre-backs Steven Vitoria and Kamal Miller. When given the freedom to push forward, Adekugbe made the most of it.

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Several of Canada’s most promising sequences were kickstarted by Adekugbe, who ended up being named man of the match. The 26-year-old finished the game with 52 passes on 66 attempts, two completed dribbles, two interceptions and an eye-popping 11 recoveries.

Considering the nature of his performance, he’s surely a candidate to keep his place in the team for Tuesday’s game against Mexico.

He might even be a candidate to be the next Alistair Johnston – a full-back converted into a centre-back – which shows how flexible he was in this match.

“Our team is quite flexible and quite fluid and that’s credit to the coaching staff,” Adekugbe said post-game. “We do a lot of tactical work when we get into camp and ultimately, we see a flexible team out there and I was very comfortable and so were the other players.”

“He just showed a new level for him playing in that shirt,” said Herdman. “It’s been a tough journey for Sam. When I first came in, we had tough conversations for the first two years. I pushed him hard and I was clear that he had to move to that next level because I felt he had the potential to play at that next level, and he did.”

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Don’t take anything away from Laryea, either. While he wasn’t as involved on the ball, the Toronto FC defender was flawless at the back. He had six recoveries and shut down multiple Costa Rican counter-attacks in the process.

David inches closer to all-time goals record

On a night when Panama, currently chasing Canada in fourth place, came from behind to defeat Honduras, anything less than a win would have been disappointing.

Fitting, then, that Canada’s other young superstar in David capitalized on Moreira’s error to secure that vital victory.

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Not only does that keep Canada three points above Panama in third place, it was also David’s 18th goal in his national team career. That places him fourth on the all-time scoring list at just 21 years of age.

David now trails John Catliff and Dale Mitchell by just one goal and is four adrift of Dwayne De Rosario’s record. Teammate Cyle Larin is currently in second place on 20.

October was a difficult month for David, as has the octagonal phase in general, but he finished the window with a much-needed goal in the win over Panama and began November with the winner on Friday night.

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Overall, it was a solid outing for David as he registered two shots with an expected goals total of 0.47 – the majority being accumulated on his goal – along with a passing accuracy of 87.5 per cent. He wasn’t as involved in the team’s buildup compared to fellow forward Davies, but there were some intelligent moves executed with David at the heart of them.

“It’s just keeping things simple for Jonathan,” said Herdman. “He doesn’t need to do all these things in and around the field. He has to work hard off the ball, he knows that. But he knows he has to be in those areas when the opportunities come and if he is in those areas, we know what is going to happen.”



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