With the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup almost here, the Canadian men’s national team has just days to complete preparations ahead of Saturday’s opener against Martinique. John Herdman’s side played a closed-door friendly on Monday against Trinidad and Tobago, which they won 2-0 on the back of a pair of Scott Arfield goals. The information we’ve been able to glean from that match isn’t overly robust, but we did learn a thing or two about how Herdman might deploy his squad in this tournament.
So, with what we know about this CanMNT side, a few tactical questions remain.
What happens if Hutchinson has to play CB?
Eagle-eyed observers of photos from Monday night’s friendly have noticed that the 36-year-old Atiba Hutchinson might have been playing at centre-back — a fact that The Athletic‘s Joshua Kloke has confirmed.
With Doneil Henry likely still out with injury, that’s not necessarily a shock. Hutchinson, typically the anchor of Canada’s midfield, has lined up in the backline before for both club and country.
If it does turn out that Hutchinson is needed in the backline, that’ll strike a blow to other spots in John Herdman’s lineup. Who takes his job in midfield?
Mark-Anthony Kaye may have been an option, especially if John Herdman wanted a little more attacking flair down the middle. However, with Alphonso Davies in the front three (more on that in a moment), Kaye has become Canada’s de-facto starting left fullback, so he’s not really an option in midfield anymore.
Montreal Impact veteran Samuel Piette has done well as Canada’s holding midfielder in the past, most notably at the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Piette appears to have started there on Monday, and he’s a safe bet to do so against Martinique.
Will Johnson did take over for Piette against Trinidad, though (before Scott Arfield’s second goal). The extent of Johnson’s involvement will be something to keep an eye on; he hasn’t been seriously involved with the CanMNT setup since before the 2017 Gold Cup, but Herdman has brought him back into the fold after a resurgence with Orlando City in MLS.
Hutchinson’s move to centre-back may actually help Canada, because Piette might be too good to be relegated to the bench (since it’s unlikely he’d start ahead of Scott Arfield or Jonathan Osorio). That said, Doneil Henry returning to play in the backline would be a boost for the CanMNT as well, considering how well he’s been playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.
How do you get the most out of Alphonso Davies?
It seems pretty clear by now that Alphonso Davies has to play in the front three rather than at left fullback, since that’s where he’s been at his best for Canada. But at what cost? Aside from forcing John Herdman to move Kaye out of midfield, Davies’ move up front has a domino effect.
Primarily, it means that one of Jonathan David or Junior Hoilett has to sit. It should also have the effect of forcing someone like Jonathan Osorio further toward the middle of the pitch, to try and create more space for Davies, which is a better spot for Osorio as well.
How exactly should Davies be used, though? He’s usually deployed on the left wing, but he has shown in the past (especially in his time in Vancouver) that he’s perfectly capable of lining up on the right side.
Davies is Canada’s top attacking talent, so the theory is that he should play where Canada can get the most out of him. He played on the left against Trinidad, and that’s mostly where he’s been used in his substitute appearances for Bayern Munich.
It depends on how Canada want him to play, of course. As a right-footed speedster, Davies is best when he can use his pace down the left flank and cut in toward goal himself with the ball, but he’d have an easier time sending in crosses from the right. Davies has performed best for Canada when given pretty much free rein on the left wing, which is where he operated at the 2017 Gold Cup.
It doesn’t make sense to mess too much with what’s been working, but putting Davies (at least for a little bit) on his off-wing is a major curveball Herdman could throw an opponent. Mexico, for instance, plays a style that relies heavily on its wing play, and if they assume they’ll have to deal with Davies’ threat from the left, that switch could give them trouble.
Junior Hoilett or Jonathan David?
Herdman’s starting front three of choice for Monday’s game was Alphonso Davies, Lucas Cavallini, and Junior Hoilett. That could very easily be the way Canada lines up on Saturday against Martinique.
However, Herdman again has tough decisions to make there. First, there’s the issue of Jonathan David. He’s been on a tear for Gent in the Belgian top flight, scoring 14 goals in 37 matches (including four-in-10 during the end-of-year playoffs). A scoring rate like that is hard to ignore.
That said, Hoilett has performed consistently for Canada, potting three goals and three assists in the CONCACAF Nations League qualifying campaign (of which he played all but 19 minutes). He started every Gold Cup game in 2017 as well, and he was a regular starter in the English Premier League for Cardiff City this past season.
One of the above pair is going to have to come off the bench in this tournament, but who? On one hand, David is in better league form, and his youthful pace might fit the CanMNT attack better. That said, his pace may be part of the reason to save him on the bench.
David was an absolute force as a super-sub for Gent last fall, when he scored four times in 167 minutes, spread over four games. Although he eventually won a starting spot, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to introduce himself to an opponent within minutes. Even his best performance in the Belgian playoffs, a brace in an away win over Standard Liege, was an appearance off the bench just before halftime.
Hoilett has also been around the block in CONCACAF play. He’s seen big-game action against sides like Costa Rica, Honduras, and, most significantly, Mexico.
So, Herdman may be smart to use David as Canada’s secret weapon off the bench, especially if a time comes when Les Rouges desperately need a late goal.