It was a pressure-packed run of matches for the Canadian men’s national team but perhaps nobody was on a hotter seat than manager John Herdman.
In the end, Herdman’s side advanced into the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying in relatively comfortable fashion — scoring 31 times while conceding just once in six consecutive victories.
Known within Canadian soccer circles more for his motivational capabilities rather than his tactical masterclasses, the 45-year-old was not afraid to roll the dice in some of Les Rouges’ most important fixtures in recent memory.
Overall, the majority of those gambles paid off in full as he deployed a squad and a system that got the most out of his key players while also putting full faith in some fresh faces on the international stage.
Here are three of the key tactical tweaks Herdman made to see Canada into the ‘Octo’.
Deployment of Davies at LWB
Canadian soccer supporters and media members alike had plenty to debate and dissect in the 16 month period that separated competitive fixtures for the CanMNT between November 2019 and March of this year.
Arguably the hottest topic concerned where Alphonso Davies would line up in Canada’s best XI: Would it be left-back — the position he calls home with Bayern Munich at the club level? Or to get the most out of his pace and ability, a left winger in a 4-3-3?
In the end it was neither, as Herdman opted to start Davies as a left wingback in a 3-5-2 for the final three qualifiers, first against Suriname and again across the two-legged tie versus Haiti.
The freedom in this role allowed Davies to truly thrive on the left flank with a license to get forward without too much worry of leaving defensive holes with the safety of three centre backs behind him. When he wasn’t overlapping or joining the front line, the Bayern man often tucked inside to get on the ball and overload the opposition in the middle of the park.
Another nuance of the 3-5-2 system is its room for both Cyle Larin and Jonathan David on the front line without pushing one of the traditionally central attackers wide to the right — the pair combined for 10 of Canada’s 31 goals in the two qualifying rounds.
When you have a generational talent like Alphonso Davies in your team, the aim should be finding the best system to get the most out of that player. In a 3-5-2 with Davies at wingback, Herdman did exactly that.
Play your kids: Kennedy and Johnston thrive in back three
When the stakes are at their highest, managers time and time again have relied on their senior players to get the job done, for better or worse.
In Canada’s crucial contest against Suriname and in the first leg against the Haitians, Herdman instead opted to use both Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston in the back three. The selections turned plenty of heads ahead of kickoff as Kennedy was making his international debut versus the Surinamese, while Johnston, traditionally a fullback, slotted into the XI as a right centre-back in only his third senior appearance.
Herdman’s bold decision to rely on the youngsters looked a genius move as the duo thrived in the three-man unit thanks to their composure on the ball and passing prowess.
For the second tie against Haiti, Herdman advanced Johnston to the right wingback spot, while Kennedy retained his place in the back three with veterans Doneil Henry and Steven Vitoria, who each sat one of the prior two fixtures in what was a congested run of games. If not for the versatility of Johnston and the reliability of Kennedy, keeping the aging legs of Henry and Vitoria fresh for their final match of the window would never have been possible.
It’s fair to say no two CanMNT players’ stock rose higher in the past two weeks than that Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston, thanks to the trust of Herdman.
Moulding a balanced, mobile midfield unit
In the early goings of the Suriname match, the midfield unit seemed to lack balance and cohesion, but in the end Canada was able to get the job done.
Clearly, Herdman saw the need for adjustment as he dropped the ever-reliable Samuel Piette for Mark-Anthony Kaye for both contests against Haiti. As reliable a servant as Piette has been for the national team across the past decade, a midfield with both the CF Montreal man and Stephen Eustáquio has the potential to lack the sort of dynamism required to break down better quality opposition.
Kaye brings an element to the middle of the park unmatched by Piette or arguably any other Canadian midfielder. His range of progressive passing, ability to glide past his opponents and delivery of the ball on his left foot pairs perfectly with the Energizer bunny that is Eustáquio.
Although Atiba Hutchinson will surely get back into the team come the next round of qualifying and Piette’s influence with Canada is far from over at just 26, Herdman recognized the strengths of a Kaye-Eustáquio combination ahead of a tough test against Haiti. It should serve as no surprise if the duo becomes something of a stalwart in the Canadian midfield going forward under Herdman.