After more than 16 months without a competitive match, Canada's men's national team finally shook off the rust with a pair of victories in World Cup qualifying.
The Canadians opened their campaign last Thursday with a 5-1 win over Bermuda before thrashing the Cayman Islands 11-0 on Monday in record-setting fashion as the attention shifts to a busy June.
While this first round in qualifying is low risk, it's worth keeping an eye on these games to see if any trends emerge for future matches.
Here's what we learned in Canada's opening two contests.
In-form players shine
Yes, it's a shorthanded Bermuda and Cayman Islands, but after more than a year without playing together, it was encouraging for the squad to see its in-form players shine.
Alphonso Davies recorded three assists in the Bermuda victory before converting a pair of penalties versus the Cayman Islands. Davies, who was deployed as a winger and full-back in each game, respectively, completed 17 of 22 dribbles in those matches, highlighting his threat on the ball.
Cyle Larin was the beneficiary of those three Davies assists against Bermuda before following that up with a goal against the Cayman Islands. Having started as an inside forward with freedom to roam before being deployed as a No. 9 in the latter match. In fact, he wasn't the only Canadian attacker to produce tremendous expected goals and other underlying numbers in these games.
Underlying numbers and stats for Canadian forwards in both March qualifiers. (data via MLSSoccer.com and Wyscout)
Tactical tweaks incoming?
One benefit to playing these games is gaining match practice whilst perfecting new tactics. Canada might be doing exactly that.
A significant chunk of the European contingent called up for these games, but with only one-and-a-half training sessions in the buildup to these games, head coach John Herdman didn't have a lot of time to fine tune the tactical framework.
Despite that, there was a trend in both victories. It appeared Canada was set up in a fluid, asymmetrical 3-4-3 in possession and the average positioning from both games backs that up.
Against Bermuda (left, above), three defenders sat back, the midfield partnership of Stephen Eustaquio (No. 7) and Atiba Hutchinson (No. 13) formed a block of four with Alphonso Davies (No. 19) along with Richie Laryea (No. 22). Then the three forwards had freedom to roam, as did Davies and Laryea.
The same occurred against the Cayman Islands. This time it was the centre-backs and Samuel Piette (No. 6) sitting deep with midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye (No. 14) and David Wotherspoon (No. 8) with the full-backs (Davies and Alistair Johnston).
"We started with a 4-3-3 and then that evolves with the movement and exchanges on that side of the field," said Herdman. "We knew [Cayman Islands] were going to park the bus with a 5-4-1 and that opportunity to keep penetrating that inside channel was something we targeted. Those runs from behind, two behind, to break the deep block."
Should Canada maintain this shape in future games, it would have several advantages for the side. Chief among them is the numerical advantage in defence to protect against counter-attacks, which was an issue in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals against Haiti and in the loss to the U.S. in November 2019.
There will be wrinkles to iron out, especially without a number of centre-backs available in this window. But with the European season wrapping up as Canada resumes World Cup qualifying, Herdman should have more time to work with his players.
"This team is becoming flexible," Herdman stated. "We may use that as a principle or a philosophy to develop our tactical blueprints. But my feeling is, I'll get more time with my European players in the buildup to those fixtures given that they'll be off-season. Hopefully I can get more time and we can work more cohesively around tactical plans that clearly fit the game."
Deepening player pool
Five years ago, a player of Jonathan David's calibre missing an international window would've been devastating. Add injuries to Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry and Scott Kennedy, that could've rendered a roster thin.
Now, the quality of opposition helps, but it speaks to Canada's growing player pool that it is able to call-up four readymade replacements in their places.
Defenders Alistair Johnston, Frank Sturing and Ricardo Ferreira all made their national-team debuts. Johnston and Sturing even scored their first goals in the Cayman Islands win. Eighteen-year-old forward Theo Corbeanu accomplished the same feats in this window, getting off the mark versus Bermuda.
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) March 26, 2021
Even the likes of David Wotherspoon, fresh off a Scottish League Cup triumph with St. Johnstone, proved their worth. Wotherspoon had three assists and a goal on Sunday against the Cayman Islands, but it wasn't just the offensive contributions that caught the eye. He was covering ground defensively and executing smart runs to the inside of the Cayman defence to attempt a shot or set up a chance.
"Johnston, Wotherspoon, they did that all night," Herdman said. "They were brilliant at just stretching that back line. Even when it didn't feel like there was any depth there, they would keep making those runs."
With at least two World Cup qualifiers (four if they win Group B) in June and a Gold Cup the following month, players like Wotherspoon are needed to fill both rosters. The fact they're playing leading roles in games only supports their cases.
Eustaquio marks his territory
Of all the players who saw minutes in these games, few bolstered their stocks as much as Stephen Eustaquio.
Earning just his second cap in the win over Bermuda, Eustaquio displayed why he was one of the Canadian players to watch entering 2021.
Eustaquio was routinely breaking through Bermuda's and Cayman Islands' blocks with his passes, a trait that drastically alters the complexion of this team.
Throw in the ability to read games defensively at a high level, and Canada finally has its replacement for Atiba Hutchinson, who coincidentally started next to Eustaquio on Thursday.
"Eustaquio was really looking forward to actually playing with Atiba," said Herdman. "He called us the week prior and was talking about the tactics and how he could work off Atiba. He'd been watching his games in Turkey."
Even though he has just three caps, Eustaquio needs to be a fixture in this Canadian side. He's producing majestic performances for Pacos de Ferreira every week, as noted in his statistical radar below.
"I think Stephen just has this instinct to be in the right space at the right time defensively," said Herdman. "He'll run all day. As the game went on, you started to see [Eustaquio and Hutchinson] find each other and move off each other at the angles."
Should a transfer to a bigger club materialize, all the more reason to include Eustaquio in future lineups.