The Canadian national teams may have been inactive for most of 2020, but that's about to change in 2021.
The men begin World Cup qualifying in March, with a January camp just around the corner. Plus, there are Olympic qualifiers and a Gold Cup to manage. The women's goals are more hyper-focused, though the task is significant: attempting to claim gold at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Luckily for coaches John Herdman and Bev Priestman, their players have played throughout 2020 and enter 2021 with promise.
As we close the book on a frenzied 2020, let's answer some of your questions about Canadians playing abroad.
Which Canadians abroad put themselves into contention for a national team call-up or promotion (from fringe to squad or squad to starter) with their performance in this hell year?
— Brenton! A casa! (@CapsOffside) December 14, 2020
Stephen Eustaquio is an obvious answer but you can't ignore his amazing year with Pacos de Ferreira.
I broke down Eustaquio's 2019-20 campaign when the season ended, emphasizing how he can benefit the national team based on their tactical shortcomings, with the ability to pick apart compact blocks being the most crucial component.
Whether it's through the centre or by cycling the ball out wide to drag the opposition across the pitch to unlock space on the opposite side, Eustaquio (No. 46) routinely unsettles those defensive shapes with Pacos.
If Eustaquio is a regular starter in 2021 and beyond – which he should be – that would alleviate those issues.
As for the women, a young striker in France is rising up the ranks. More on her in the next section.
Curious about Fleming’s lack of playing time at Chelsea ... seems odd. Also, Viens is having a really good season. Always interested in more info on her.
On the men’s side, curious about Corbeanu, Millar, Brym, James, and Ongaro.
— From the Black Hole (@FrTheBlackHole) December 15, 2020
Chelsea is one of the deepest teams in the Women's Super League. It's also Jessie Fleming's first professional season, so that could be why coach Emma Hayes is managing her minutes.
But Fleming was handed a huge opportunity in the 3-0 victory over Benfica in the Champions League on Dec. 15. She completed 34 of 38 passes, two dribbles, five interceptions and six recoveries. The following sequence demonstrated all of Fleming's best qualities: her composure, technique, work rate and vision.
I'm sure Hayes will give the Canadian more chances, especially if she plays with that energy.
To say Evelyne Viens is on fire would be an understatement. The 23-year-old striker is averaging nearly a goal per 90 minutes with mid-table Paris this season.
Typically, when a forward is this prolific, they're either on a hot streak or routinely popping up in promising positions to score. In Viens' case, she's doing both.
Viens is averaging 0.96 goals per 90 minutes while registering 0.76 expected goals (xG) per 90. But even if she regresses, her scoring rate would still be sublime, especially with this composure in front of goal and ability to execute runs between defenders.
Over to Midtjylland's Manjrekar James, who made his Champions League debut in the team's 1-1 draw with Atalanta. It was James' first appearance in a month after a rocky couple of performances, specifically in counter-attacking situations.
That's why James facing Atalanta would be intriguing. The Italians are devastatingly effective in open space, and to his credit, he was brilliant when Midtjylland forced Atalanta to break down their compact shape.
That's never been an issue with James, though.
When Duvan Zapata, Alejandro Gomez and Amad Diallo ran towards James in open space, that's when the Canadian defender was second-best in those duels.
There was a lot of hesitance on the ball from James when he was pressed as well. That was a weakness when I discussed his progress in October.
Atalanta has mastered its man-marking, fluid, attack-minded system, so it's unfair to judge James based on this one game, but this has occurred domestically, too. That's why Midtjylland signed another centre-back before the transfer window closed in October.
Over in Belgium, Charles-Andreas Brym has become a regular sight for Mouscron fans. He logged 210 minutes in six matches from Nov. 22 to Dec. 27.
At 22, Brym is experiencing his first run of matches in a top-flight league, so he needs to adjust to the pace and physicality of Belgian football. His anticipation is growing by the match, which is why his development is worth monitoring.
I reviewed Easton Ongaro's loan at Danish second-tier club Vendsyssel last month where he was effective on the ball, but lacked the physicality to be a commanding striker in the division.
That's changed in recent matches. Ongaro is winning more aerial duels and even scored in back-to-back matches on Dec. 9 and 13.
Ongaro showed exemplary composure for both of his goals. The strike against Esbjerg was created and finished off by the FC Edmonton man after knocking down a long ball before executing a darting run into the box for the headed finish.
The next goal is a classic example of why all strikers should run to the back post.
But it's the little things Ongaro does that stand out. This clip below shows you what a complete forward should do when controlling an aerial pass before setting up a teammate.
Ongaro's loan ended on Dec. 31 and Vendsyssel declined its option to sign him permanently, so he'll return to Edmonton. All things considered, the young forward showed notable improvements in Europe that he can use to his advantage during the 2021 Canadian Premier League season.
Jordyn Huitema, Alex Lamontagne, Sura Yekka
— wsoccer.ca (@WsoccerCa) December 20, 2020
Jordyn Huitema finished 2020 with a pair of goals in the Champions League round of 32 against Polish side Gornik Leczna to help Paris Saint-Germain reach the last 16.
Huitema has excelled in a complete forward role, having registered 0.69 xG and 0.23 expected assists (xA) per 90 in all competitions this season. That's in a 420-minute sample size, but finishing the year in top form will help earn more starts in the new year.
Alex Lamontagne started off the season with four goals in Rodez's 5-2 win over Thonon Evian in September, but there's no footage of her campaign thus far so it's difficult to determine how she's performing in the French second division.
Sura Yekka, meanwhile, has been deployed in four different positions with Duisberg this season. She seems to be best utilized as a right-back at the Bundesliga level. Only two players have been involved in more defensive duels per 90 than Yekka (12.08) and she's among the league leaders in interceptions. Even if her offensive qualities are lacking, defensive-minded full-backs have tremendous value in most systems.
How about Cyle Larin, having a decent season for Besiktas.
— Görkem (@suntaadam) December 20, 2020
Cyle Larin has bolstered his stock the last couple of months. He was linked to several Belgian clubs before the transfer window shut in October, but those potential suitors never met Besiktas's valuation, according to Turkish reports, so Larin stayed.
We're now in 2021, and Larin has scored eight goals in 15 appearances across all competitions. He's shining in a new role out wide while playing with more confidence and aggressiveness. I analyzed his hot start to the season, and his up-to-date statistical radar can be seen below.
Despite the 25-year-old's form, his future at Besiktas is difficult to predict. The club is undergoing a financial crisis, so if it misses out on Champions League football, selling Larin while his stock is high would be enticing. Plus, interested teams could try to capitalize on Besiktas' quandary.
Can't recall if you've done anything on Hutch yet. He seems to be ageless in Turkey. Can he still be a main component of #CanMNT??
— Jeff Salisbury (@JeffDSalisbury) December 20, 2020
We need to clone Atiba Hutchinson. If anyone asks why, show them the following radar.
I analyzed Hutchinson's 2019-20 season with Besiktas, so to spare myself from adding to a lengthy word count, no one has to worry about the veteran's performances. Just enjoy the exploits of "The Octopus."
Does larin have a future at his club, what is happening with borges, will corbeanu/ millar go on loan or pick up first team minutes any time soon?
— William Memelander (@TorontoMapleFC) December 14, 2020
Having just discussed Cyle Larin, I'll address the other queries.
Tristan Borges earned approximately 120 minutes in four appearances last February immediately after he joined OH Leuven from Forge FC. Then the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season, Leuven changed coaches and the 22-year-old has seldom been seen, let alone called up to a matchday squad.
The Canadian winger has since been moved to a "secondary training group" that's separate from the first team, according to Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. Borges' agency did not respond when asked for a comment regarding his status.
Borges needs to find a loan opportunity, otherwise his development will stagnate.
The chances of Theo Corbeanu securing a loan are lower than Liam Millar's, especially now that he's in Wolverhampton Wanderers' matchday squads.
Whether Corbeanu is ready for first-team football is another matter. He's still raw, but he has the physical traits to boss the U-23s. That's why I watched his film from recent EFL Trophy matches against third-tier Doncaster Rovers, who is in contention for promotion to the Championship, along with League Two outfit Port Vale.
In October, I mentioned that Corbeanu's touch and composure would improve with regular playing time. Both attributes have become more polished since then.
And when Corbeanu puts it all together, watch out.
There were a couple of poor decisions made, like shooting when a teammate executes an overlapping run into acres of space in the clip below, but that's fixable.
Millar, on the other hand, is expected to leave on loan in January, according to The Athletic.
This will be Millar's second loan stint following his year-long spell at Kilmarnock. That didn't drum up interest, although when examining his statistical radar during his time in Scotland, I can understand why clubs would've been hesitant to sign him.
To put the radar into context, Millar's first foray into first-team football was in his age-19 and 20 seasons. Kilmarnock also ranked third-bottom in expected goals and fourth-bottom in shots per 90 minutes in the Premiership during the 2019-20 campaign after finishing in the top six in both statistical categories 2018-19.
But the common denominator was Millar's role as a classic winger. He usually hugged the touchline and launched crosses into the box. That limits his output.
Look at these heat maps from Millar's time at Kilmarnock and the current season with Liverpool's U-23s. Millar can be seen occupying more central spaces and it's led to a spike in his numbers, including his expected goals (xG), shots, touches in the box and xG assisted.
The competitions are vastly different, but this proves that the 21-year-old's next move has to be at a club that's fluid in attack and deploys him in a freer role.
Can Scott Kennedy be part of the solution at CB for CanMNT? How close are Amer Didic and Dominick Zator to being considered serious options?
— Alex Rupert (@alexanderupert) December 15, 2020
Scott Kennedy? Can’t ignore that it’s pretty promising for a 23 yr old Canadian CB to play for a German 2nd division club - even if the chances have been limited thus far.
— Pascal Pelletier (@Shovelthird) December 20, 2020
Scott Kennedy was a popular request. With Canada needing in-form centre-backs, seeing Kennedy on the pitch the past few weeks with a club in the 2. Bundesliga – one of the best second divisions in the world – is a positive development.
Kennedy has five appearances since Nov. 22, and the fact he's left-footed is a major advantage. Derek Cornelius and Kamal Miller are the only left-footed centre-backs who've earned minutes under Canada coach John Herdman, so adding another would be huge.
The biggest reason to add more left-footed centre-backs is down to physics. The trajectory of the ball benefits a left-footer on the left side of the pitch compared to a right-footer, as noted in the image below.
Kennedy's progress has been encouraging when he's started at centre-back. In his league debut back in October, his touch was very heavy and he looked rattled when pressed by Paderborn's attackers when he entered off the bench.
Fast forward to the present and Kennedy's become more comfortable under pressure on the ball, though he has a 75 per cent passing accuracy this season. It's not terrible, but it's not a strength.
But unlike most of the centre-backs in the player pool, Kennedy is comfortable playing in a high line.
You can see Kennedy (No. 24) tracking back goal-side of the attackers before completing the necessary interventions in these next clips. He follows the man – which is what defenders are supposed to do – instead of the ball.
Even in defensive transition, Kennedy quickly retreats to the necessary position and ensures that there's no open space around him to exploit.
This is all mentioned with the caveat that there is adequate defensive cover around him and midfielders or wingers are tracking back to cover open space. Otherwise, any defender would struggle in those situations.
Passing is Kennedy's one glaring improvement for 2021, even in a Jahn Regensburg side that plays directly. I'd also add jockeying with a lower centre of gravity when facing technically gifted forwards so he has stronger footing and doesn't get beaten on the dribble as easily.
If he makes strides in those areas and keeps playing with Jahn, then he'll be a sure-fire call-up in 2021.
Belal Halbouni - Werder Bremen 2
— Matt (@hoyaslayer) December 21, 2020
Speaking of young centre-backs, Belal Halbouni is arguably the most tantalizing of the bunch.
Halbouni, who turned 21 on Dec. 30, signed with Werder Bremen last January. He was converted to centre-back during the 2019 League1 Ontario campaign with FC London, who reached the final thanks largely to Halbouni's performances at the back.
In four games with Werder Bremen's reserves in the fourth tier of German football, Halbouni has exemplified why he has a future as a defender. Halbouni has the technique to build from the back and the pace to outrun opposing strikers thanks to his past experience as a forward or midfielder.
Sadly, there's no footage available from the Regionalliga, but you can see that he's comfortable on the ball. Halbouni is averaging 75 passes per 90 minutes with a completion rate of 91.4 per cent. You can view the pass maps from his four appearances this season below (blue indicates a completed pass, grey is an inaccurate attempt).
Defensively, Halbouni is winning 77 per cent of his duels and attempting around 8.5 per 90 minutes, along with 57 per cent of his aerial duels while averaging 8.18 per 90.
If you prefer in-game visuals, then you can watch Halbouni's League1 Ontario clips below.
This is precisely the mould of centre-back needed in the modern game, so if Halbouni ends up playing first-team football, then he should be called up by Herdman.
Okello if there's data on the 2nd Danish division and Hoilett. And if it's possible data on Corbeanu and Millar in EPL2
— Comrade Pika (@PikaComrade) December 20, 2020
Here's Junior Hoilett's radar with Cardiff City in the Championship this season.
This is in line with Hoilett's 2019-20 numbers apart from his expected goals (xG) and dribbles. Part of the issue is he's attempting fewer shots in the box, which means lower xG, and correlates with the decrease in dribbling attempts.
When I checked in on Noble Okello last month, he'd be the definition of a complete midfielder if he became involved in Koge's buildup.
Okello's radar shows that he's more defensively sturdy than he is offensively inclined. That being said, Okello (No. 6 in this video) is growing in confidence on the ball and exhibits a decent level of vision.
The 20-year-old might be physically overpowered in some duels, but he can overcome that lack of strength by taking softer touches to move the ball slicker and quicker.
How about a breakdown on Caniggia Elva from Ingolstadt? I’d be curious to get your take on him because he’s a regular on a legitimate promotion candidate. If Ingolstadt go up and Elva keeps his starting spot in the 2. Bundesliga, I think he’ll merit a lot more attention.
— CANMNT Focus (@CANMNTFocus) December 20, 2020
Caniggia Elva has played a pivotal role in Ingolstadt's success so far this season. When you solely look at his underlying numbers via a statistical radar, this is a decent output for a 24-year-old player in the third division.
But thanks to the eye test, it's immediately apparent that Elva is a master of exploiting and manipulating space with his off-the-ball runs.
This assist from Ingolstadt's 3-3 draw with Saarbrucken on Dec. 19 highlights that attribute. As the opposition tries to play from the back, Elva (No. 14) is already drifting inside. Once possession is regained, he darts towards the top of the box to receive a pass before finishing off the move by setting up Robin Krausse for the goal.
If Elva fixes his heavy touch, which causes the majority of his turnovers, he'd be an impactful winger in the second division should Ingolstadt earn promotion. If that happens, then he should be in the conversation for a call-up.