AL RAYYAN, Qatar – The FIFA World Cup is one of the biggest spectacles on earth because of its history, romance and collection of world-class teams vying for the ultimate prize.
Those elite players may not always be a well-oiled machine, as we’ve seen with Belgium in the first two games. In other cases, teams persevere despite early injury concerns, like France.
No matter the team, though, no matter the collection of players, there’s always one commonality.
It’s all in the details.
The Canadian men’s national team learned that the hard way on Sunday. Alphonso Davies struck after 67 seconds, scoring the first-ever goal for the men’s national team at a World Cup.
Croatia eventually scored four unanswered goals to win 4-1, eliminating Canada from round-of-16 consideration with a game to spare.
It’s the first time Canada has conceded four goals in a match since November 2019 against the United States in Concacaf Nations League.
The score that night was 4-1.
In fact, Canada hadn’t conceded more than two goals in 35 consecutive games before Sunday.
Perhaps the scoreline on this occasion was harsh considering how the first 30 minutes transpired.
Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin combined beautifully down Croatia’s left flank, a potential area of weakness for the 2018 finalists, as Davies darted towards the back post and sent Canadians onto cloud nine. Buchanan and Davies continually torched Croatia in transition.
Croatia began to pick apart Canada’s midfield by the 30th minute, with the forwards executing runs off the shoulders of defenders.
Andrej Kramaric was flagged for offside before that, while Marko Livaja had a couple decent looks at goal.
Then, with Tajon Buchanan slacking in his defensive duties – leaving Alistair Johnston exposed on the right side – Croatia began to target that side.
Croatia executed give-and-go’s between those lurking forwards. Eventually, Ivan Perisic received a pass which attracted Alistair Johnston. Kramaric slipped in behind, past Atiba Hutchinson and had an open shot to equalize.
Then the transitional opportunities started to pile up for Croatia. Hutchinson was burned again, Kamal Miller tried to intervene with a sliding tackle on Josip Juranovic, who had cut inside from right-back. Steven Vitoria pushed up, and all three bodies came together to free up Livaja for the winning goal.
Hutchinson, who earned his 100th cap, logged 73 minutes despite his struggles off the ball.
To Hutchinson’s credit, he was smooth with the ball. He routinely relieved pressure on Canada’s defence when it built from the back whenever he asked to play through Croatia’s high press.
“I thought he was just next level in the first half [with] some of his touches,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “He’s living up to what he said, to play fiercely. I was really, really happy with his performance. He was a real leader tonight.”
Hutchinson’s qualities on the ball were valuable. Croatia’s press was causing problems for Vitoria and Kamal Miller when they tried to build from the back. That increased aggressiveness – as exhibited by passes per defensive action (PPDA) coincided with the first three Croatian goals.
When Hutchinson or Stephen Eustaquio provided an outlet, the buildup was fluid. Larin or David dropped deep to receive the ensuing pass before sweeping it out wide to Davies or Buchanan, and Croatia didn’t have an answer.
Once Eustaquio started feeling discomfort in his hamstring in the 35th minute, that put even more pressure on Hutchinson. Herdman likely had three options: keep the veteran out there to provide some composure on the ball, bring on an equally slow Samuel Piette who isn’t as incisive in possession under pressure, or toss Liam Fraser into the deep end. Fraser is used to putting out fires but this might’ve been a step too far.
“When you talked about turning points, I think [Eustaquio’s injury] was a big moment for us,” Herdman said.
But Eustaquio was also responsible for some of Canada’s defensive issues. His constant roaming left Hutchinson with all the responsibility.
Take the second goal, for example. Juranovic received a give-and-go from Kramaric and Eustaquio – carrying a knock at this stage – didn’t read the situation quickly enough and the Croatian had so much space to run into.
It lends credence to the thought that Canada should’ve started with three midfielders to provide ample cover off the ball while alleviating some defensive burden on the forwards.
“In that first half there was a moment where Modric and Brozovic just started to pick apart our midfield two,” Herdman assessed. “We needed a tactical shift a little bit quicker and maybe even the subs a bit quicker as well.
Off the ball, it was apparent that Hutchinson’s 39-year-old legs couldn’t handle the pace of play from Croatia and he could’ve been withdrawn at halftime.
“I asked him [if he wanted to come off] around the 55th [minute],” Herdman said. “That was the plan to bring him out at that time and I asked him how he was and he said he wanted to keep going.
“When you bring in young players like [Ismael] Kone, you need that leadership.”
As Croatia’s goals piled up, the Canadian game-breakers’ influence waned. Considering how loaded the central channels were thanks to Croatia’s midfield superiority, it was curious that both were cutting inside into those congested areas.
At least one staying high and wide, where the Croatian full-backs were often on their own, could’ve opened up space to hit a cutback or cross. Instead, there were a few too many touches in the half spaces in the final hour.
Canada’s shape in general was very narrow for a team facing a dominant midfield. Normally, the strategy would be to lean on the flanks more, especially with wide players with excellent pace, technique and vision.
Croatia is a world-class side who will punish any team that has any lapses in concentration. Canadians can’t lose sight of that. But it’s never to soon to learn those harsh realities, especially with the 2026 World Cup only three and a half years away.
“We’ve really got to make sure we take care of the little details: tracking men, turning with the man.
“There’s plenty of things that we needed to clean up.”
Perhaps they can begin cleaning up as soon as Thursday’s game against Morocco.