Canadians Abroad: Doneil Henry off to fine start in South Korea

Canada's Doneil Henry (15) and Cuba's Luis Paradela (23) chase the ball during the first half of a CONCACAF Golf Cup soccer match in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, June 23, 2019. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Every two weeks, Sportsnet will highlight the top-performing Canadian player abroad and provide an in-depth breakdown of his most recent performance.

Centre-back has been an area of concern for the Canadian national team during John Herdman’s reign as head coach. Even Herdman said some of his defenders were “Tier 3” when comparing his player pool to other Concacaf sides.

Those comments were made in the aftermath of Canada’s defeat to Haiti in the Gold Cup quarterfinals last summer. Nearly four months later, the Reds earned a historic victory over the United States and defended excellently as a team throughout the 90 minutes. That was followed up with a porous display in November’s 4-1 loss to the U.S. in Orlando.

One of the starters on that November night was Doneil Henry. The then-Vancouver Whitecaps defender was exploited on several occasions, though there were plenty of tactical and selection mishaps that presented those opportunities to the U.S.

Five days after the loss, Henry finalized a transfer to Suwon Samsung Bluewings in Korea. The K-League season has been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Suwon has still played two matches in the AFC Champions League.

Henry started both games, the latter of which earned him a nod in the AFC’s team of the week. However, he was deployed on the right side of a back three in Suwon’s loss to Vissel Kobe on Feb. 19, then Henry was part of a four-man defence for last Tuesday’s defeat to Malaysia’s JDT.

Doneil Henry’s heat maps from his two AFC Champions League matches. (via Wyscout)

The JDT defeat exhibited Henry’s best qualities, what he needs to improve, and why – if he starts for Canada – the defence should be arranged in a specific system.

When watching the loss to the United States in November, one noticeable trend was Canada’s high line. This doesn’t suit Henry and the recent defeat for Suwon exhibited why.

Whether it’s for club or country, Henry has struggled to defend while on the run. If the play isn’t in front of him, he can be exploited.

On this sequence, Henry galloped towards the ball and lunged into a challenge, which he often attempts in any situation. He stopped a potential counter-attack but he was booked for this unnecessarily aggressive tackle and had to be cautious for the rest of the game.

A high line is especially exposed whenever the opposition hits passes over the top of the defence. Henry misjudged two of those long balls during the match, although he managed to recover. That being said, this was a staple of the USA’s tactical plan in November and it worked to a tee.

One possible tweak could be to instruct Henry to avoid trying to win the ball in the air, follow the man, stay tight to him until support arrives. It’s very difficult to defend against these passes in transition, but it could limit the mistakes from Henry’s perspective.

There were instances where Henry stymied JDT’s counter-attacking opportunities further up the pitch, too. The 26-year-old has decent anticipation and is very strong, it’s just about holding back on those risky tackles when they aren’t required.

Here are two interventions that highlights Henry effectively stopping a counter high up the pitch without exerting too much energy.

This was more common when Henry was in a lower defensive block. Suwon controlled possession and played out from the back, so they played closer to goal fairly often.

That allowed Henry to shine. He can stick close to his man, recover the ball and prevent shots in this system, even in defensive transition. Most defenders have the strength and timing to defend touch-tight.

One staple of the Korean game is the technical quality on display. Henry is capable of playing with the ball, but he’s still uncertain at times.

That could be a case of gaining more comfort in possession. Herdman encourages his defenders to play out from the back, so Henry has to adjust, specifically when he’s pressed by an opponent.

Henry should be credited with some of his passes, though. He completed 55 of his 60 attempts, although the majority of those were completed without any pressure. But the former Whitecap hit some gems in this match, too.

Once the K-League season begins, it will be easier to evaluate Henry’s progress. Early indications show that he’s still prone to the same mistakes that Canadians have recently witnessed. Luckily for Henry, centre-backs tend to peak between the ages of 29 and 32, so he has plenty of time for growth, though it’s never too early to learn.

BITS AND BOBS

• Your Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies updates are a bit tamer this week. Davies was solid in a routine Bayern Munich victory over Augsburg on Sunday. David, meanwhile, was goalless in Gent’s 4-1 defeat to Charleroi on Saturday. The 19-year-old forward has been linked to Arsenal again, although there’s a strong indication that he’ll be moving to the Bundesliga, per Transfermarkt.

• Atiba Hutchinson went 90 minutes in a 2-1 win for Besiktas over Ankaragucu on Friday. Hutchinson covered a tremendous amount of ground and orchestrated the game brilliantly, as he often does. The 37-year-old “remains committed to Canada” despite signalling that he’d retire from international play after last year’s Gold Cup. If he keeps performing to this level, the veteran should be considered for future squads.

• Don’t be surprised if Juan Cordova earns more minutes with Canada beginning this month versus Trinidad and Tobago. Cordova has enjoyed an excellent start to the season with Huachipato in Chile. If his form continues, the 24-year-old could win a start.

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