Sunday, September 04, 2011

Canada-St Lucia redux

Canada has won its first match of the World Cup 2014 qualification campaign, getting past St Lucia 4-1 on Friday. If you're reading my blog this is hardly news to you so I feel I can spare you a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings.

Will Johnson (8) scores Canada's 4th goal on a set up by Tosaint Ricketts (9)

In short, the match played out as follows
: Canada gets off to a hot start, and are immediately rewarded with Josh Simpson scoring a deflected goal in the opening 6 minutes. The good vibes are short-lived, however, as St Lucia equalled minutes later. On their first, and one of very few, forays into the Canada half, defender Kevin McKenna screens Lars Hirschfeld's view of a long-range shot, which finds the back of the net.

For the remainder of the half, Canada dominated possession, but failed to threaten the St Lucia goal, defended as it was in true park-the-bus style by all 11 of the islanders.

The second half began similarly, but when Ante Jazic finally provided Canada with a good cross, a St Lucian defender handled and Dwayne De Rosario scored his third penalty for Canada in consecutive matches to give the reds the lead.

From this point Canada was off and running. They were a bit cavalier in wasting a number of quality chances, but did eventually convert again through a great bit of passing that eventually had Atiba Hutchinson springing Josh Simpson, who coolly converted for his second of the match.

Under intense pressure, and a man down, St Lucia conceded again when Tosaint Ricketts headed down a cross to Will Johnson, who volleyed home.

All goals and highlights can be viewed here

The prevailing narrative, if you go by the fan board and twitter, is that Canada did not win the match convincingly enough. (This is the briefer narrative, if you go by mylocal paper.) For some, perhaps under the influence Holland's 11-0 thrashing of European minnow San Marino earlier in the day, the relatively small margin reflected poorly on Canada and cast doubt on the team's future chances against a stronger opponent. These same fans will conveniently have forgotten that Italy, another world power, managed only a 1-0 win over another team of part-timers, the Faroe Islands.

A poster on the Voyageurs boards provides some useful context:
Everyone keeps talking about how Mexico, Honduras et al would have crushed St. Lucia 8 or 9 nil. In the first round of 2010 qualifying Mexico only beat Belize 2-0 in front of 50,000+ supporters in the States, Honduras tied Puerto Rico away and the States only beat Barbados 1-0 away. Were any of them panicking after the first round? No, and we got a much better result Friday than any of these other teams.
(As an example of the divergent schools of opinion on the match, this quote is taken from a thread titled "Canada's performance was total garbage")

I myself have said on a few occasions that the manner of victory barely matters, as long as wins are the result. This is not the season for moral victories. Canada are first in the group with 3 points and a +3 goal differential, after St Kitts drew Puerto Rico in the other match.

But there were some worrying trends. The first half exposed some weaknesses that were also on display at this summer's Gold Cup, namely a great deal of possession without generating much for chances. A great deal of this can be credited to St Lucia's strategy, once they had recorded their goal against the run of play, of getting 11 men behind the ball without thinking of attacking. This sort of bunker defending does not require a great deal of skill or tactical know-how, but rather a collective doggedness and superior fitness. When successful, an opponent will look out of sorts (think Spain, vs Holland in 2010 World Cup final, or any of Greece's opponents in Euro 2004). St Lucia were successful until they appeared to have spent themselves at about 55 minutes, after which point they were overwhelmed by the Canada attack.

A more worrying signal was the number of chances that were wasted. Against St Lucia, and likely against Canada's other 1st round opponents, the team will create enough chances that eventually a few will go in. But looking ahead, they can't expect to succeed with so low a scoring percentage against the likes of Honduras or Panama, let alone Mexico.

Rob Friend, not called for this match, gets some deserved criticism for failing to score at a good rate for Canada, but some of the other forwards on the team have been just as poor. To wit:

Player Caps G Mins G/GM Mins/G
Ali Gerba 31 15 1828 0.48 122
Dwayne De Rosario 61 18 4559 0.30 253
Olivier Occean 19 2 907 0.11 454
Simeon Jackson 20 2 1245 0.10 623
Iain Hume 29 2 1475 0.07 738
Josh Simpson 37 3 2268 0.08 756
Rob Friend 33 2 1640 0.06 820
* Players listed in italics were part of Canada squad for St Lucia match.

Only Gerba and De Rosario have an acceptable strike rate for attacking players. And while some players have played significant minutes at less attacking positions (especially Hume and Simpson) these poor strike rates are inexcusable. They reflect a lack of technical ability in the final third and a pathological lack of finishing.

With no young strikers in the pipeline, hopes will have to ride on three possible scenarios, each less likely than the last:
  1. Simeon Jackson, without the benefit of a regular starting position for his club team, will have to work himself into the sort of form he displayed in League One and the Championship in previous seasons, and carry it over to the national team.
  2. Canada will have to continue to earn one penalty a game, dutifully converted by Dwayne De Rosario.
  3. Ali Gerba will have to stay away from the buffet table long enough to get into reasonable playing shape and return to the centre of Canada's attack. Braaap!
Time to start praying.

Another point of much discussion was the play of Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault at right back. Let me begin by stating that JBB is not a defender, let alone a right-sided player. He is a central midfielder getting regular minutes in the 3.Bundesliga, but hardly first XI material for Canada. He is held responsible, at least in part, for the St Lucia goal against and gave an otherwise forgettable performance, save for a good low ball in that Dwayne De Rosario failed to finish (see!)

Canada's depth at right back is worrisome, as Jaime Peters has not shown he is a capable international defender, Paul Stalteri has retired, if not officially then at least cosmically, Adam Straith seems for the time being not to be in Hart's plans, and the coach seems not to prefer Andre Hainault at his everyday position.

I am waiting to pass further judgment until I see Stephen Hart's selections for Tuesday's match against Puerto Rico. Combined with the start of Ante Jazic at left back, it seems likely that Hart chose to field a more experimental group against the weaker opponent while resting a few of his first-choice players. I'd expect to see Klukowski at left back and Peters, perhaps on his last Canada legs, given the chance on the right.

Of course Canada's best right back is already in the squad. His name is Atiba Hutchinson. But because he is far and away our best midfielder as well, I doubt you'll see him filling that role for Canada, though I would start him there against a much stronger opponent (USA, say, or Mexico).

It is a dangerous game to read the entrails of this match too closely for portents of this team's future. First, engaging in such pagan ritual puts the heavenly salvation of your immortal soul in serious peril. Moreover, as the poster above notes, stronger teams than Canada have failed to impress against teams as weak, or weaker, than St Lucia.

Puerto Rico, theoretically a stronger opponent, should pose a stiffer test, though their 0-0 draw at St Kitts does little to strike fear into the cold heart of the Canadian fan. The game will be played this Tuesday under hot and humid conditions which were not to Canada's advantage at the Gold Cup. Again, all that really matters is getting a win, but it will be interesting to see if Canada plugs its lineup holes and improves upon the weaknesses that were on display on Friday.

At the risk of being self-indulgent, let me report on my betting exploits in this match. So confident was I of a Canada victory that I bet the entire contents of my bwin account on a win. I am now a full €0.27 richer.

As a further example of my self-indulgence allow me to post a picture of my supper. I am rather proud of it.

Good eats.

If the good Lord didn't want every meal to be grilled, why did he create propane?


Footie Fool said...

Simpson equals Friend's entire MNT outing in a single night. Not that he is the answer, but Simpson is improving and I am hoping he'll pop a few in this WCQ. But you are right to be concerned. A lack of a quality striker is worrisome, as is a cohesive back line heading into this round. Your dinner looks fab, and much better than the hack job I did of my shish kebobs this eve.

J said...

That's just the thing. It's easy to equal Friend's career output in a single match (or Hume's, or Jackson's, or Occean's) because it they are starting from so low a baseline. If Friend gets called for some of the later group matches, he could easily go from 2 to 4 or 5 or 6, but that wouldn't mean he's played well for Canada.

To be honest, I'm most concerned about Jackson and Hume. Besides not scoring, and unlike Friend, they don't offer much in terms of holding up the ball, which allows the midfielders to come up in support.

Jamie said...

One has to wonder, what is wrong with a guy like Chris Pozniak?

As an FCE fan, maybe there'll soon be a place for a Paul Hamilton in the Red and White.

Should we breeze through the Sept. & Oct games, maybe Hart will bring in a more "junior" or B team for the Nov matches and a guy like Hamilton might get a call.

J said...

Good comments. I don't think we qualify for the World Cup with the Wizard of Poz as our starting right back but he makes a better placeholder than JBB. I think Straith is the guy if he can win his starting job back.

As for Hamilton, I'm not sure he helps this problem. He's a CB with the Eddies, right? If I was going to call up one young-ish guy from FCE later in the round if Canada is comfortably in first (knock wood) it would be Saiko.