3 things we learned from the CanMNT's World Cup opener against Belgium
It was a game to remember for the CanMNT.
In the end, the result didn’t go the way that they wanted, but despite that, they proved that they’re not one to mess around.
Despite playing their first men’s World Cup game in 36 years on Wednesday, faced off against the #2 ranked team in Belgium, no less, Canada had a performance to remember, as they showed no fear against a team that many saw as a clear favourite to win.
Ultimately, it wasn’t meant to be in the end for Canada, as they fell 1-0 despite heavily outshooting and out-chancing Belgium, but they proved why the world should take notice of what they’re building, setting the tone for what’s still to come from them in this tournament.
So as they get ready for their next game, which comes against Croatia on Sunday, here’s a look at what we learned from Canada’s return to the World Cup, capping off a journey almost four decades in the making.
Canada proves they belong on biggest stage
The last time they were at this stage, Canada was just happy to be there. Their first-ever World Cup, they headed to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico eager to be competitive, and maybe take something from one of their three matches.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as they ended up losing all three games in that tournament, all while failing to score a goal, but they had some good moments despite that, proving that they can at least somewhat hang with the best.
Since then, however, they haven’t had much of a chance to prove that, as their lengthy absence from this tournament dragged on, pushing Canada further and further from the spotlight they so desperately craved.
On Wednesday, though, they finally returned to this stage. And this time, they came out with a clear message on their mind - to dominate, and prove that this Canadian side is no longer about just hanging on, they want to grab their piece of the pie.
And did they ever. Right from minute one, Canada played with no fear, coming out and dictating play against a Belgian side that typically tends to set the initiative in most of the games that they play in.
After some early nerves inside the first 120 seconds, it was all Canada for a good chunk of the game onwards, as Canada took their game plan, and executed it to near-perfection, playing some fantastic soccer in the process.
Not only that, but they were genuinely making Belgium uncomfortable with how they were playing, too, as their press was relentless, while their play in possession was sharp and crisp, leaving Belgium to have to defend for their lives, before having little time to breathe in possession.
As a result, while Canada was ultimately left to pay for one lapse in concentration shortly before half time, one that Belgium ruthlessly finished, this game was all Canada, who did everything but breach the back of the net across 90 minutes.
That much was clear by watching the game, as Belgium looked like they had few answers for a lot of what Canada was doing, but was also shown in the numbers, as Canada significantly outshot, outchanced and just overall outplayed Belgium.
The final stats for the #CanMNT today:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) November 23, 2022
Shots on target: 🇨🇦3-3🇧🇪
Shots in box:🇨🇦18-6🇧🇪
Big chances: 🇨🇦3-1🇧🇪
If they keep those sort of numbers up, and get more shots on target, that WC goal drought will end very soon for them
So although Canada will now rue the missed opportunity to win, as they were clearly the better team on the day, there’s a lot for them to be proud of with this performance.
Before, for Canada to have any hope against a team like Belgium, they would’ve had to sit deep, throw everyone behind the ball, and hope that they get some enormous strokes of luck just to survive.
Now, however, this team went out and took control of the game, and tried to make their own luck, and while they were ultimately unsuccessful in that end goal, if they keep this process up, they will find themselves on the right side of that battle most times they play.
Yet, that’s the ‘new Canada’ that head coach John Herdman has spoken of at length, and on Wednesday, the world got a glimpse of what it’s all about.
The wait for 1st World Cup goal continues… for now
It seemed too good to be true. Just minutes into the game, Canada’s Tajon Buchanan managed to win a penalty, as his shot ended up striking a Belgian hand, leading the referee to point to the spot after a quick VAR check.
From there, up stepped Canada’s star man, Alphonso Davies, someone who despite his young age, has made a habit of shining in these biggest moments, having played in a Champions League final, a Club World Cup final, and having won multiple league titles. Having also calmly dispatched the previous two penalty attempts he had for Canada, you could see the confidence that he oozed as he grabbed the ball, eager to snap a drought that many had talked about heading into this tournament - Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal.
But then, it all went wrong. Davies’s penalty would be easily saved by Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, who showed why he’s one of the best in the world by reading Davies’ attempt, keeping him off the scoreboard.
From there, that’d end up summing up the rest of the game for Canada, who would fail to really properly test Courtois.
Despite finishing with a whopping 22 shots, including 18 inside of the box, for a total of 2.63 Expected Goals (xG), it felt like Canada was never particularly close to scoring, other than a powerful Alistair Johnston shot in the first half, and a Cyle Larin header in the second half.
And that has to be frustrating for Canada. As many predicted heading into this game, there were chances to be had with this Belgian defence, one that has had its fair share of struggles this year, but they just weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunities that they were able to create.
Canada are the first team in a World Cup since 1978 to take 20+ shots and a penalty and not score a goal. 😳 pic.twitter.com/RbibtC1bV4— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) November 23, 2022
Too often, they were either hesitant to shoot when the ball came to them, or sometimes a bit too hungry to shoot in other moments, letting Belgium off the hook on a few occasions where they could’ve maybe punished them.
Other times, they also just didn’t have the sort of ruthless finishing to test a goalkeeper of Courtois’ level, much less beat him, even on the penalty.
Because of that, it’s going to be important for Canada to try and sort that side of their game out ahead of the Croatia game. As both Croatia and Morocco showed in their 0-0 draw from earlier on Wednesday, they’re two very defensively solid teams, ones that won’t give up the sort of volume of chances that Belgium did.
Therefore, to score against them, it’s going to take some ruthless, no-nonsense finishing in the few opportunities that you are able to create, something that Canada lacked against Belgium, and ended up paying for in the end.
The good news is that Canada has now learned this lesson a few times now. The fourth time they’ve been held off the board in 2022, they’ve responded to each of those three previous times by scoring in the next game, doing well to not let these games dwell on them.
Plus, as they showed in this game, they’re now proving that they’re more than just a team that thrives in transition. They can create when holding onto the ball, and have the combination play to move around defences, showing good versatility in their offensive game, one that continues to evolve by the day.
So although they’ll need to figure out how to be more efficient with the chances that they create, and may have to turn to someone like Cyle Larin from the start to help them with that quest, they showed that they can cause problems for teams, with capitalizing on them just being the next step.
They do that, and the drought won’t last much longer, allowing them to get that long-awaited first World Cup goal sooner rather than later here.
Belgium goal shows fine margins at top level
But while Canada chases that first goal, as they learned against Belgium, they’ll have to be careful with how they set up defensively.
For the most part, that wasn’t something that they struggled with in this game, to be fair, as they allowed just nine shots, with only three of them being on target, but yet, as the score shows, sometimes that’s all that good teams need to make you pay.
And that was fully evident with Belgium’s goal, which came just before half time. Having survived quite a few waves of Canadian pressure, they did well to have a spell where they just held onto the ball for a bit, instead of trying to play through that pressure, allowing them to shift Canada around a bit.
From there, they spotted a runner into a good pocket behind a stretched Canadian back line, and then that was all Toby Alderweireld needed to find Michy Batshuayi with an over top through ball, one he slotted into the back of the net first time for what eventually stood as the winner.
It wasn’t anything particularly complex from Belgium, or magical, but it was just a good example of how teams can punish even the smallest of mistakes from a team, something that you see a lot of at this level.
Kevin De Bruyne: “We didnt play well enough as a team. I do not know why I won man of the match, maybe because of my name. Credit to Canada. We could not get through their press, we did not play a good game today, me included but we found a way to win.” #Qatar2022 pic.twitter.com/TVIm8LuzQ4— Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) November 23, 2022
Therefore, as they get set to continue this tournament, Canada is going to have to find a way to limit those sorts of moments, because they’ve had a few of them in recent games. First, there was Uruguay in September, where two small mistakes in transition led to two goals in a 2-0 loss, and then there was Bahrain, where the same happened in a 2-2 draw.
Then, Canada cleaned things up for their friendly against Japan last week, but still were left punished on one occasion as Japan went up 1-0 on a very similar goal to the one Belgium scored, before Canada stormed back late for the 2-1 victory.
Ultimately, goals will happen against teams of this level, so it’s not anything groundbreaking, but at the same time, it shows how important it is to avoid giving any gifts to teams, as they will usually end up in the back of your net.
The good news is that Canada did a good job of mostly limiting that, and otherwise had a pretty stellar defensive performance, but they’ll now look to tidy up those sorts of mistakes, ones that can prove to be costly in games like this.