John Herdman shouted, clenched his fists in anger and walked with his head down, alone, into Canada’s dugout.
The wall of aggressive noises from what felt like hundreds of nearby Croatians must have been deafening. The sound had begun to ramp up eight minutes earlier when Andrej Kramaric scored Croatia’s first goal and a small handful of his vitriolic teammates approached Herdman, possibly using a variety of the same curse word he had used four days earlier when describing their team.
But it was when Marko Livaja scored Croatia’s second goal, taking the lead for the 2018 World Cup finalists, that Herdman bowed his head for the first time in this World Cup.
It was a lead Croatia would not relinquish. Despite Alphonso Davies scoring Canada’s first ever men’s World Cup goal with a stunning header in just the second minute, Croatia stomped on Canada because they could and, after Herdman’s comments, they wanted to. They had the tactical precision, the intelligence to execute their decision-making and, perhaps most importantly, the experience that made a 4-1 win over Canada look easy.
They could weather a Canadian storm that felt like it was built on vibes and vibes alone at times. Because when Herdman walked back into the dugout, his head down for the first time in what felt like his entire time as Canada’s coach, he may have realized what happens when a team relies too heavily on emotion.
Canada’s hopes of advancing out of the group stage are now dead, and it was a series of poor decisions that sunk them.
Over a lengthy qualifying campaign, upstart teams have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and correct them. But in a short World Cup run, the margins for error are thin, and mistakes have a way of compounding at an alarmingly quick rate.
Throughout this World Cup run, one of the go-to phrases used by Canada’s players, coach and staff was that Canada was indeed a “football nation.”
It’s the right attitude: you’re at the dance. Act like you belong.
And there were genuine moments — most of an entire game against the No. 2 ranked team in the world, in fact — where they did look like they belong.
But if this team wants to be considered as a “football nation,” one that can routinely be CONCACAF’s best, they cannot make the kinds of decisions predicated on emotions that they did against top-quality teams like Belgium and Croatia, who use experience and tactical know-how to beat down opponents.
And they have to be ready for those decisions to be questioned.
For a little under two years, the vibes around this team have been impeccable: the brotherhood, the positivity, the sword, the belief that this team is on the upswing and can grow the game in their country in an unprecedented way. It was difficult to question this team because of how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time. Their progress, and results throughout CONCACAF were real and deserved to be celebrated.
Those results somehow feel far in the distance now, and the questions surrounding this team must intensify in order to maintain that progress.
First, there are the two words that will likely be the ghost rattling around in Herdman’s closet for some time now: “F— Croatia.”
Herdman must have known, even in some small part, what he was doing.
There are a few things that have become hallmarks of Herdman’s entire ethos, and meticulous preparation is one of them. This is the man who, you’ll remember, sends 64-page documents to what he calls his “tactical architects” on his team about each of Canada’s opponents.
How could he possibly have not known that saying on camera he told his team they were going to “F— Croatia” would lead to an intensified opponent the following game?
Want to know if it had an effect on the Croatia team?
“These are words that have motivated the whole of Croatia,” forward Andrej Kramaric, who scored two goals on the night, said after the game. “I want to thank the coach of Canada for the motivation. He could have chosen better words. He could have formulated it a bit differently. In the end Croatia demonstrated who F’d whom.”
Now, maybe Croatia would have played just as well against Canada. But the point is we’ll never know. A team that was already more talented and experienced than Canada was also served extra motivation on a platter. To be clear: there’s no issue about the message that Herdman delivered within the confines of a team huddle. But the results of sharing that message with the media are now evident. Again, this Canada team sometimes veers more towards relying on their heart than their head, and this was when it went too far.
Tactically, Canada defended in a poor manner on all four goals. That needs to be clear. But the most prevalent tactical mistake on the day was the decision to both start 39-year-old Atiba Hutchinson and leave him in the match.
It didn’t take long to see that Hutchinson couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game, and a mix of questionable decision-making in his defending and a lack of speed was partly to blame for Croatia’s first and third goals, in particular.
Hutchinson was playing in his 100th game for Canada and deserves the entire country’s respect for how loyal he’s been to the team and how well he’s played for so long. But in the end, the loyalty Herdman had in Hutchinson burned the team’s chances. Croatia’s midfield had outmaneuvered Hutchinson and exposed his advancing age. Herdman not bringing Hutchinson off at half, or even sooner, might not feel like the most pressing issue to fix with this team, but it might have been the one that put them under an inescapable knife.
What’s curious, however, is that Herdman said after the match that while he might have wanted to take Hutchinson off, the veteran midfielder asked to stay on. Leaning too heavily on loyalty instead of making necessary tactical adjustments was a clear error to nearly everyone else watching the game.
“I thought (Hutchinson) was just next level in that first half,” said Herdman. “I was really, really happy with his performance. A real leader tonight. I asked him in about the 55th minute, because that was the plan to bring him out at that time. I asked him how he was, and he said he wanted to keep going.”
Herdman said that the team needed leadership, and that’s why he kept him in instead of opting for 20-year-old Ismael Kone.
But why opt for intangibles when it was clear the opposition had figured them out tactically?
On the day, playing Hutchinson was just one of the tactical mistakes this Canada team made. As prepared as they claimed to be, they capitulated against a smart, talented team.
Milan Borjan, for one, was out of answers after the game.
“We started to press but then we pulled back, and I don’t know why,” said Borjan.
Jonathan Osorio had some answers worth following. Canada fell apart on the day in the middle of the park.
“Their midfield three is the key to everything, I feel,” said Osorio. “They figured out the spaces, they figured out our formation, they figured out our pressing cues. And they started to use those cues to their advantage because there are three against two in the middle. And they took advantage of that. And as soon as they saw the spaces open up, you saw their midfielders going out into spaces, dragging guys out and leaving the third man open. They’re a very smart team.”
This is all good information, but not new information.
Osorio clutched Luka Modric’s jersey that he swapped for, and smiled when asked about getting a memento from his “idol”.
But the gap between that idol and the Canada team was just too large to overcome.
Finally, it’s in the rearview mirror, but still visible: That there wasn’t a clear penalty taker decided before the tournament and that Alphonso Davies took the penalty against Belgium because he was feeling confident in the moment, only to have it saved, is curious. Had Canada converted that penalty, they might have been able to get a result against Belgium. And their World Cup hopes would still be alive.
But relying on confidence in the moment instead of adhering to a predetermined plan?
That’s heart, not the head.
After Croatia’s fourth goal on Sunday, Herdman tilted his head and threw his arms out wide. He was out of answers. He began walking, once again, to his dugout.
In so many ways, this year and this World Cup represented big steps forward for Canada men’s soccer, but they could have been even bigger if not for those costly judgment errors in recent days. Both Herdman and the team have a little under four years to reflect on this experience, to refine their process, and to create the kind of meaningful World Cup experience they so desperately want.
(Photo: David Ramos – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
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