John Herdman looks to be playing the role of master psychologist.
Right after the Canadian national women’s team was drawn into an Olympic group with World Cup champs Japan and World Cup third-place finisher Sweden, Herdman told reporters via a conference call that he didn’t think Big Red was in the Group of Death. He said the U.S., which has North Korea and France in its group, is in tougher. In fact, Herdman went out of his way to say he felt bad for the United States, which, despite its status as a world power, always seems to get tough draws.
That’s right, Herdman doesn’t think a group that includes Japan and Sweden qualifies as the Group of Death.
South Africa rounds out Canada’s group, which will play in Herdman’s home city of Newcastle, where he cheered on the Magpies as a boy.
But Herdman’s first job has been to downplay Canada’s group. He believes Canada, which has played Sweden twice since Herdman took over as coach, matches up well with the Scandinavian power. In Herdman’s mind, beating Sweden is “doable.” And a win over the Swedes would likely be the thing that would propel Canada forward.
“Sweden are a team I think Canada can beat based on style and the way that we play.”
He said Canada will need to play a possession-oriented style. Sweden, led by veteran star Lotta Schelin, will play compact in the back and strike on the counterattack.
Success for Canada will come “if we can break down their deep, defensive unit,” said Herdman.
But it won’t be easy. In a recent 2-1 win over Canada — in which Big Red scored very late in a game — the Swedes stifled their opponents for about 85 minutes.
Herdman said Canada is expected to win, and should win, when it plays teams outside of the top five or six in the world. But that’s the rub. Sweden and Japan are top-five teams. And Herdman knows that Canada still needs to improve to get to that level. And that comes with better tactics and technical ability.
“We need to be a lot more decisive with our possession in certain parts of the pitch,” said Herdman. “We have to break down the zonal block that will be put in front of us by those teams.”
But Canada’s recent losses to Sweden — and a loss in the Cyprus Cup final to the powerful French — came without midfield sparkplug Diana Matheson, who also missed the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament due to injury. But Matheson is back and, by all accounts, has looked “bright” (Herdman’s word). He thinks her work in the middle can be the secret ingredient to unlock that zonal blocking that Canada goes up against.
“She has basic ability to see things other players don’t see,” said Herdman.
And Herdman’s basic ability — at least on Olympic draw day — is to be a doctor of psychology. Because he wants to have Canada believe that a group with Sweden and Japan is not the Group of Death.
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