Is risk-averse approach Canada's best chance at World Cup success?
Naomi Baker - FIFA / FIFA / Getty

Just days before the Women's World Cup kicked off, Christine Sinclair, the iconic captain who has world football's all-time international scoring record within her grasp, called this Canadian team the most talented the nation has produced during her storied career. Considering her longevity and pedigree, it's quite the endorsement.

And yet, that talent hasn't translated into the fluid attacking play that many hoped to see from the fifth-ranked side coming into the summer's marquee tournament.

At this point, though, it's safe to say that's by design.

Canada booked its place in the knockout stages of the competition with a largely tedious 2-0 win over New Zealand on Saturday, racking up another clean sheet following a 1-0 victory against Cameroon that kicked off proceedings earlier this week.

Some interesting tactical wrinkles aside, the pattern of play has been consistent thus far. Canada, rarely threatened in its tournament opener, enjoyed 65 percent of the ball. That number crept up to 70 percent in Grenoble. Sustained possession, though viewed primarily through an attacking lens, is an inherently defensive tactic; the other team can't score if it doesn't have the ball.

Naomi Baker - FIFA / FIFA / Getty

After the mundane victory over the African side, full-back Ashley Lawrence was asked about the performance. Rather than focus on the need to craft more legitimate scoring chances, she made a point of highlighting transition defense, saying the team handled that phase of the match "very well."

That was no accident. Diligence in your own end is paramount for manager Kenneth Heiner-Moller. It doesn't make for engrossing football. If you're a neutral, it's maddening. Boring, frankly.

But, at least so far, it's working.

Canada has yet to lose a game in 2019, winning seven of its 10 matches in the calendar year. Moller's side has conceded one measly goal in that stretch; the stingy Canadians blanked the likes of Norway, Sweden, England, and Spain prior to arriving in France, where they've now added the Indomitable Lionesses and Football Ferns to that list.

That Sinclair and Co. have only scored 11 goals in that time hasn't gone unnoticed, though.

The 4-3-3 formation, the base for Heiner-Moller's setup, is championed for its explosiveness and unpredictability, often featuring no fewer than seven players in threatening areas in and around the penalty area. Paired with quick interchanges, the ability to overload wide positions should pull the opposition apart, creating spaces to exploit.

Canada's version, though, is far more risk-averse. Midfield destroyer Desiree Scott shields the backline, while Sophie Schmidt is never far away, collecting loose balls and recycling possession. Together, they ensure there are ample bodies to guard against potential counterattacks.

Heiner-Moller took that approach even further Saturday. With Jayde Riviere, a forward being utilized as a full-back, given the nod, Schmidt often dropped deep to form a back-three while in possession, covering for the aggressive approach of the World Cup debutant. Ostensibly a right-back, Riviere was camped in the New Zealand half. And yet it was impossible to shake the feeling that Canada should've been more adventurous.

With teenage phenom Jordyn Huitema on the bench, Moller had the option to ditch his conservative approach for something more daring. But the Dane persisted.

With 15 minutes remaining at the Stade des Alpes, veteran Allysha Chapman replaced Riviere, whose verve stood out amid a laborious team display. It was a clear indication of Canada's intentions to lock things down.

JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP / Getty

Whether these tactics are validated or viewed as a stubborn impediment will be determined in the coming weeks. With matches against more explosive teams on the horizon - including a critical Group E finale versus Vivianne Miedema and the Netherlands - don't expect things to change now. The grind will continue. If anything, it'll be more pronounced. The time to be adventurous was against two countries that showed little appetite for pushing forward.

Potential opponents like Germany, France, and, most ominously, the United States won't be as accommodating in ceding the ball.

Those sides, along with Australia and the Dutch, are rousing going forward. But, aside from the host nation, the defensive solidity of each has been questioned to some degree. Even the Americans, who opened the tournament with 13 goals during a glorified training session, looked vulnerable leading up to the World Cup.

Can superlative attacking talent consistently paper over cracks at the other end? Perhaps, but the formula is fraught with risk. It's largely overlooked because of Carli Lloyd's otherworldly performance against Japan, but the U.S. triumph four years ago was built on a backline that was breached only three times - including twice in the final when the result was already secure. That old adage exists for a reason.

The Canadians might not boast the same scoring prowess as their peers, but their more prudent setup could provide the best chance of success. The relative outsider amongst more celebrated favorites in France, Canada is uniquely positioned to make a deep run thanks to its stout style.

"Continue what we're doing," Heiner-Moller said after Saturday's match when asked about his message at the interval of what was then a goalless encounter.

That might just be enough.

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Is risk-averse approach Canada's best chance at World Cup success?
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