It’s easy to forget the human element in sports, so it’s imperative that Alphonso Davies’ long-term health is prioritized after he was diagnosed with mild myocarditis on Friday.
Thankfully, Davies is feeling well while isolating at home and will hopefully recover in due time. A tip of the cap to Bayern Munich as well, who run thorough tests on players who’ve recovered from COVID-19 as a precaution.
With Davies’ prognosis seemingly under control, it’s fair to ask how his absence will affect the Canadian men’s national team, who have three crucial qualifiers beginning on Jan. 27 against Honduras.
This window was going to be difficult without any additional complications. Now the team is dealing with the loss of Davies, multiple players recovering from COVID-19 and a large chunk of the squad still in off-season mode ahead of two trips to the cauldron of Central America, not to mention a crucial matchup with the U.S. in Hamilton.
With all of the above factored in, here are some possible replacements for Davies, along with how Canada coach John Herdman could approach these upcoming qualifiers.
Assuming the likes of Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea, Tajon Buchanan and Liam Millar are all called up, there are a few candidates who could be added to the squad.
Since Herdman will likely prioritize fitter players, he’s unlikely to call up anyone from MLS.
Perhaps with one exception.
CF Montreal began its pre-season on Jan. 11 due to their Concacaf Champions League campaign kicking off in mid-February. That boosts Mathieu Choiniere’s chances of securing his first senior call-up.
Choiniere enjoyed a breakthrough 2021 season, predominantly as a left wingback in Montreal’s 3-4-3 system. He can also play as a winger, so the 22-year-old would be a like-for-like replacement for Davies in terms of his position and for the tactical familiarity.
Being right footed, Choiniere could be deployed as an inverted wingback on the left, but he can also operate as a right wingback or right winger. Dribbling is one of his biggest strengths, which enables the homegrown player to routinely run into the box with the ball. He ranked in the 82nd percentile for touches in the box among his positional peers in MLS last season, per FBRef.com.
The only knock on Choiniere is his lack of competitive action since November.
This, in turn, opens the door for Theo Corbeanu’s recall. He recently joined MK Dons in League One on loan following a brief spell with Sheffield Wednesday, so it’s possible that his new club will try to keep him during the international break.
If MK Dons is open to letting Corbeanu travel across the Atlantic, then he can be a weapon. The 19-year-old was recalled by Wolverhampton Wanderers from Wednesday due to his lack of minutes as a winger, although he thrived as a left wingback towards the end of his time with the club. The video below highlights some of his best qualities.
Plus, Corbeanu can play out wide or as a centre forward for extra flexibility.
Don’t forget about Junior Hoilett, either. He’s missed the last two windows with injury but he was arguably Canada’s most consistent player when healthy and should factor into these qualifiers.
Ultimately, Davies’ replacement in the squad depends on whether Herdman wants to bolster his defence or forward corps. But both players have a shot at a call-up.
This is where Canada’s tactical flexibility is beneficial. Les Rouges played several matches without Davies in 2021 and produced some monumental performances.
The most recent game without Davies was against El Salvador in September, when Canada started with the following personnel.
Considering Canada is facing two teams in Honduras and El Salvador that will sit deep off the ball, having Buchanan start his attacking runs further from goal could be advantageous. He can receive the ball in more space, then sprint at defenders and either win a foul in a dangerous area or create a chance.
Buchanan provided the same qualities as a left wingback to start the Gold Cup. He was arguably Canada’s top performer against Martinique and Haiti, who also utilized deep defensive blocks, to no avail.
With Laryea now comfortable on the left, it could be beneficial to have Buchanan operate in a Davies-like role on the right, thus providing a more balanced attack given Canada’s reliance on the left side when Davies is available.
Another option could see Canada shifting to a 4-4-2 on the ball. Herdman has utilized this strategy against Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica, so it’s possible that the lineup looks something like this.
The other benefit of a 4-4-2 is Laryea and Adekugbe starting at full-back. Adekugbe was tremendous in both November qualifiers and has excelled with Hatayspor in Turkey all season long, so he deserves another shot if he’s fit.
Sam Adekugbe is the #CanMNT player who boosted his stock the most in this window.
Of course, that means dropping the indispensable Alistair Johnston, plus any combination of Millar, Hoilett and even David or Larin.
This is why Canada’s loaded squad is crucial. Not only does the team have the talent to cope without a world-class player in Davies, it has the depth to handle three games spanning nine days in three different countries.
Herdman still has a selection headache, so it will be intriguing to see how he sets up given how tactically fluid he’s been in the last four games. Furthermore, if Canada wants to truly test its mental resolve, earning a pair of results in Central America – and with the U.S. at home – without its best player is as legitimate as it gets.