Playtime is Over, It’s Time For The Games To Begin

By Kieran Yap

Australia lost for the fifth straight time in a row against Japan earlier this week in their final warm up game before the Olympics (pictured above via Getty Images), but Tony Gustavsson has remained consistent in his messaging that the results do not matter.

He has maintained from the first game of his tenure against Germany that the side is undergoing a process and a common goal.

“Everything we’ve done including the game today has been towards that New Zealand game,” said the manager after losing to Japan.

“We haven’t talked about getting out of the group we’ve only talked about that New Zealand game,” echoed captain Sam Kerr when the squad was announced.

The plan appears to be not to peak during friendlies and warm up matches but during the Olympics. Gustavsson has been here before with the U.S.A, he knows what it takes to be successful in international football.

Despite the losing streak, the Matildas have remained competitive against strong opposition.

When they faced Denmark, Australia had 14 shots on goal and 10 on target, only through a series of unfortunate events did the Danes score three times with only one shot on target for the match.

In the next match they were very much on the back foot. Sweden had 12 shots on goal to Australia’s seven. Importantly, the defence looked solid and stubborn, they kept a clean sheet against a European Cup and Olympic contender.

Both of these games were big improvements over the preceding thrashings against Germany and The Netherlands. Gustavsson and the players repeatedly refer to “the process” the team is undergoing and they generally look to be headed in the right direction.

Gustavsson has continued to tinker. Australia alternated between a three player defense and a more familiar back four.

Australia has had basically two tactical systems over the last decade, 4-3-3 and when that fails, 4-3-3 but with more effort.

While this has done the job in beating up on Brazil and can historically match the U.S.A, Australia has struggled against European opposition.

Above: Mid game discussion for The Matildas against Japan involving, from left to right: Hayley Raso, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Clare Polkinghorne, Emily van Egmond and Ellie Carpenter. Photo: ESPN

The flexibility to switch to a different system depending on the opposition and the in game scenario is needed.

If Australia are a goal or two ahead with 20 minutes to play but are under siege, switching to the formation that shut out Sweden would be a way to close out the game.

The ability to switch between this and the system that releases Catley and Carpenter as attacking weapons is the sort of tactical flexibility that Gustavsson is looking to develop.

In the 2019 World Cup, an injury to Clare Polkinghorne resulted in a domino effect of players moving positions. Being able to shift between a back three and four could be an in game alternative should misfortune strike again.

In the Japan game, Australia tried a mix of different systems and players over the 90 minutes. It was a game played in the spirit of caution by both sides, nobody wanted to get injured days out from a major event and Gustavsson evidently valued further experimentation over grinding out a meaningless result.

This is not a method Australian fans are accustomed to. The Matildas have previously attacked friendly fixtures with enthusiasm. They have always been  looking to score and entertain.

This has drawn, crowds, acclaim and popularity, what it has not brought is major international success.

Gustavsson’s methods may not bring about victory in Tokyo but we do know that what has been tried in the last few years has not worked either.

The opening game against New Zealand will be Australia’s first competetive match under Tony Gustavsson. It will also be the first game of consequence for the players since February 2020.

The team and the manager have been insistent that only this upcoming contest matters, everything else has only been prelude to it.

In 2021 we have seen the Matildas play to get back together, we have seen them play to score, we have seen them play to defend and play to get some final match fitness.

On Wednesday 21st, for the first time, we will see them playing to win.

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