Matildas: Learning From Pressure And Finding The Right Balance

In today’s pre-game press conference ahead of Australia’s second friendly in four days with the USA, Ben Gilby heard Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson address his team’s defensive issues and outlined what he is aiming for between now and the end of the Asia Cup (29/11/21).

Above: Tony Gustavsson speaks to the media today ahead of the Matildas’ game with the USA in Newcastle tomorrow. Photo: Football Australia.

Tony Gustavsson opened the conference by outlining the review session to Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the USA in Sydney.

“We probably had one of our better review workshops so far yesterday, with players working in groups. There was a lot of dialogue and we have built all of that into our game plan. In training, we looked at trying to get those back into contention – those who missed the game on Saturday.

“There are still question marks over who will be available and one of those players is Polks (Clare Polkinghorne). As always, it’s a balance between experience and building depth in the backline.

“Some will say we were naive to look at players in defence in the last game. I would say brave. The young players responded well to going behind so early. We also have to credit the experienced players. It is not easy to step onto the field with a completely new centre-back pairing, play the US and I said we were going to treat it like a World Cup Final too.

Above: Tony Gustavsson clear that Jess Nash is in a good place after Saturday’s game. Photo: Football Australia.

“Jess Nash bounced back so quickly after the first goal. In fact, we conceded two when she went off. She was not subbed because of what happened, it was a planned move and I wanted to look at different options. She grew into the game. I would never give game time to her if I didn’t think she wasn’t ready for it mentally. This is the start for her. She showed tremendous promise. We are taking care of the young players but also explaining what it takes to win things.

“We need to learn about the stress and pressure of these situations and playing on home soil ahead of the World Cup when the spotlight is on us from the world.”

Gustavsson was pressed further on the defensive set-up of the Matildas and the number of goals that have been conceded since April.

“We have been looking at our defending for a long time now. We need to fix it. It is probably unfair to hold the players accountable for the ten goals they conceded in April due to the constraints we had on selection then. If someone needs to be criticized then maybe it is me in terms of handling it wrong.

“I believe in the preparation process. I am all about tournament football. After the Olympics when things were better, we had a look at what we wanted to do between then and the Asia Cup.

Above: Tony Gustavsson was pressed on his team’s defensive set-up. Photo: Football Australia.

“I’m trying to balance experience with boosting the roster. I made the choice to go with young inexperienced players on Saturday to give them a chance. In terms of how quickly can I fix the defence, the game tomorrow will be one isolated game. When it comes to the Asia Cup it will be all about tournament play and winning it through defending well enough. I am aiming to say I fixed it and I won something.

“We are trying to look at different defensive strategies. Our issues are not about just our backline. Can our nine cut the field in half? We are looking at how to get the most out of this team to get the best out of the players. It would be an easy fix to sit compact and close the space, but that is not who we are. I am an attacking coach.

“I am wanting us to play scoreboard blind – that is not being influenced by what the score is. That does not mean that we are not trying to win. We are doing everything we can to go out and win tomorrow’s game. If I wanted to build false confidence, I would schedule less challenging games and people would be saying how good things look but that would be naive as when it comes to tournaments and playing the best teams, you are not really ready.

“When I came into the job, we looked at statistics about how many games the Matildas played against higher ranked teams and what the results were for the last decade. It was apparent that we have to play these games more often because the majority of those games had only been played in tournament mode and, to be honest, the results hadn’t been too positive.

“Now we are playing them on a more consistent basis, it means we are losing more, but we need to get exposed, we need to develop this ahead of the World Cup. That is the way to build confidence – we have done it over and over and so know what to face.”

Above: Being on it from the start – the biggest learning point that the Matildas head coach hopes his players took from Saturday’s game. Photo: Football Australia.

Australia’s head coach also addressed the early concession in Saturday’s game by saying: “You have to be on it from the very start, especially against the best teams in the world. You have to be checked in and on. That is the biggest learning for us from that game. The US always want to open fast and go for the first goal. We need to learn from that and be on our A-game from the start.

“We lacked getting numbers into the box as well. We need to create even more. If we can get back to the passing game we had against Brazil, then we can do better.”

He was questioned about the outstanding performance of US goalkeeper Casey Murphy. “She was player of the match, right? She kept the US in the game. We should have been 2-1 up at half-time if it wasn’t for two brilliant saves for her. She was great in the air. Whilst our crossing wasn’t as great as normal, she came for everything and did well.

“The US play a direct running game and get in behind. That hurt us twice and also for the penalty. We need to deal with that direct way far better. Once they are in, they are really good. We need to do everything we can to block shots. We need to be mindful of their transition game.

Gustavsson was also questioned again about the goalkeeping position, whether he knows yet who will be the first choice for the Asia Cup. “At this point, no, I don’t. I wanted to use the September, October, and November windows to see all of them in action and then be a bit of review. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see two goalkeepers used in the Asia Cup.”

Above: The Matildas training today at Newcastle’s McDonald Jones Stadium. Photo: Football Australia

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