After their back-to-back friendlies with World Champions USA watched by record crowds, Impetus‘ Kieran Yap considers how things stand after a tough 2021 for the Matildas. With the 2022 Asia Cup coming in January, he also looks at the depth in different positions ahead of the competition.
Above: The Matildas group together after a run of matches against the world’s top teams. Photo: Football Australia.
The Matildas recent results have been humbling, to say the least. In 2021, they have lost almost all of their friendly matches. A 3-1 win over Brazil last month being the only outlier.
Looking at the scorelines alone is misleading though. So far this year, Tony Gustavsson’s first in charge, Australia has played five of the top 10 teams on earth.
We all know that FIFA world rankings are not always reliable (Belgium currently sit atop the men’s rankings despite having won nothing). But in the case of women’s football, it feels pretty accurate.
European sides have a statistical advantage in the FIFA rankings because they play competitive games more often. But this also means they are match fit, battle-hardened, and in sync as teams.
The rankings might not be fair, but they are pretty accurate.
Australia has chosen to play these games. To be able to compete with the best, you need to test yourself as often as possible.
To quote a (non-football playing) famous American, “We are doing these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Having said that, Australia has a major event next year. The 2022 Asian Cup is Tony Gustavsson’s first opportunity to coach the team in a tournament that they not only can win but are expected to.
Looking at the three areas of the pitch, how prepared is Tony Gustavsson’s side to win the 2022 Asian Cup?
This is the area of the pitch that Australia is not lacking for depth. At Gustavsson’s disposal are a range of dangerous and versatile attackers. Hayley Raso is lighting quick and committed to the point of concern, Emily Gielnik can score from seemingly anywhere, Caitlin Foord is in form at Arsenal and Kyah Simon may not be scoring at Spurs but continues to pop up with vital contributions for The Matildas (even after one nearly impossible miss).
Mary Fowler is turning into a generational talent and waiting in the wings are Bryleeh Henry and Remy Siemsen. Of all these players only Siemsen and Henry have yet to score at international level, but their quality is evident to anybody who watches them play.
There is also Sam Kerr, but what more can be said?
This is an area of the team that only causes positive headaches for Gustavsson. Who does he choose and where do they play? The possibilities are countless, but that is a good problem to have.
The unavailability of Chloe Logarzo and Elise Kellond-Knight remains an issue.
We have seen some clues as to how Australia is approaching this problem. The crisis in the middle of the park has turned into an opportunity, but some questions still remain.
Clare Wheeler did enough in a five-minute appearance on Tuesday to suggest she is the immediate answer in defensive midfield, but beyond her, there is not much depth.
Emily van Egmond, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Tameka Yallop are all attackers by instinct. Katrina Gorry has stated she is aiming for a comeback to the national team but she is another creator.
Currently, the midfield has plenty of artists, not enough graft-ists.
The answer might lie in the A-League Women’s season. A player might suddenly go up another level as Wheeler did for Sydney FC or Dylan Holmes did for Adelaide United.
It remains surprising that Holmes has not been selected since a mixed but overall impressive first cap against The Netherlands. She can do a bit of everything in midfield and is Logarzo-like in her shooting and passing.
Brisbane Roar’s Hollie Palmer has indicated that she might play in a more defensive role this season, If this is successful she could join her former U19 teammates in the senior squad.
The midfield was formerly stacked with options but the retirement of Aivi Luik and the injury woes to Kellond-Knight and Logarzo have left this as an area of concern depth-wise.
Wheeler was magnificent though.
The priority here is fitness. Either Clare Polkinghorne or Alanna Kennedy must be injury-free for the tournament. Unless somebody can rush through Kayla Morrison’s citizenship and convince her to wear the green and gold they are still the two best center backs Australia has.
Gustavsson and Mel Andreatta’s discovery of Courtney Nevin has been remarkable. She was somewhat of a surprise in the Olympic squad after a solid but unspectacular season at Western Sydney.
Her time in consecutive Matildas camps has helped develop her as a player. She is becoming that player that Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter have sometimes been forced to be, the fullback who can fill in at center back.
She was occasionally beaten by pace against the U.S.A but her positioning was great and her ball-winning and distribution were excellent.
Her genuine versatility will be a huge asset for the Asian Cup. Nevin’s emergence as an international footballer has been one of the best Matildas stories of 2021.
Jessika Nash was at fault for the first goal of the series against the U.S.A but recomposed herself to produce a confident and competent performance.
Her time is coming, but unless there is an emergency, It is not just yet.
Angela Beard is another who looked very good against Ireland and also famously “did a slide tackle on Marta.”
Like Nevin, she has shown she is ready for international football.
Guatavsson has looked at different personnel and systems to compensate for the lack of defensive depth. Nevin is a terrific discovery but somebody else needs to be found in case Kennedy or Polkinghorne are unable to play.
A with the midfield, the ALW might hold the key. Another consistent season from Matilda McNamara of Adelaide United might see her in the mix.
As with the strikers, The goalkeeping stocks are excellent. Lydia Williams’ performance against the U.S.A was her best in a Matildas shirt in memory. Teagan Micah is a league champion in Sweden and Mackenzie Arnold’s last Matildas appearance may have ended in calamity but she has been excellent for West Ham United.
There are probably no bad options here, but Micah still has a lot of credits in the bank from her Olympic heroics.
This is another of those positive headaches for Gustavsson.