Gustavsson Looking For Answers Over Results

Impetus’ Jonathan Tay was in Australia head coach Tony Gustavsson‘s media conference for us yesterday. He reviews the squad selections and aims for the tough two games ahead (25/6/22).

Above: Tony Gustavsson in the media conference yesterday. Photo: Football Australia.

“We need answers.”

That was the recurring catch-cry from Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson, speaking ahead of Australia’s friendly against the almighty Spain in Huelva.

“It’s actually been really good. One of those camps you want to get a lot of answers: you want to look at different tactics, different players. It’s been a very hectic preparation, with a lot of new players,” he summarised at his pre-match press conference. 

Whilst the Swede’s focus has been fixed more so on his own squad’s training camp and process, he understands the daunting task of facing La Roja. Spain come into Saturday’s game gearing up for European Championships and are just over two weeks out from their first group game against Finland.

“Someone asked me, why are you playing such a tough opponent when you don’t have all your best players available. Well, it’s a great opportunity to actually play one of the best teams in the world, with [this] roster to get answers.”

“I always expect us to step up on the field and give it 100, that’s the Aussie mentality. So far a lot of players have been really good in training and showed me that they want to be a part of the competition for the World Cup 2023. But at the same time, they’ve got to be humble and understand that it’s a big game and a big opponent, both Spain and Portugal.”

Princess Ibini-Isei spoke from camp earlier in the week about wanting to be a fast tempo, high pressing Matildas team. And whilst Gustavsson agreed, he was more measured in his approach, particularly against a side boasting nine players from Champions League-winning FC Barcelona.

“We never want to change who we are; we want to be that team who’s on the front foot, to be aggressive and physical. But at the same time, you need to be able to manage games. We need to understand that there’s going to be parts of this game where our pressing is not going to be at the level to be able to steal the ball from them – their passing is just amazing. 

“[We] need to be humble enough to say “Okay, we might not be able to choose whether we have the ball or not, but maybe we can control where they have the ball”. I think that’s a major part of this game plan for us: can we take that step when we can’t press, can we still control the game without the ball?”

With plenty of stand-out performers both locally in Australia and overseas, Gustavsson has the task of answering the question: who can step up and prove to be a legitimate candidate for the Matildas squad going forward, and beyond that, the home World Cup next year?

“I’m curious to see where we sit,” he continued. “We need to have a little bit of a different perspective going into this game in that sense. It’s not just about winning a game. It might be losing a game, but winning a player; meaning if we can find even just one more player in the depth, in the roster going into World Cup ‘23, it’s worth every minute in this camp.

“The number one thing is: can they bring the qualities that they have in the local leagues to the international level. Not just playing international football, but top international football.

Above: Tony Gustavsson in yesterday’s media conference – where he outlined that losing a match but gaining a new player for the World Cup squad was a result from tomorrow. Photo: Football Australia.

“How quick the decision-making is, physically how fast can they run, how quickly can they pass the ball, the first touch, adjust to the tempo. When you talk to players coming into this environment and ask them what is the difference, they say, “I don’t have time, there’s no time”, that’s the biggest step. 

“So that’s the analysis as a coach; how quickly can they adjust to the higher tempo when everything is quicker and faster.”

With a number of his core rested, including captain Sam Kerr, there are plenty of opportunities available across the two fixtures; 14 of the 24-player squad have less than 10 caps, with six potential debutantes on board.

An area where the Australia head coach continues to search for answers is the midfield, particularly in the number six or holding midfield position, where there has been a lot of experimentation throughout Gustavsson’s tenure, with mixed results. 

“We have a lot of different players with different playing styles who could play in that Number Six role. We were really convinced going into the Asian Cup that we wanted to look at ‘Mini’ (Katrina Gorry) in that midfield role; unfortunately she couldn’t [compete in] the Asian Cup for us.

“But then when she came in against New Zealand, Mini, who normally plays as a 10, an attacking midfielder, I had a conversation with her. I said I really want to look at you as a six, to be that playmaker, a little bit like (Andrea) Pirlo, if I could compare to someone, that playmaking number six, and I think we all saw how phenomenal she was in that role. 

“But I also want to be clear: ‘Mini’ can also be used as an attacking midfielder; she has different tools as well where she can unlock a team and she can link the forwards in the way that few players can.

“So I think right now, in this situation where I want to give players a fair chance, we’ve got some new recruits into this camp, and a few of them are looking sharp in training as well, we’ll see where we end up with that and where their form is come the World Cup. 

“I actually honestly think it’s going to be one of the toughest spots to break into this roster because we have tons of really good midfielders, and that’s going to be a tough decision moving forward.”

Three newcomers are also vying for spots across the middle of the pitch, Jacynta Galabadaarachchi, Mackenzie Hawkesby, and Taylor Ray. Gustavsson had positive words of feedback for all of them, on the cusp of their possible first international caps.

“With ‘Hawkes’ (Hawkesby) she’s a box-to-box player who always gives 100. Her running game and her commitment, her willing attitude and her work rate – in that top tempo team that we are, we need players to drive up and down the field, to press, track back and she has those attributes.”

“[Ray] is what we call a true number 6. She’s very good in her positioning, at reading the game. She also connects players with her passing game. 

“I’m impressed by how much she scans (the field), which I always look for when I’m scouting players. I see how many times she turns her head, scanning for information; she does that consistently throughout any game. Especially at a young age, she plays very maturely.” 

Passing Statistics vs All Midfielders (A-League Women 21/22, minimum 800 min) [data: Wyscout]

“When it comes to “Gala” (Galabadaarachchi), she’s a completely different player; her one-v-one is unique, her quickness on the ball, her first touch. 

“She’s very brave on the ball, even in this camp and this environment, she’s asking for the ball all the time, and I love that confidence that she wants the ball on her feet to take players on.”

The Matildas head coach tempered expectations though, reiterating that playing time would have to be earned, even with the number of key players who are missing.

“I’ve said it before, we also need to be mindful of not just throwing out caps for the sake of throwing out caps, they need to be deserved. It’s one thing to be selected to be in this environment, and another thing to earn a cap. So we need to be mindful of looking at who actually earns that.”

One player who will almost certainly make an appearence is Lydia Williams, in line to notch up her 100th international cap.

He didn’t guarantee it would happen tomorrow, but asked what he thinks has gotten Williams to this point, Gustavsson beamed, “She has all the ingredients needed to be a true professional footballer. Not just the football qualities, but its more about “Lyds” as a person. 

“How she handles adversity on the field, how she makes people around her better. It’s not just about making saves when the shot comes. You see how much she means to the other players. 

“For example, seeing how well she integrates the new players getting used to camp, welcomes them, prepares them. She’s an amazing ambassador for this team, and for the game. It’s a privilege as a coach to be celebrating her 100th cap.

“[The goalkeepers] are doing such a phenomenal job supporting each other. It’s a tough competition right now; its not a clear 1, 2, 3 goalkeeper situation – that spot is up for grabs – and they’re all pushing each other every single day in training. 

“I know ‘Macca’ (Mackenzie Arnold) and Teagan (Micah) are looking forward to celebrating her getting her 100th because that’s the support we have in this team. 

“Whether that’s going to be this weekend, or Tuesday, or maybe an upcoming camp, we’ll see.” he deadpanned, with hopefully more answers coming Saturday.

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