by Jonathan Tay (27/6/22)
Above: Post-match scenes after Australia’s 7-0 defeat to Spain. Photo: Football Australia.
It’s the 90th minute.
Clare Polkinghorne, standing near her own penalty spot, is surrounded by the youthful trio of Courtney Nevin, Taylor Ray, and Charli Grant.
Having just conceded their seventh goal, there’s a pause, as all three turn towards the veteran defender, looking for an answer.
All Polkinghorne can offer is a trudge, head-bowed, back to her position for another kick-off.
It’d be easy to write this match off as “the Matildas rested seven key players against Spain, the favourites for the Euros”. But there are a number of takeaways and implications for the bigger picture, on this challenging road toward the World Cup 2023.
“Controlling” the space against uncontrollable Spain
Australia Head coach Tony Gustavsson spoke in his pre-match press conference about being able to “control the game without the ball”.
Against a possession-dominant and imperious Spain, they would have to compromise; could the Matildas control the spaces where they would allow their opposition to have the ball?
Setting up in an unfamiliar and ultra-conservative 5-4-1 formation, Australia hoped to deny the central areas of the pitch, ceding ball control (they ended with just 27% possession) and forcing Spain out wide.
Though Gustavsson spoke of choosing moments to be aggressive in their press, the Matildas allowed an average of 27 passes per defensive action (their average the past year is nine).
On paper, it made sense. But this is a team boasting the peerless Barcelona midfield of Patricia Guijarro, Aitana Bonmatí, and Alexia Putellas; the system may have seemed sound, but the gulf in individual quality was immense.
The Matildas did hold La Roja at bay until the 43rd minute, but cracks appeared in their gameplan from the off.
Less than a minute into the game, Katrina Gorry, playing as the widest midfielder on the right, lost her mark too easily, allowing Mariona Caldentey to play a defence-splitting pass through to Lucia Garcia.
Garcia herself evaded Tameka Yallop’s unsuccessful attempt to play for offside, and her redirected shot forced goalkeeper Teagan Micah into action early.
Spain were confident of winning their one-on-one duels throughout the game, and happy to utilise whatever space was afforded to them. Regardless of the integrity of the formation, Spain felt they were able to have their way in any match-up across the field
Here in the 38th minute, Mariona burned right-wingback Cortnee Vine down the outside.
She promptly stood Vine up again by the by-line, before deciding to go straight through her with a nutmeg, working her way into a dangerous position in the box.
For the first goal of the match, Aitana was able to receive the ball on the edge of the 18-yard box.
She jinked past an overmatched Courtney Nevin, conjuring the space to curl a delightful ball into the top corner.
La Roja were patient in their build-up, probing for outlets from flank to flank, and racking up 94 passes to the final third (to Australia’s 12). A continual revolving door of midfield and forward runs consistently sought to manipulate the Matildas’ shape.
Their irrepressibility eventually wore down an inexperienced side, with the floodgates opening to little resistance in the second half.
On a wingback and a prayer
With Steph Catley rested for this international window, and Ellie Carpenter sidelined with an ACL injury, question marks surrounded the right- and left-back positions for the Matildas.
Gustavsson opted for the makeshift pair of Cortnee Vine and Tameka Yallop in a five-player defence, particularly curious given the strength of their opponents.
It proved to be costly; Spain constantly found joy out wide on both sides of the pitch, exposing the improvisational backline, with the additional consequence of handcuffing Vine from using her pace going forwards as well.
Here in the 17th minute, a simple wall pass bypasses a ball-watching Vine.
Mariona is able to put in a great ball which is swept into the goal, however from an offside position.
In the 20th minute, Yallop again attempts a lazy offside trap.
Garcia is able to waltz onto a through-ball, with all the time in the world to find a cutback to a teammate in the box.
Things, unfortunately, did not improve when Jamilla Rankin came in on the left for her debut.
For the fourth goal of the night, Garcia is able to dart in front of the young defender unawares.
The movement catches Rankin in an inferior position, and Garcia is able to outjump her opponent and power the header home.
In reality, the cupboard was laid bare for Gustavsson, forced to work with the few options at his disposal.
However, Charli Grant, who seemed the obvious candidate to take Carpenter’s spot, and was consistently solid amidst the barrage of attacks, was preferred as the right-centre back for the night.
The wingback position is an area of real concern as the search for depth in the roster continues
New faces, same old challenges
Lost in the negativity of the result, were the debuts for Rankin and Ray; rewarded for fine seasons in the A-League Women with their first international caps.
And while promising to see new players continue to be blooded, particularly from the local Australian domestic market, criticism can be directed at the timing of the introductions.
Gustavsson spoke pre-match about this being a great opportunity to play Spain and to find “answers” to where this squad, and particularly the younger players were in their development; whether they could translate their abilities to the international level.
Realistically, however, the writing was already on the wall, those answers are already known. Against a side peaking for the European Championships, there was no need to test the hypotheses.
Questions are probably better asked of Football Australia and the relevant organisers, who espoused taking the “long-term view” in resting a host of key players for these international friendlies.
A visibly frustrated Gustavsson explained post-match, “When we planned this match, the plan was to have our best team here.”
“We knew 12 months ago that this was the only time this year we could go up against one of the best teams in Europe, a week out from the Euros.”
That would seem to be at odds with the bigger picture, and questions have to be asked about when this long-term view was really adopted.
With the World Cup on the horizon, the time to align perspectives and answer questions is running out.