Canada Loss Underlines The Importance of Building Depth

Impetus’ Kieran Yap reflects on Australia’s defeat to Canada yesterday. With EXCLUSIVE photos by Kris Goman at Allianz Stadium (7/9/22).

Above: The Matildas come together in the huddle before their impressive first half showing against Canada yesterday. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

“How it looked is how it felt for us” said Caitlin Foord after Australia’s 2-1 loss to Canada.

“We felt like we were dominating, we felt like us again. We felt like we were playing well and a bit unlucky not to score a couple more. We don’t have that much time together leading into the World Cup, so that’s why those moments like the first 45 are really important, that we build on that, take that momentum into the next game and learn from that second 45 as well.”

The Matildas opening half was everything supporters, fans, analysts and critics would have wanted to see. Australia were direct in their passing, defensively strong, particularly on the flanks, and attacking in numbers.

Above: Celebrations after Mary Fowler put Australia ahead against Canada yesterday. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

Mary Fowler’s opening goal arrived before 10 minutes of play, and Australia created four more excellent chances in the first half along with having a penalty claim denied.

The second half was the exact opposite. Tony Gustavsson enacted some pre-planned substitutions, and Canada lifted their game to the level befitting Olympic Gold Medallists. Australia went from dominating, to competing, to hoping.

Above: Cortnee Vine (right) who had an impressive first half, looks on as Jessie Fleming drives forward for Canada. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

The most obvious change was on the right wing. Canada introduced Janine Beckie to the contest, Australia withdrew Cortnee Vine, who along with right-back Charlotte Grant had been impassable in defence and dangerous going forward.

With that partnership broken up, Canada enjoyed newfound space on the wing, and Australia became stretched more than they had been in the opening half. They were quickly on the back foot.

“We evaluated Vine at halftime,” explained Gustavsson to the media post-match. “She did a strength test, she lost 50% of strength in her hamstring and couldn’t continue unfortunately, because she had a really good first half.

“It’s frustrating because you felt the first 45 minutes was maybe the first time in a long time we’ve packaged a performance consistently. We’ve seen patches before…but this was a 45-minute complete performance when we were actually dominating Canada.

Above: Aivi Luik – strong at the back. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

“We know exactly what’s going to happen. Canada has nothing to lose, they’re going to press the shit out of us. We need to be ready for it…but I don’t think we were really ready.

“We didn’t match their speed of press with our speed of play…we didn’t play fast enough.”

It was a frustrating turn of events for Aussie fans. Although all of these friendly matches are essentially a pre-season to the World Cup, this felt like a winnable game, and the intent from the first whistle was clearly to do so.

However, Gustavsson urged fans to consider the depth that is being built. Even Matildas fans with short memories will be well aware of what has happened in the past when one a single player was missing.

Above: Clare Polkinghorne (left) marking Janine Beckie last night. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

In the past, any injury would lead to a domino effect. Clare Polkinghorne injured meant Steph Catley moving to centre-back, which meant Elise Kellond-Knight to left back which meant… you get the picture.

Once upon a time, this had reached a point where Caitlin Foord, and Kyah Simon were filling in or being experimented with as fullbacks. Although it is the role where Foord first earned her reputation, it is not where one of the nation’s best strikers should be.

Grant and Vine’s performance should be encouraging and is perhaps the most successful example of the depth building that Gustavsson had undertaken.

Australia’s right flank has long been a strength and a place of vulnerability. Hayley Raso and Ellie Carpenter can not easily be matched for speed, skill, or effort. Both players would risk serious injury to win the ball and developed a strong chemistry over the years.

Above: Charli Grant (left) put in another good shift for The Matildas. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

However, without one of them, Australia were significantly weaker. Without both of them it could be disastrous. Their particular set of skills are hard to find once, let alone twice.

The Matildas now have that set of skills four times. Grant and Vine are not at the same level as the Lyon and Manchester City stars, but against Canada, they further established themselves as senior players.

The emergence of both means that Australia can handle the loss of Carpenter and/or Raso without changing game style or tactics, that is significant.

At left back, it remains less obvious. Courtney Nevin is fast growing into a player who can deliver at the top level, and Tameka Yallop is surprisingly strong as a fullback. But neither are replicas of Steph Catley, and it requires a slight reshuffle in the absence of the Arsenal gun.

Above: Courtney Nevin – growing into a player who can deliver at the top level. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

Centre Back is the one area where depth has not been increased. Alanna Kennedy and Polkinghorne remain the first choice pairing, but beyond them, no obvious understudy or successor has emerged. Although Aivi Luik was strong in both games, as she has been at club level in her reincarnation as a defender.

Gustavsson has indicated that receiving senior Matildas caps will now be more difficult as he narrows down the squad to compete for the World Cup. But another strong central defender needs to be found unless they want to change to a back three in case of injury or situation.

Naomi Chinnama excelled at the Under 20 World Cup, and Clare Hunt was possibly the best Australian defender in last season’s A-League Women’s.

Matilda McNamara has been starting regularly at her club in Denmark and Angie Beard is a versatile defender who is better out wide, but can move inside, or at least allow Catley to.

Above: Smiles from Sam Kerr at the end. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

Gustavsson reiterated that seven starters from the Olympics were missing from this squad. If you add Kellond-Knight and Chloe Logarzo to that list, this was not even a nearly full strength Australian side.

But there are no guarantees he will have one at his disposal in 2023. The depth building project is essential, but questions remain if it is entirely successful. Only time will tell on that.

In the meantime, this result was more disappointing than other losses. Not because the score really matters in the big scheme of things, but just because the disparity between the first and second half was so stark.

This is why building depth is so important. Ideally, the on-field struggles that we are experiencing now should have been done years ago, a combination of a short-term senior coach and the pause on football during the pandemic denied that opportunity.

Australia has two more international windows this year. They will be used to test Australian players and tactics against different opposition from different continents.

This is all just pre-season, results don’t mean anything. But they don’t mean everything either.

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