Gustavsson: Wary Of South African Threat Whilst Building Midfield Cohesion

Impetus’ Ben Gilby spoke to Australia head coach Tony Gustavsson at Kingsmeadow this afternoon ahead of tomorrow’s friendly with South Africa (7/10/22).

Above: Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson. Image: Football Australia.

Whilst Australia are shorn of a number of first-choice players for their game with South Africa tomorrow, head coach Tony Gustavsson feels that his squad are capable of finding the answers required to get back to winning ways.

Gustavsson started by outlining the threats posed by South Africa and the approach his team are going to take to tomorrow’s match saying: “We’ve identified our opponents as we always do, and South Africa are a team with a lot of power and pace. They have a lot of individual skills. I’m impressed. They can hurt any team in transition.

“Their wide forwards do a lot of running, and they use that skill in defending as well. They make it a game of one v ones. They have pace in the backline too, so it’s hard to get behind them. They do lack height, they have conceded goals from set-plays and crosses. We’ve spent a lot of time on that today. That will be a massive part of the game.

“We need to control the game and make it about what we want it to be. If it becomes a stretched game and a lot of one v ones, then it is to their advantage. We need to be compact and then it’s to our advantage.

“South Africa are a good team. They played Spain in 2019 and were winning 1-0 until the 70th minute when they conceded a penalty. They played Brazil recently and kept it 0-0 until the 42nd minute. We are expecting a tough challenge.”

Above: South Africa’s 2019 World Cup tie against Spain – when Banyana Banyana gave the European side a major fright. Photo: Yahoo! Sports.

A lot of focus has been put on the number six role in the Matildas’ midfield in recent games. Yet, with the World Cup less than a year away, I asked the Australian head coach how he sees the rest of the midfield knitting together and becoming cohesive in both offering a defensive shield and formulating attacks.

“We have spent a lot of time this camp finding the best midfield combination. Sometimes it’s not the best players, it’s about the best combination, so you look at the best centre-back pairing, the best left-side combination, the best link between a nine and 10.

“We’ve had five training days this week looking at that cohesion. We have some players in there playing some of the best football in their life right now – Katrina Gorry is dominating the Swedish league. Kyra Cooney-Cross has been amazing, having been in the team of the week in Sweden, and obviously, we have Mary Fowler, who has also been phenomenal in the 10 position.

“We’re looking for that link between the players in that area, getting a bit closer together so they can play off each other more, and looking at the balance when we get dispossessed as that’s an area in which we’ve struggled in defending transitions. There we need to have not just a six protecting the backline, but more midfielders helping out defensively in the central area of the park.”

At the present time, Gustavsson has never fielded the same goalkeeper consistently during his tenure. Whilst Teagan Micah excelled at the Olympic Games and is in fine form for Rosengård in the Damallsvenskan, both Lydia Williams of Paris St. Germain and West Ham United’s Mackenzie Arnold have had regular opportunities. Gustavsson outlined how he is very close to settling on a first-choice keeper who will start all matches going into the World Cup.

Above: Teagan Micah – in great form for her club and aiming to become Australia’s first-choice goalkeeper. Photo: Ben Gilby for Impetus.

“We’ve spent 18 months giving everyone game time. Now we are narrowing down. You will see less rotation on the goalkeepers. We will have a clear number one. It is influenced by clubland; how they are playing, how much game time they get.”

With Australia having won only five of their ten matches this year – New Zealand (twice), Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand – there has previously been a mantra from Gustavsson of “losing a match but winning a player”. The Australia head coach outlined that whilst those days will soon pass, tomorrow’s inexperienced squad are still out to impress and claim a World Cup spot.

“Every time we step out on the field we are looking to win. That’s what we are going to do tomorrow. If we lose, we are going to see what did we learn. We will see a lot of young players out there tomorrow with less experience and that is a good thing in terms of getting a chance to play an African team. That doesn’t mean it’s an excuse not to try to win, we will do everything we can to win the game.”

In the day’s wider press conference, Gustavsson outlined the huge positives of staging this match in Europe from the point of view of maximising preparation time.

Above: The Matildas in training today at Kingsmeadow. Photo: Ben Gilby for Impetus.

“It has been a privilege to have five full days of training. The players came in fresh. We’ve had some double sessions and meetings. If you compare that to the last camp when half of the team arrived at midnight on Tuesday then we had a training session on Wednesday and a complete one on the Thursday, this is a completely different camp.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be in Australia, of course we do. It’s just from a training point of view, this week has been one of the best weeks we’ve had since I came in, in terms of the amount we’ve been able to do together.”

“Results matter, we want everyone to feel part of it. The players and federation know what we have done and why, so internally the need hasn’t been as strong – amount of injuries, number of debutants, the teams we’ve played.”

Gustavsson pointed out that when he has his strongest team together consistently, they can achieve great things – so despite a poor run of results against the top nations in the world, he believes that there can be great times ahead.

“We were successful at the Olympics as it was one of the times the country has had the biggest number of its main players together at the same time for a major tournament.

“It’s not fun to have the amount of players unavailable that we have now. We had tons of injuries in the last camp and we have tons of injuries this time too. Having said that we will have four or five young players starting tomorrow who I am really excited to see, they’ve been looking great in training this week.”

Above: Cortnee Vine – a player who could have a leading role tomorrow. Photo: Ben Gilby for Impetus.

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