Impetus’ Kieran Yap sees reasons to be positive in Australia’s two games this international window (12/10/22).
Above: Caitlin Foord celebrating her sensational goal in Denmark last night. The Arsenal star had a sparkling international window for Australia. Photo: Football Australia.
The Matildas’ latest international window must be viewed as a success in many ways.
Importantly, they got two wins. The 4-1 defeat of South Africa was followed up by an even more impressive 3-1 win against Denmark. Beyond the score lines, these were two of the most impressive performances in Tony Gustavsson’s time as manager.
Although Australia has shown patches of good form in most friendlies, they have struggled to put together a full 90-minute performance.
A combination of long flights, limited preparation, and strong opposition has meant that Australia’s form has been hard to judge. The problems have been obvious. Wasteful finishing, slow starts, and uneven energy levels have been prevalent in many of their recent internationals (particularly the first game of a window.)
This time, both games were played in Europe, meaning it was not only a short journey to camp for most of the team, ensured almost two extra days of training and preparation. It showed.
Over the course of the international break, The Matildas showed signs of improvement. There is much work to do before the World Cup, but some important boxes were ticked.
Cortnee Vine is off the mark
The Sydney FC star began the first game in the unfamiliar role of centre-forward. With Sam Kerr on the bench due to illness, Vine was tasked with pressing the defenders and poaching any opportunities.
She delivered a first-half brace. Both goals were from close-range finishes and her lack of celebration suggests that Vine considered the second a little lucky. But she was in the right spot on both occasions and was unfortunate not to have a third.
Vine’s performance was important for a few reasons. She now provides another option as an out-and-out striker. The most likely solution in the absence of Kerr was usually to move Caitlin Foord central. This still looked effective against Denmark and in the second half against South Africa. But without Kyah Simon for the immediate future, another striking option is vital.
Vine can now play multiple roles for The Matildas. She has played on the right flank, as a right wing-back, and as a striker. Gustavsson appreciates players with versatility. In a tournament, the ability to deputise for Kerr could ensure her spot on a World Cup roster. Her movement and instincts could make the difference for Australia.
Australia is a different side with Catley
It is no secret that Steph Catley is one of Australia’s best players. These two matches reinforced not only her quality but also her importance.
In the first game. Catley either assisted directly or had a hand in each of the four goals. Her defensive work was excellent, but she was also Australia’s best attacker throughout. Her crossing and set-piece delivery is a well-known asset. Against South Africa, the stand-in skipper showed her full array of skills.
Her lofted pass over the defence to set Caitlin Foord up to cross for Vine’s second was perfection. The type of ball that any great playmaker would be proud of. In the second half, her right-footed reverse pass wrong-footed the defender. It set Caitlin Foord away for her terrific solo goal.
Caitlin Foord recaptured her best form in these two matches. Three goals over the two games served as a reminder of what she has to offer when her confidence is high and she gets the ball in dangerous areas.
All three of Foord’s goals showed off different aspects of her game. Against South Africa, she showed an exciting change of pace to beat her defender. She then had the composure to finish calmly with her right foot into the far corner.
Against Denmark, Australia had attacked repeatedly after going behind in the first minute. But it took until Foord’s intervention before they were rewarded.
Foord had used her pace as a threat in the first game. In the second her craft did the job. A mazy run into the penalty box made just enough space to get a left-footed shot away. It took two deflections on the way to goal but she had done very well to create the space and took the opportunity to catch the Danish defence off guard.
Her second against Denmark and third of the international break was a work of art.
Kyra Cooney-Cross’s driving run from deep was followed by a cutback to Foord on the edge of the box. She took one touch to bring it down and in a swift movement hammered the ball into the back of the net.
The Matildas have come under scrutiny for a perceived overreliance on Sam Kerr. Like Vine, Foord has helped put those concerns to rest. The Matildas scored seven goals over two games against very different opponents without a strike from the Chelsea superstar.
Cooney-Cross comes of age
Kyra Cooney-Cross made her senior debut against Denmark in 2021. Since then she has been a regular inclusion under Tony Gustavsson, but has been used in varied roles.
In the 3-1 win against Denmark, Cooney-Cross had her best game in the national team.
Against South Africa, she played a more defensive role in support of Catley’s forward runs. Australia’s passing in that game was less than their best, but against Denmark, she replicated her club form at international level.
Cooney-Cross is at her most dangerous when she is running with the ball through the middle of the pitch. She causes defenders to backpedal and midfielders to commit or change position.
Against Denmark, she ran with purpose and menace in the style that earned her plaudits as one of the A-League Women’s best players. She directly set up Foord for the sealer, but was causing problems all match for a well organized defence.
Cooney-Cross’s versatility has meant that she has been used to plug gaps in the line-up. It has virtually guaranteed her selection but prevented her from playing at her natural best.
Despite a couple of defensive lapses, her work off the ball was also impressive. She covered space well when Catley or Luik advanced and pressed effectively in midfield.
Cooney-Cross struggled to impact the games against Canada in a forward role and playing her as a ‘6’ has looked risky given her inexperience.
In central midfield, with a license to unleash timely havoc, we were reminded of what she is capable of, and what she might produce.
What does the best midfield look like?
Katrina Gorry was superb, Cooney-Cross was dynamic, and Alex Chidiac was typically busy. Mary Fowler looked more dangerous as a forward, and Chloe Logarzo returned from injury.
In the absence of Emily Van Egmond and Tameka Yallop, they played well, and The Matildas suddenly look like they have considerable midfield depth.
The question now is what is the best mix of players?
On paper, historically Gorry, Kellond Knight, and Logarzo is a likely combination if all are fit. But that has not been tried so far.
Van Egmond has the experience and a record of clutch goals, but her performances for The Matildas have come under scrutiny. Her exceptional form for San Diego Wave has not translated to the national side in recent times.
Australia still lacks a natural number six. It is not a new problem and three different managers have struggled to solve it.
The early goal conceded against Denmark was a reminder of this. Australia’s midfield switched off momentarily and allowed Karen Holmgaard to arrive unmarked in the box and finish with ease.
After this lapse, they generally controlled possession and the game. But in a match where the opposition as more of the ball this may be a problem.
For years, it has been the natural condition of Matildas fans to hope Elise Kellond-Knight is able to play in midfield. Her return may still prove crucial to their World Cup fortunes, but this international window showed that in the absence of a specialist defensive midfielder, Gustavsson is working on a tactical solution.
This is encouraging and has not really been attempted so clearly in the past. Years gone by have seen a simple reshuffle of players rather than an obvious change in approach.
The midfield has options, and it may come down to the opposition they are facing to determine which is the best combination rather than who are the best players.