by Kieran Yap (16/11/22)
Above: Coming together – Australia are putting the performances and understanding together heading into World Cup year. Photo: Football Australia.
The Matildas have finished 2022 off with two comfortable wins. More importantly, they have established an identifiable, repeatable, and effective game style.
Tony Gustavsson’s side has now recorded four consecutive wins, over four different opponents from three regions. They have scored 13 goals and conceded two, with clean sheets against Sweden and Thailand.
But as always with friendly matches, it is not the scoreline that matters most, it is the performances. Although both matches contained patches where Australia struggled, the two wins were exciting to watch and exhibited tactics that worked against both teams.
Gustavsson has tinkered with personnel and formations since his first game in charge. After suffering heavy losses, to Germany and the Netherlands, he switched to a back three. This setup produced a strong performance against Sweden prior to an Olympic tournament that took them to the semi-finals.
Following that, Australia changed back to the traditional 4-3-3. It meant numbers in attack, but without an experienced defensive midfielder, Australia were often left vulnerable in midfield. It was a weakness exploited in spectacular and heartbreaking fashion by South Korea’s Ji So Yun in the Asian Cup quarter-final.
In the 4-3-3, Australia looked to press from the front, but once the ball got through that first line of defence, the defenders were immediately under pressure as the midfield was forced out of position.
The 4-4-2 that Gustavsson switched to against Denmark and continued in the wins against Sweden and Thailand, had gotten the best out of a squad with depth in midfield and two world-class strikers.
Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord both are accustomed to defending from the front at Arsenal and Chelsea respectively. They do not race directly at the defenders, but stalk side to side, cutting off angles or making them pass wide or to risky areas in the middle.
As Gustavsson said after the Sweden game, they know when to move and when to pressure the ball carrier. The fact that they have played together for over a decade in the national team means that they have an on-field chemistry.
You will rarely see them take up the same space or get in each other’s way. Pairing them as a mobile strike partnership gets the best out of them defensively as well as offensively. Two goals each over the international window and multiple other chances created showed what this two-player partnership can offer.
It also means that the midfield has more players and less space for the opposition. If the ball goes wide to the left, the attackers have to deal with Cortnee Vine and Charli Grant. If it goes to the right, they are faced with Hayley Raso and either Courtney Nevin or Steph Catley.
If they go through the middle, there are now two players to contend with, where previously there was only one. Neither Katrina Gorry nor Kyra Cooney-Cross are defensive midfielders, but they are quick, relentless, and capable of winning the ball or at least slowing down the opposition.
They have developed into an exciting midfield pairing. Cooney-Cross has impressive acceleration and an eye for a killer pass. Gorry has a right foot that can be a pillow for a dropping high ball, a sledgehammer if she wants to shoot, or surgical if she wants to find a teammate.
Both players dribble, both can create, and both can score. The last two national team coaches have struggled to find a way to get the best out of Gorry. Gustavsson has made her central to his plans. She is a player who dominates games and improves those around her.
The back four is an example of the long-term project bearing fruit. Since stepping into the role of head coach. Gustavsson has been consistent in saying that building depth in the squad is important. This has long been evident in defence, and a year ago, there were few options at fullback beyond Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter.
Grant and Nevin can now step into those positions without the rest of the team needing to adjust. Nevin put in some dangerous crosses against Thailand, while Grant’s genuinely two-footed passing allows Australia to retain possession in defence, and change angles in attack.
The two matches were not perfect. Australia should have scored more against Thailand, and the visitors’ stubborn defence caused hesitation in front of goal. Kerr seemed to play a half-shot-half pass to Foord with only the keeper to beat, and Mary Fowler uncharacteristically delayed her shots in the second half.
Against Sweden, The Matildas were lucky not to concede after an early onslaught, but they found their way into the match and were clinical in front of goal against a strong opponent.
The team still remains a work in progress, as Elise Kellond -Knight, Tameka Yallop, Chloe Logarzo, and Carpenter return there may still be more tinkering. But the pieces are starting to come together, and a picture of what The Matildas look like at their best is starting to reveal itself.
It’s a good end to the year.