Matildas show continued signs of promise, but one concern remains

By Kieran Yap (12/4/23)

Above: Charli Grant celebrates her goal for Australia against England. Photo: Football Australia

Australia had mixed results over the two games in this international window, but fairly consistent performances. Overall, the international window should be seen as a successful one, despite some lingering concerns.

Although a 1-0 loss to Scotland frustrated some fans, elation followed the 2-0 win over European Champions England. Taken as a whole this international window is encouraging. The Matildas’ trajectory generally feels upward, but 99 days out from the World Cup, some questions still need convincing answers.

The Scotland game felt worse at the time than it does when watched again. Australia created several good chances throughout the game. Most came in the second half and only after they fell behind to a Nicole Docherty screamer, but Cortnee Vine and Mary Fowler both had opportunities to equalise with only the woodwork and some excellent goalkeeping denying them.

Clare Hunt’s long-range effort deserved a goal, with the only downside being that it seemed to encourage others to try their luck from range with less success.

Statistics do not tell the entire story, but the first game was relatively even, Australia had two shots on target to Scotland’s four, neither side dominated possession, and Mackenzie Arnold was dependable, only beaten by an unstoppable effort.

Above: Tony Gustavsson gives advice to Mackenzie Arnold during the match against Scotland. Photo: Hannah Parnell for Impetus.

The second game against England felt better, but The Lionesses had 10 more shots on goal than Australia, with the shots on target reversed. England had four against two.

England also dominated possession with 71% and had plenty of luck down their right flank against Charli Grant. Although the 21-year-old defender had the last laugh and proved that only one stat matters when she scored to help Australia win 2-0.

Here is what we can draw from this window. Australia can play in different ways, depending on the opposition. It is something that Tony Gustavsson has been trying to develop since the pre-Olympic friendlies.

In that tournament, The Matildas played for the result, changing formation and tactics to suit each opponent and occasion. While previous iterations of The Matildas have been more fun to watch or even higher scoring, this tactical evolution of the team is essential to beating high-placed European opposition, something they had not been able to do for years.

Against England, Australia defended deeper, but reasonably comfortably. Ellie Carpenter curbed her natural attacking game to sit back and keep an eye on the numerous threats that England possessed. Only Lauren James got a clear sight of goal and Arnold was once again equal to it.

Above: Ellie Carpenter in action against England – the right back curbed her attacking tendencies to help counter England’s attacking threats. Photo: Football Australia.

When their chances arrived, they took them. Sam Kerr poked one home above Mary Earps after capitalizing on a Leah Williamson error, and set up another after peeling wide to cross for Charli Grant.

Against Scotland, although Australia created some good chances, there was not cutting edge to finish them off. Fowler would have expected to bury her shot after one of the best passing moves in recent Matildas history, and Vine was unlucky on two occasions. Larissa Crummer struggled to get o the end of chances, and the performance of Kerr in the second, theoretically more difficult match showed the difference that the Chelsea star makes.

This is the main area of concern left in the Matildas setup. There is now more defensive depth than there has been since 2015. The midfield is missing Chloe Logazro, Emily van Egmond, and Elise Kellond Knight from 2019, but is functioning well. Clare Wheeler and Alex Chidiac are both capable across multiple roles should they be called on.

Up front, Australia were missing too many guns in the first game. Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Emily Gielnik, and Kyah Simon were all missing. Gustavsson has chosen Crummer primarily for her pressing abilities, but in the absence of an in-form striker, the chances they created were not converted.

This is not cause for major concern. It is an issue that will be fixed with time, but there is no guarantee any of these players will be available at the World Cup.

Above: Alex Chidiac receives instructions before coming on against Scotland – is it time to give her a starting role? Photo: Hannah Parnell for Impetus.

Michelle Heyman seems to be out of contention for a call-up, but within the current squad a solution needs to be found. It is the only area where the impressive depth building project still needs completion.

Alex Chidiac is an excellent pressing player and Mary Fowler is a fantastic finisher. Could the pair be tried together in the absence of Kerr and Foord?

Tameka Yallop ended the England game in a moon boot but was used at left-back against Scotland as Australia chased a goal. Yallop is a good goal-scoring option and has played in attack at club level for years. Should her injury be overcome quickly, she is another option.

This is a minor quibble. Foord is expected to return to the field by Arsenal’s Champions League semi-final, and the attack has not relied too heavily on Kerr in recent matches before this window.

Overall, this window shows that The Matildas’ preparation continues to go well. It is only hampered by injuries or the type of experimentation that friendlies are designed for.

Above: Sam Kerr and Charli Grant – Australia’s goalscorers against England embrace. Photo: Football Australia.

Much of the aggravation that some Matildas fans feel after poor results come from different preferences of how the team should play. Gustavsson has used this window to set up to play in different ways. He is right when he says “sometimes you’re not as bad as people say when you lose, but you’re not as good people say you are when you win either.”

It is tempting to look at what could have happened or criticise individual players in a loss, but the bigger picture remains the focus, and without knowing exactly what has been asked of players it is difficult to assess them. We can only look at the team performance, and over both games, they were good against strong opposition.  

We learned plenty in these two games, there are some fixable issues and some impressive discoveries.

Australia can match it with the best. a defensive game plan can work, and Charli Grant can fill in for almost any position across the back line.

Kyra Cooney-Cross continues to grow. Ellie Carpenter has slotted straight back into the side, and Mackenzie Arnold is now brimming with confidence. Most crucially, the gap between Australia’s worst football, and their best is as small as it has ever been. When they are under the pump as they were for periods against Scotland, they do not collapse. When they concede, they are able to recover.

Some tinkering remains, it probably always will, and finding a replacement for the world’s best striker if she’s injured or unavailable is a mighty task. But things are looking up, as the World Cup closes in, optimism should be high.

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