Never Say Die Matildas end Lionesses’ unbeaten run

England 0-2 Australia

by Rachel Cohen at the GTech Community Stadium for Impetus (12/4/23).

Above: Charli Grant (second left) celebrates her goal last night with (left to right) Kyra Cooney-Cross, Cortnee Vine, and Mary Fowler. Photo: Football Australia.

Tony Gustavsson’s buoyant Matildas ended England’s 30-game unbeaten run with a performance full of their trademark ‘Never Say Die’ spirit at Brentford last night.

Sarina Wiegman will hope that a loss for The Lionesses’ at this stage of the World Cup build-up will provide the team with a chance to learn. At least that was the positive that the players offered up as they struggled to make sense of what had happened after the full-time whistle had blown.

The Australian players on the other, hand, were buoyant. They had scored two goals without reply and despite a raft of injuries demonstrated that they might be a decent outside bet when the World Cup kicks off on their home soil in 100 days.

Australia came into this game having lost to Scotland 1-0 the previous Friday. But earlier this year they had racked up a series of impressive victories over highly-ranked teams, including Spain and Canada.

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

England’s form prior to the loss, was impressive – a 30-game unbeaten run stretching back to the start of Sarina Wiegman’s time at the helm. This had spanned games against all the teams ranked above them. They did, however, show weaknesses in a slightly-edgy Finalissima victory over Brazil in which the South American side pushed England back before equalling late in the second half.

The starting line-ups were largely unchanged from the two nations’ most recent games. England made just two changes from the team that beat Brazil on penalties on Thursday.

The first was an enforced swap, with Esme Morgan getting her fourth cap in place of the injured Greenwood. This swap meant that Williamson has now been part of three different central-defensive partnerships this year, with Greenwood herself having moved centrally to cover for the also injured Millie Bright. The other change was that Chloe Kelly started ahead of Lauren James. But since these two players, alongside Lauren Hemp have been used in rotation in the attacking wing positions it was less of a surprise.

Meanwhile, this game saw Sam Kerr return to the Australian starting lineup, having sat out the Scotland game with a niggle and in order to manage game time, given an intense period for her club side, Chelsea. The only other change saw the experienced Tameka Yallop start ahead of Cortnee Vine.

The first goal came on 32 minutes in a mixture of beauty and chaos. The beauty was there in Hunt’s lovely long diagonal ball over the top to Kerr. It was followed by the chaos: Williamson got to the ball just ahead of Kerr but made an ill-fated attempt to head it softly to Earps and safety.

Above: Sam Kerr celebrates her goal with Hayley Raso (left) and Tameka Yallop, with Mary Fowler about to join the party. Photo: Football Australia.

Instead, she placed the ball in the no man’s land between the striker and keeper with Kerr always the more likely to reach it first. All that was needed then was for her to dink it over Earps and goal-ward. It was a goal that we have seen Kerr score often enough that it felt inevitable, but at the feet of a lesser striker there would have been a multitude of ways to fumble. Some may argue taht Kerr was offside when Hunt’s pass was played. But it was marginal. There was no VAR. And the goal stood.

Later during the press conference, Kerr reflected on how she foresaw where the opportunity might be: “Honestly I thought the ball was going to get to me…without Leah touching it. But the wind kind of was swirly all night, so I just had to prey on it.

“Obviously, as a striker, that’s kind of what you do. You have to hope that someone makes a mistake. I just had to make sure I was there. And once I saw that it was kind of floating, I kind of knew. That there was going to be a miscommunication between the two.” 

The second goal came on 67 minutes. It started with a defense splitting pass from Hayley Raso that allowed Kerr to run onto the ball in between Carter and Morgan down Australia’s right. As she reached the ball and before taking a touch Kerr looked up, saw Charli Grant, arriving in space at the far corner of the area, and crossed the ball, angling it backwards into the perfect area for Grant to head home. It was helped on its way by a deflection off Williamson’s arm that left Earps with no chance. This was Grant’s first-ever goal for her country and she later described herself as ‘just pumped’.

Australia head coach Tony Gustavsson, talked about Grant exemplifying “the grit in this team”, “a lot of what this team stands for”. He highlighted her determination to wait out periods not playing for her club and her “commitment to always get one day better” saying that he was “so happy for her”.

Above: Charli Grant celebrates her goal with Hayley Raso, Mary Fowler, and Cortnee Vine. Photo: Football Australia.

He also highlighted “the work that Australian football is doing with the players” as essential to the team’s performance, especially the Australian national team’s scouting programme with scouts watching games and even “watching training” to identify the relatively unsung players that have come together to make up this squad.

Gustavsson was pleased with the way his team had managed the game. “You saw a lot of tournament football out there. And there was a lot of tactical things in that game that we have practiced in terms of game management and tournament football and just, you know, what it takes when it comes to tournament mode. And a lot of those things were applied tonight.”

The two goals were Australia’s only shots on target. But they were not an anomaly. Rather throughout the game England’s back line were discombobulated by the Matildas’ counter-attacking game and despite only five shots registering, there were at least another few opportunities – Mary Fowler received the ball in the box, but got her feet tangled in the first half; Kerr fired wide just after the break, Katrina Gorry’s shot was blocked, Kerr was caught just offside over and again.

In contrast, England had over 70 percent of possession. But they were unable to find a way through Australia’s compact defense: two banks of four at times so close they could touch one another. Over and again England attempted to exploit their width: moving the ball to the touchline before crossing into the box.

Some of these attempts produced decent chances or at least half-chances. There was Alessia Russo’s miscued overhead kick, Ella Toone’s blocked shot, Williamson’s weak header, Lucy Bronze’s header over, Rachel Daly’s wide header, Lauren James’ shots over and wide of the bar, and in the dying minutes Chloe Kelly’s trio of efforts to make something happen. But when none of this worked, England did not have much of a Plan B.

Above: Kyra Cooney-Cross and Katrina Gorry who both put in impressive shifts. Photo: Football Australia.

Or at least Plan B also did not work or did not have time to work. Because Wiegman did make changes: bringing Daly in for Toone at number 10 and then, in the 84th minute, Jess Park for Jess Carter (which meant the back four became a back three).

Both these substitutions increased England’s competitiveness in the centre of midfield where Australia had at times dominated. But in the event, neither, proved sufficient to unsettle Australia. Meanwhile, England’s inability to be clinical in front of goal and Australia’s aggression on and off the ball continued to define the game.

There were other changes forced on both managers by injury. Lauren Hemp, wearing a face mask after sustaining an injury against Brazil, came off after 28 minutes, replaced by Lauren James. James had moments where she almost sparked the team into life – driving at players, cutting inside and taking shots. But it wasn’t her day.

Tameka Yallop, who was involved in some early battles against Bronze and Hemp was injured in a clash with Chloe Kelly and went off after 40 minutes, replaced by Cortnee Vine who was then herself replaced by Clare Wheeler after she went down in the centre of the pitch on 86 minutes.

This game showed England at their most fragile at the back. The most obvious defensive issue is that Williamson and Morgan (in centre midfield) and Esme Morgan and Jess Carter (on the defensive left) are not very familiar with one another. If Millie Bright is back before the World Cup this may be less of an issue.

Above: Katrina Gorry, Charli Grant, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Ellie Carpenter share their joy after the final whistle. Photo: Football Australia.

But if she is not it is not yet clear that Wiegman has a perfect solution (with the Williamson-Greenwood pairing also showing some weaknesses in the Brazil game). The Lionesses’ boss explained her choice to start Morgan “I think she’s a very talented good center back and I wanted to see her.” The defensive frailty may have been exacerbated by Hemp’s early departure. Of England’s three wingers, she is the most defensively astute – perhaps the reason why she played more minutes than even the in-form Mead during the last Euros.

The other answer is that Australia are very good at moving the ball forward quickly into dangerous positions. Kerr was exceptional, leading the line and key to both goals. But Fowler also had a standout game alongside her, meaning that the England defence could not simply focus on stopping Kerr.

Raso, Katrina Gorry, and Kyra Cooney-Cross pressed relentlessly. That meant that over and again there was an Australian body or leg in the way. Most often more than one. And Australia were a persistent threat on the counter with players, from front to back, comfortable on the ball and willing to run at England.

This game was never about what happened on the night as much as what it told fans, players, and coaches about the looming World Cup. By the close, Australia had won but both teams probably still see this summer’s tournament as winnable. Both are ranked in the FIFA Top 10 and this game demonstrated why.

For Australia the World Cup is a home tournament and, as captain Sam Kerr has commented Australia play better in front of a home crowd – something demonstrated with victories over Canada and Spain alongside their resounding win against a Czech team that had stopped the USA from scoring. Their win over England shows that they can win against different types of teams, even when they give up possession or are the underdogs.

For England, the loss will hurt but, in light of their form over the last two years, this is unlikely to seriously dent confidence or expectations. It may however provide food for thought. And if Sarina Wiegman decides that the team still lacks something it may yet open up opportunities for fringe players to come into the fold.

Meanwhile, with the end of the international window, both nations will have to wait a while before ironing out any glitches. And then there is just one final game for each team to finesse their preparations. Australia will be playing France in July. England’s final opponents are yet to be determined.

Teams: ENGLAND (4-3-3): Earps, Bronze, Williamson, Morgan, Carter, Stanway, Walsh, Toone, Kelly, Russo, Hemp. Substitutes used: James (for Hemp 28′), Daly (for Toone 60′), Park (for Carter 84′).

AUSTRALIA (4-4-2): Arnold, Carpenter, Hunt, Polkinghorne, Grant, Raso, Cooney-Cross, Gorry, Yallop, Fowler, Kerr. Substitutes used: Vine (for Yallop 40′), Wheeler (for Vine 86′), Chidiac (for Kerr 90+4′), Nevin (for Raso 90+4′).

Scorers: Kerr 32, Grant 67′.

Referee: Natalie Simon (USA).

Attendance: 14,489.

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