If the question put to the Matildas was, “what’s worse than not playing [international football] for 13 months?” the answer would surely have been along the lines of losing four of their next five matches and conceding 14 times along the way.
Like so many other teams gearing up for a summer spent in the sweltering heat of the delayed Tokyo Olympics, Australia’s preparations for the tournament have not been the best. The story isn’t unique to them, whether it be a new coach or scant matches over the last 16 months, the majority of teams are presenting as unknown quantities. but there is substantial hope for the Matildas.
New face, new look
A sure-fire way of confirming that a team will suffer on the pitch is dubbing a crop of young players breaking through as a “golden generation,” but that is the only way we can refer to the bulk of the current Matildas squad. A team that has threatened to be so much more than they have, the side put together by former coach, Alen Stajcic, was left in limbo after he was sacked by Football Federation Australia five months before the start of the 2019 World Cup.
With a healthy number of the France-bound Matildas squad known to fans around the world thanks to their exploits in NWSL, there was a great sense of disappointment following their short run at the World Cup under Ante Milicic. Yes, there was a question of real, meaty depth and a raised eyebrow over the centre backs, but the Matildas had once again fallen short of their individual capabilities: something needed to change, not least with a home World Cup on the horizon.
Enter Tony Gustavsson, a coach known from his time managing Tyresö FF to the Champions League final and as Jill Ellis’ assistant with the USWNT. With the Matildas not having played a match for six months and still seven months out from their first run out under their new manager, the Olympic clock was already ticking down against the Antipodean nation.
A European education
In their first match under their new coach, Australia found themselves a goal down to Germany at half-time, the performance not one that was rewriting the script but one that suggested promise. That was until the hosts hit their opposition for three goals in the space of 16 minutes, two late goals from Emily Gielnik, either side of Germany’s fifth, doing little to pacify. The friendlies continued, a 5-0 loss to the Netherlands, a 3-2 loss against Denmark followed by a scoreless draw away to Sweden before a 1-0 loss to Japan last week. Results, that on paper, look damning but don’t speak to the growth that can be see over each 90-minute match.
The goals given up by Australia have routinely been sloppy, avoidable and have arrived in flurries, punctuating momentary head-drops and players still adapting to new systems. Players have been pulled out of position by Gustavsson and thrown into unfamiliar roles to varying degrees of success, formations and systems changing seemingly on whim rather than ad hoc. The coach has spoken to a bigger picture, about getting everyone on the same page with the same vision and in their last warm-up game in muggy Kyoto, it became clear just how quickly that vision is crystalising.
There remain questions over how easily teams have marked Sam Kerr out of games or about the use of Ellie Carpenter at right centre back but the team is showing greater flexibility in their approach to games and opponents. Given Australia will be given a stern test this month facing both the USA and Sweden in their Olympic group, the team being comfortable playing with a back-five should stand them in good stead, not least if they can get a good win under their belts against New Zealand.
There are few to no coaches in the world who you’d expect to claim silverware ten months after taking over a national team, especially if they had only played their first friendly three months before the start of the tournament. The job for Gustavsson and his Matildas is not to go out, win every match in Japan and end up going home with shiny new medals in their carry-ons – although no one would turn their noses up at such – the job is a simple one: improvement.
Each match is a new opportunity to learn, to experiment and grow as a team, the Olympics simply happen to be happening a few months into the Tony G Years. The Games represent a rare chance for competitive fixtures the Matildas ahead of the 2023 World Cup – the 2022 Asian Cup, which doubles as a qualification tournament for AFC nations, the last chance the team will have to test themselves outside of friendlies. Playing world class teams in uncomfortable climates with those on the pitch forced to switch between systems in-game will be the biggest test for the coach and players and one that will pose and answer more questions ahead of 2023.
With more and more young players coming through – a bittersweet benefit of the W-League reverting to a semi-development league of sorts – and being given a chance by the Swede, the future seems nothing but bright for the AFC nation. Whatever happens in Japan over the next few weeks will be what it will be and more than ever, results will not tell the whole story; the team, one that’s growing towards their home World Cup.