August 2, 2023

After staring into the abyss, the Matildas can look ahead with confidence

By Vince Rugari
August 2, 2023 — 5.45am
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The Matildas stared into the abyss. The abyss stared back. They felt the fear and did it anyway. Now there is nothing to be scared of any more.

One minute you’re copping it from all angles. The next, you’re dishing it out to the Olympic champions, reminding everyone why they were so excited about this World Cup in the first place.

One minute, Tony Gustavsson’s head is on the chopping block – and according to well-placed sources, had they lost to Canada and been knocked out, it really was. Had the Swede not done the noble thing and quit himself, the axe would have swung eventually. A defeat would have made his position untenable. But a 4-0 win makes it very, very tenable.

Gustavsson had taken some big gambles, and they’d taken him and the team to the brink. All of a sudden, the jackpot could be about to pay off: a round of 16 clash awaits, and both Sam Kerr and Kyah Simon could be fit enough to take part. That’s gambling for you.

After grinding past Ireland without exactly setting the world on fire, and then that forgettable mis-step against Nigeria, the Matildas got exactly what they wanted on Monday night. That is to say, not the ball. For the first time this tournament, Australia did not have the majority of the possession, and thus the game was played on their terms.

Gustavsson insisted that the only real differences between this game and the Nigeria loss was the erasure of those defensive mistakes, and better finishing. Not quite true. He also reeled off an impressive list of the Matildas’ recent big-name scalps in his post-match press conference: Sweden, Spain, England, France, now Canada.

The Matildas celebrate Mary Fowler’s goal.Credit: Eddie Jim

The common denominator? Australia did not have the majority of possession in any of those matches.

Why Aussie teams – men and women, senior and youth – tend to look so toothless when they have the ball and have to be proactive will be the topic of someone’s PhD one day. It is a conversation the game needs to have, a problem it needs to solve, but right now is not the time.

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What we do know is when Aussie teams sit back in a compact block and spring forward, they can look terrific. These tactics feed into the siege mentality that Graham Arnold’s Socceroos and now Gustavsson’s Matildas have been able to harness. It aligns perfectly with this side’s ‘Never Say Die’ culture (read: Arnie’s patented ‘Aussie DNA’) and Gustavsson’s ambition to play transitional football.

A couple of tweaks set them on their way. Having planned so much around the Sam Kerr-Caitlin Foord attacking nexus and trying to make other combinations work following the skipper’s injury, it was a different pairing in a different part of the field that worked this time.

Foord was moved to the left, allowing her to link up with Arsenal teammate Steph Catley, and their mutual understanding – helped in no small part by an extremely poor defensive display by Canada, who were clearly intimidated by the occasion and the crowd – helped the Matildas get in behind repeatedly. That, in turn, reduced the number of aimless, hopeful, lofted crosses into the box. Instead, there were more incisive, low, driven balls, more cutbacks, which produced better chances.

Having Mary Fowler back helped too. Boy, is she back. In central areas, her intelligent movement in tandem with Emily van Egmond absolutely bamboozled the Canadians.

If Gustavsson deserved criticism for his previous errors – and he did – he deserves full credit for this response. Coaches make mistakes. We all do. It’s how you bounce back that counts.

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That said, he still seemed weirdly reluctant to use his bench. The game was well and truly won by the 58th minute, when Fowler scored her goal to make it 3-0, but again, his first change did not come until 15 minutes to go. Here was an opportunity to rest some of the seven outfield players who have been on the field for practically every second of the World Cup so far, and equally, a chance to let a first-timer experience what it’s like and shake off any nerves with the pressure off. There is a full week until their next game – so really, this is nit-picking – but it was curious.

But the most impressive aspect? The mental fortitude displayed by the Matildas. This night could have swallowed them up. They promised it wouldn’t, and it didn’t. The pressure was immense, and they were equal to it. It’s the mark of a special group.

What made the Nigeria match so galling was the fact that everyone knew this team was capable of so much more – emotionally, physically, tactically. That run of nine wins from 10 games leading into this tournament was no accident. This World Cup is the most open in recent memory. It’s there for the taking. There are no absolute standouts. If the Matildas keep bringing that same level of intensity, if a bit of luck falls their way, there’s no reason why it can’t be them.

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Vince Rugari is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter or email.
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