18 games against opposition ranked in the world’s top 20. Just one win. It’s the damning statistic that paints a picture of where the Matildas stand just 286 days away from the 2023 World Cup kicking off on home soil.
Despite a generational talent in Sam Kerr, and a supporting cast including no small number of centurions, the Matildas have slumped to a dire record under Swedish coach Tony Gustavsson. 13 losses in 26 games, with just eight wins – a touch over 30 per cent.
The Matildas mentor is contracted until 2024, but whether he will be entrusted to guide the Australian side to one of the defining tournaments in Australian footballing history remains to be seen.
The first half of Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Canada felt like a turning point. It was everything Gustavsson had been promising: fluid attacking football, dazzling and delighting the 26,997 in attendance on a milestone night at the new Allianz Stadium; a relentless pressure in defence that robbed their opponents of the ball and seemingly of their composure too; and beating their opponents – better, dominating them.
The only thing missing was goals – teen sensation Mary Fowler opened the scoring in the third minute, but the Matildas could and should have gone into the halftime break up by another two or more.
After the interval everything changed, the very embodiment of the old saying that declares football is ‘a game of two halves’.
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The Matildas were slow off the mark, the polar opposite of their first half. Their pressing slowed, as did the attack. Substitutions also failed to pay off. Canada roared back, striking just three minutes into the second half then again in the 64th minute. On both occasions, Canada’s attacking forays were not complex, intricate moves. Rather, they were devastating in their simplicity, as obvious as if to dare the Matildas to stop them if they could. The Australians could not, nor could they find a way to recover after going down. That has become a familiar theme. It is a bigger problem than results themselves.
After the full-time whistle sounded, captain and talisman Sam Kerr wandered off alone to gather her thoughts, a picture of despondency. She has carried the weight of the hopes of a nation on her back for so long, even as Gustavsson reshaped the team in his style. The pressure on her – and on all the Matildas – to perform is immense, and has only grown in recent years. It was palpable at the new Sydney Football Stadium on Tuesday night – fans went into a frenzy whenever Kerr’s eyes pointed goalwards, almost demanding she delivers as she has time and again. When she didn’t, when the Matildas again tasted defeat, the weight of those expectations seemed to hit home.
Under Gustavsson, Kerr has often remained isolated at the head of the Matildas attack, with the midfield struggling to link up with the wide attacking players and their number nine. That was not the case in the first half of Tuesday night. The introduction of Caitlin Foord and Cortnee Vine to the starting line-up proved instrumental in the Matildas’ fortunes: both fleet-footed and attack-minded wingers, they gave the Canada fullbacks plenty of headaches. It was Vine who sent Kerr into the box in the third minute, with the Chelsea striker laying it off for Mary Fowler to bury an easy finish.
“I think it’s important that Sam doesn’t carry all the burden for this team. I know how much she loves this team and cares. We need to let her have the responsibility but not take the blame herself,” Gustavsson said.
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He himself has worn plenty of blame for the run of poor results, but at the same time has remained steadfast in his belief in ‘the process’ the Matildas are undergoing on their journey to the World Cup. Results, he claims, are subservient to development.
It is sometimes hard to agree. For managers, results almost always end up defining their tenures.
But in the first 45 minutes, the Matildas dominated one of the world’s best teams, and did so despite a host of their best players – six or so starters from the Olympic campaign last year – missing.
Those players on the field, from 37-year-old defender Aivi Luik to 19-year-old Manchester City signing Fowler and everyone in between, showed they also believe in Gustavsson’s process.
As Caitlin Foord said after the match: “We felt like we were dominating. We felt like us again.”
Gustavsson’s project was based upon addressing two fundamental and long-running problems in the national team: the first was an inability to beat elite teams, especially in major tournaments, and the second an over-reliance on the core squad to the detriment of fringe players.
At the core of his strategy was to line up an unprecedented array of fixtures against the world’s best – and to expose a host of young guns to those elite opponents.
No other Matildas manager has faced so many top teams in their tenure. Gustavsson himself admits it may have been ‘overambitious’ – and the results have been damning.
But as he said on Tuesday night, “Maybe a year and a half ago with key injuries if we played Canada, wouldn’t have been able to dominate them like we did for 45 minutes.”
The losses have piled up, but by the time the World Cup arrives the Matildas squad – and not just the core – will have played a mountain of minutes against elite opponents. As Tuesday proved, they can also outmatch them, for 45 minutes at least.
The challenge now is to do it for 90. But the blueprint is clear, as were the long-hoped-for improvements on the field.
To sack Gustavsson now – having laid the foundations for success – would be understandable based on his poor results. But it would also fall into a trap that has plagued the Matildas in the past.
As captain Sam Kerr told foxsports.com.au in March, “I think we’ve always had this happen to us as a team, where maybe before the World Cup we haven’t been performing or things have happened where they fired our coach, or got a changeover of coach right before the Olympics or the World Cup.
“So for us that would be the worst thing in the world, because starting fresh again – it’s just we’ve done it three or four times now.
“It happened when we lost Hesterine (de Reus, 2014), when we lost Staj (Alen Stajcic, 2019), when we lost Ante (Milicic, 2020), it’s always a year out from a major tournament. For us that’s really tough. It’s really difficult.”
“It’s disappointing to have some losses but the bigger picture is what we’re working towards,” Foord said on Tuesday night.
The bigger picture is a World Cup final at the same Sydney Football Stadium as Tuesday’s night defeat – but this time, hopefully with a different result.