19/05/2024

Image from matildas.com.au

The Matildas played a unique brand of football in the Olympics. We look at their tactics and whether they're sustainable for 2023.

With a big few years ahead, The Inner Sanctum’s Jack George has taken a look at Tony Gustavsson’s tactics throughout the Matildas‘ Olympic campaign to determine if he is the right fit moving forward.

The Matildas had a successful Olympic games as they narrowly missed out on a medal and came fourth – their highest finish to date.

They got out of a tricky group featuring New Zealand, eventual third-placed side United States and tournament runners up, Sweden.

They beat New Zealand 2-1, lost to Sweden 4-2 and drew 0-0 with world number one USA, respectable results considering the circumstances, and went through to the quarter-finals as one of the two best third-placed teams.

The Matildas then beat Great Britain 4-3 dramatically, in a match encapsulating the extreme emotions football can reveal within fans – and that never say die attitude epitomised the Matildas throughout the tournament.

However, elements of Tony Gustavsson’s tactical set-up were criticised during the tournament, particularly the leaky defence and direct football.

The Inner Sanctum looks at their tactics in the campaign defensively, going forward and in possession, and asks the question of whether Gustavsson is the right man for the job, come the joint Australia and New Zealand world cup in 2023.

The Carpenter Conundrum

More often than not, Hayley Raso would play as a right-wing back despite being a right-winger by trade, and Ellie Carpenter would play on the right side of a back three.

Gustavsson’s positioning of Carpenter was something that frustrated many Matildas fans – Carpenter is highly regarded as one of the best attacking fullbacks in the world, but now found herself playing in a defensive role, restricted mainly to no further than the halfway line. 

But Carpenter was key to the Matildas’ backline – one that was leaky and consistently tested.

The Matildas usually pressed and played with a reasonably high line, particularly in the group stage matches. 

Against the USA in the 0-0 draw in the group stage, the Matildas played the offside trap to perfection, which is a positive for Gustavsson and his staff’s coaching ability.

Because of this, sides would look to play passes over the top and in behind the Matildas’ defence.

Teagan Micah, while excellent for the majority of the tournament struggled to read the passes in behind, while Alanna Kennedy, Clare Polkinghorne and Aivi Luik – all of whom played in defence at one point – didn’t have the pace to deal with them either.

Carpenter’s recovery pace was integral in both allowing the Matildas to press high up the field when desired and also to keep opposition players at bay when required with her superb physicality and one versus one defending. 

Until that last-minute red card against Sweden, Carpenter had rarely if ever been caught out for pace in one on ones and in behind, and was crucial in their win over Great Britain in the quarter-final.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Matildas weren’t short of goals going forwards either, so it’s not as if she is the key to unlocking the Matildas’ attack.

Perhaps it was frustrating to see Carpenter so restricted to a defensive role but the leaky Matildas defence would have been flooding without her in the back three.

Defensive issues

And Carpenter becomes more and more important considering the lack of central defenders at Gustavsson’s disposal. 

Clare Polkinghorne still remains positionally intelligent and a good aerial presence but, at 32, may have seen her last Olympic Games. 

Alanna Kennedy is a fantastic distributor and can make necessary tackles, but remains erratic and inconsistent, as seen in the bronze medal match against the USA. 

Kennedy plied her trade mainly as a central midfielder for Tottenham Hotspur in the Women’s Super League last season, and that appears to be the best position for her, where she can use her defensive positioning to her advantage and sit and spray passes out wide.

In the semi-final against Sweden, Gustavson lineup up with a back three of Ellie Carpenter (a right-back), Alanna Kennedy (a defensive midfielder) and Steph Catley (an attacking left-back), showing the lack of pure central defenders at his disposal. 

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The three main problems with the Matildas’ defence in the Olympics were individual mistakes, their press being bypassed and marking and anticipation within the box.

Of the four goals against the USA, one was directly from a corner and the other three can be classified as individual mistakes. 

Gustavsson shouldn’t be blamed for those errors, while the press he implemented was usually successful, but left the Matildas stranded at times.

Attempting to play on the front foot, the two wingbacks would press as far up as the opposition’s fullbacks when looking to regain possession. 

But this would leave the back three exposed and would leave plenty of room for passes into both wingers, either through direct passes from the fullbacks or through passes into midfield.

This would lead to the central midfielder playing alongside Emily Van Egmond (Van Egmond always sat centrally) to move wide to cover, which could lead to an overload in midfield.

The Matildas press and contest the pitch, and while usually effective, it can lead to them being exposed defensively.

Essentially, there were occasions where quick, smart ball progression from their opposition either resulted in a 3v3 with runners overloading the wide areas or lots of spaces in between the lines for the midfielders to exploit.

However, the pressing would work more often than not – while not always resulting in a changeover high up the field, it usually forced their opponents to play backwards and recycle, allowing the Matildas to regroup and set the trap once again.

Essentially, Gustavsson was creating organised chaos, attempting to control the game through the heavy pressing.

But the problem with chaos is it’s not always in your control.

The Matildas weren’t always pressing. They would at times sit deep and absorb pressure, but due to the perhaps lack of quality of defenders, Gustavsson preferred to create organised chaos in the high pressing rather than to defend crosses coming into the box.

This also meant that the ball would remain higher up the field, away from their goal, and teams could only trouble them in the final third with short bursts, rather than long periods of possession, something which suited the Matildas more than having the ball consistently close to the box – individual mistakes are far less dangerous the further they are from goal, horizontally and vertically.

How the Matildas look going forward

The Matildas looked to play out from the back, but past the defensive line would usually look for vertical passes towards the front three, usually high balls looking for a flick-on from Sam Kerr – the two wingers would make runs in behind.

Emily Van Egmond, a deep-lying playmaker, was charged with playing long passes wide, which was where the Mailtdas looked to do their damage often through crosses. 

More often than not, the Matildas essentially bypassed the midfield line, and would only look central to find Van Egmond, who would immediately play it back out wide again.

It’s not route one, but is something of that nature, as Gustavsson looked to capitalise on the team’s general crossing ability and Sam Kerr’s amazing leap and accuracy from her head. 

In possession, the Matildas often create a box around the width of the field, with either Kyan Simon or the other central midfielder sometimes looking to get in between the lines, along with Sam Kerr who drops off.

Apart from the two central midfielders, the Matildas play a box, or donut, around the width of the field

While Lograzo is positioned in midfield here, she often pushes forwards or drifts wide, and generally doesn’t receive the ball in midfield or between the lines. 

But what else can Gustavsson do? They lack quality central midfielders but have a plethora of very good to world-class wingers, which means they look to attack out wide. 

Depth on the wing causing headaches

Another reason why Carpenter has been restricted to a role in the back three comes with the fact that the side has so many great wingers, hence Haley Raso playing as a right-wing back in a five-player defence.

While a blessing, the extreme amount of wingers has likely caused headaches for Gustavson both in the present and the future.

There’s simply too many of them to fit on the field, and it means that there will always be one or two unhappy when starting on the bench.

Winger name:Position(s)
Caitlin FoordRight-wing, left-wing
Hayley RasoRight-wing, right-wing-back
Kyah SimonRight-wing, left-wing
Emily GiielnikRight-wing, striker
Mary FowlerRight-wing, left-wing
Kyra Cooney-CrossLeft-wing, attacking midfield, central midfield

Their consistent attempts to play out from the back, particularly in the bronze medal match against the high-pressing USA were criticised, but Gustavsson is attempting to play a vertical brand of football, and he looked to exploit the space in behind that would be allowed and spread out the play, as seen below.

Lots of space between the lines, out wide and in behind, but a lot of skill required to move the ball into those positions effectively.

It opens up the opposition while also leading to space in between the lines, although the latter doesn’t necessarily benefit the Matildas.

They don’t have a classic attacking midfielder, someone who can drop deep but also exploit space in between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield.

The closest thing Gustavsson has to an attacking midfielder is Kyah Simon, who enjoys drifting inside from the right and exchanging short, smart passes with her teammates – although she is also more of a winger.

But Caitlin Foord usually prefers to stay wide, and while she has been instructed to often come inside under Gustavsson, she often looks uncomfortable when receiving the ball in between the lines and is better in one on one situations out wide.

It’s worth pointing out that Foord will always come inside once the ball is in the final third (usually, not just for the Matildas), but when building up she prefers to be wider – having the ball back to goal with an opponent breathing down her deck isn’t one of her strengths, while winning duels and running at defences most certainly is.

While fans may want less direct football and more progression through midfield, it would be irresponsible for Gustavsson to try and play that way when he doesn’t have the players available. 

They have a plethora of good wingers available but lack a midfielder that can receive line-breaking passes.

We’d all love to see free-flowing, possession-based football but it’s easy to forget that fans often get angered by ball retention and view it as tedious after a certain point.

In my opinion, Gustavsson has come up with a clever tactic to allow his side to play successfully attacking football that they enjoy, and that should be celebrated and Gustavsson should be commended for his smartness in that area.

Emily van Egmond – Style differences

However, someone who does fit that possession footballing style is Emily Van Egmond.

The central midfielder didn’t have the best of tournaments, but it wasn’t necessarily her fault.

She is one that is happy to sit deep as a deep-lying playmaker and play passes in between the lines and spray diagonals out wide.

She worked well in Ante Milicic’s relatively possession-based system as the deepest midfielder in a three.

In the tournament, she was charged with playing long balls wide and over the top centrally, which resulted in sometimes erratic behaviour in the final third – instead of keeping the ball and shuffling it from side to side, she tried first time passes that never really came off. 

She was crucial in allowing the Matildas to play out from the back but looked uncomposed in the final third, which was disappointing considering how good she really can be as the tempo setting deep midfielder – although she was adjusting to a different brand of football to what she’s used to and comfortable within.

However, she was important in retaining possession for her side and calming down things when required, and will likely remain an important member in the Asian Cup next year.

Crossing key to Olympic success

The Matildas basically had one way of scoring – crossing. 

The Matildas scored 55% (6) of their goals from headers, while even more were the direct impact of crosses.

Sam Kerr is marvellous in the air, and benefitted from this tactic – she scored six goals in six matches, with four being headers.

This shows that the style of football, again while not the most easy on the eye, has worked for the star striker, and Gustavsson shouldn’t be blamed for implementing this tactic if the players enjoy playing under it and it’s successful – the Matildas did score a lot of goals, 1.8 per game at the Olympics. 

But one of the faults of the attack was the lack of runners/players attacking the second ball in or on the edge of the box.

Frequently throughout the Olympics, dangerous crosses would be whipped into the box and cleared, onto the edge of the box.

But there would be no one attacking that second ball – something that can be really dangerous attacking move if the run is executed correctly. 

This is what it looked like for the Matildas

When a team is looking to cross frequently as their main attacking outlet, they should have one player (usually a central midfielder) positioned on the D or just behind, ready to pick up the second ball and shoot or play it out wide again, as seen in the video below

The player has lots of options in a dangerous position on the edge of the box

This also means they can run in and capitalise on a botched clearance or loose ball inside the box – again another really dangerous attacking outlet. 

Alanna Kennedy, being experienced in midfield, can move forwards into the holding role temporarily if necessary to allow Van Egmond to move closer to the edge of the box.

Is Gustavsson the right fit?

Overall, the Matildas enjoyed a successful tournament, getting further than they ever have before and coming pretty close to a medal. 

It remains to be seen whether Tony Gustavsson’s tactics will be sustainable leading into the 2023 world cup, but their chaotic football is extremely hard to counter, and he is not to blame for the lack of depth in some positions on the pitch.

There are, however, a few important lessons he should take away from the Olympics.

The defence needs shoring up – whether it’s bringing in a few of the younger central defenders into the squad, switching formation or pressing less and learning basic defensive structures to rest and absorb pressure at points in the game.

2.16 goals conceded per game is not good enough to go far in most tournaments, and one way or another, this needs to be fixed.

The Matildas should probably also become more versatile in their ability to play through midfield instead of getting crosses in consistently throughout games, and someone like Kyra Cooney-Cross could be key with her vision, ball-carrying ability and ability to find space in between the lines.

But this should be seen as a positive start for the Matildas, and Gustavsson has shown the ability to adapt to the players available and implement smart tactics in the short term.

There’s plenty of time to develop, and Gustavsson will know where his side has to improve for the Asian Cup.

The Matildas look an improved side – the results show it – and Gustavsson has shown enough tactical, personal and managerial quality to be given support.

The Asian Cup will be key for the future of Gustavsson, but at the moment, he is the right person to lead the Matildas to the 2023 world cup.

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