Australia’s goalless draw against Sweden might be their most balanced performance yet under Tony Gustavsson.
The Matildas coach has been consistent in his messaging since taking the top job. Chief among those messages is that performance matters more than results in friendlies and that he wants his side to get “one day better.”
On the evidence we have so far, it appears that he is following through on these mantras. After conceding five goals against Germany and The Netherlands, the side was unlucky to lose to Denmark 3-2 after a surge of late attacks.
Up against World Cup Semifinalists Sweden, another thrashing was not impossible. Despite starting Sofia Jakobsson on the bench, Sweden still had enough talent to potentially trouble a re-structured Australian defence. The Matildas, thankfully defended with discipline and goalkeeper Teagan Micah was brilliant in her debut.
The new manager has shown a willingness to tinker, not just with personnel but with systems. Australia’s national team has been almost religious in its adherence to a 4-3-3 formation over the years but Gustavsson is unafraid of change.
This formation was ruthlessly dismantled by Germany and Holland. Although to give some perspective, The Netherlands recently defeated Norway 7-0.
In the last two matches, The Matildas have started with three recognized defenders. The midfield attempts to stop attacks further up the field and press the opposition into hurried or pressured passes. When Carpenter surges forward with the ball, somebody drops back to cover. This new method was sufficient for the most part against Denmark and worked very well over 90 minutes against Sweden.
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It is in attack where the side is yet to settle. Australia is blessed with options upfront but the best mix of players at any one time remains a work in progress.
At various times, Gielnik, Fowler, Indiah-Page Riley, Kyah Simon and Caitlin Foord have rotated with Sam Kerr as the centre forward. But the winning combination has so far eluded the team.
However, the side is creating chances. Against Denmark there were 10 shots on target and but for the width of the crossbar, Sam Kerr would have put the Aussies 1-0 up in the second half against Sweden.
To Gustavsson’s advantage are that most of the attackers have played with each other for a decade. The way Kerr’s cross found Kyah Simon and how she peeled back into space to receive it was an example of the chemistry that still exists.
Time is the biggest factor in the quest for Olympic success. There are no more top international matches between now and Tokyo but the Matildas have shown obvious improvement in each outing.
They are far from perfect, but they are starting to look ready.
After four games, we have an idea of what Gustavsson wants from his team. More importantly we know the players can do it.
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