15/04/2024

Jessika Nash (left) lines up for her first senior international. Image :Football Australia

Tony Gustavsson is unafraid of some short-term pain if it solves some long-term problems for The Matildas defence.

The match was billed as a dress rehearsal for a World Cup final, so it was a surprise to see 17-year-old Jessika Nash and 19-year-old Courtney Nevin start against The U.S.A in the heart of the Matilda’s defence.

These are quality players and were fixtures for Canberra United and Western Sydney last season. However, their inexperience as a duo and at international level was exposed almost instantly.

A goal conceded in the first minute was an awful start , but to their credit, they composed themselves.  Not long after, Nash confidently stepped around an attacker to carry the ball and play it into midfield.  Nevin was robbed of possession under similar circumstances. She kept things simple thereafter and looked better as the game went on.

The Matildas went into halftime 1-0 down after creating a series of chances that they should have taken.

The game would end 3-0 in one of the poorer results following the Olympics. Manager Tony Gustavsson was disappointed but remains committed to exploring options in defence.

“We need depth in the backline and we need to look at players and actually be brave enough to get them into these types of games,” he said to the media post-match.

“If this was 15 years ago and I was coaching, I’d give them 10 minutes at the end.

“Those minutes are not the same value as warming up, a record crowd, The U.S.A in the stadium in front of your that’s going to hold the World Cup Final.

“To be able to deal with that, in that environment is what we need and I’m going to have their back all the time.”

The Matildas defence has long been reliant on Clare Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy between Carpenter and Catley. When they have had the first choice back four fit and available, they have historically been world-beaters.

However, if any of these players were missing, a domino effect occurred and various players were shifted to fill gaps, often taking strengths away from other areas of the team.

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Gustavsson is well aware of this. Since Tokyo he has spent every camp exploring defensive combinations, lining new players up against the world’s best. Neither Polkinghorne nor Kennedy were available to face the U.S.A.

“What I need right now is to look at all the options that we have,” he reinforced again.

Gustavsson knows this is a difficult process. The importance of short-term results is being weighed against the long-term plan.

“I am patient in this process because I’ve done it before (With the U.S.A), I have the belief in this process, but I also know what needs to improve.”

“I hope we can take some learnings from tonight and show some improvement from the game on Tuesday.”

The search for left footers

One of Australia’s best left-sided footballers is Steph Catley. The Arsenal fullback is versatile in defence and dangerous in attack.  She was a prolific crosser of the ball at the Olympics and her quality with the ball makes her vital to The Matildas attack.

The U.S.A seemed wise to this, as they should have been having played Australia twice already this year.

Catley was closed down quickly in wide areas and often forced to play it backward or laterally.

Caitlin Foord was the nominal attacker on the left. She is adept in this role for both Australia and Arsenal but is not a left-footer.

Foord is more likely to cut inside and shoot than race to the byline and whip in a cross. Her hold-up play and ability to turn is excellent but if Catley is limited, so too is Australia’s only left-footed provider.

For all of the attention on the defence, a true left-winger would be a very handy Matilda’s addition.

They are rare. There are few truly left-sided attackers in the A-League Women’s playing of international quality. Many of those that do play on the left also like to cut in and use their right foot.

Of the current attackers, only Mary Fowler is as adept on her left foot as she is on her right. But her skills are best suited to a central role in midfield or as a striker.

Gustavsson’s search for defensive options, in particular, left-footed ones might be part of a larger plan to push Catley higher up the pitch and provide her with support.

Jamilla Rankin, Angela Beard, and Beattie Goad have been introduced to the Matildas defence year.

The search for additional left-backs may not be all about finding backups for Catley but also unlocking more options of how to use her considerable skills.

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