15/08/2022

Image: @TheMatildas -Twitter

Why did Australia face the best possible team at the hardest possible time? In the modern game, there was no choice.

Australia lost 7-0 to a Spanish side that is beyond tinkering and planning. This was a team flexing its muscles before heading to a Euro’s tournament that it expects to win.

The Matildas had a side without nine first choice players, and almost all of the possible strikers. There was no Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, or Mary Fowler to choose from.

With a side dominated by new faces, many of whom currently play in their respective state competition, and some on their end-of-season break. Australia stood little chance against a team that was comfortably led by its World Cup qualifying group.

Spain sits atop Group B with a perfect record after six games. It has scored 45 goals so far and conceded none. The only opponent to defeat it since 2019 is the USA, and it beat Scotland 8-0. Spain is Europe’s in-form team.

In the aftermath, the question many had was, “why play them in these conditions?”

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In the post-match press conference, Head Coach Tony Gustavsson was very forthcoming. In April, he explained that he was trying to settle on his first-choice squad.

Circumstance and not by design had changed that in this fixture, he and the players had to turn hardship into opportunity.

“When we planned this (game), we planned to have the best team here. We wanted to match ourselves against one of the best teams, especially one peaking for the Euro’s,” he said.

“We knew way back 12 months ago that one of the few windows we can play the best European teams this year was the week before the Euros, because they had World Cup Qualifiers.

“It was difficult to find and schedule tough games, and this was one of the windows we could. We would have loved to have the best team here.

“But at the end of the day we need to have a player centric approach and look at well-being and a long term process going into the World Cup. If it means that we need to look at this camp in a different way to get the right decisions made for the players, we can’t sit here and regret.”

“We need to make decisions and stand by them. Now we’ve made these decisions there’s probably going to be some reactions, ‘why did you play such a strong team with such an inexperienced roster?’

“Well first of all when you schedule things you need to commit to them, because you sign a deal with the federation.”

The rapidly changing landscape

Put simply, the fixture was arranged with the best players in mind. Kerr vs Putellas was to be a battle of Ballon D’or nominees but things change over time, players needed to recover from injuries that were not a concern two months ago.

Australia needs to play European opposition. Due to increased investment and a calendar quickly approaching parity with the men’s game, these fixtures are increasingly difficult to organize.

For Australia and other AFC nations, World Cup qualifying is part of the Asian Cup. In Europe, they have separate qualifiers for the Euro’s and World Cup.

By the time the 2023 tournament arrives, Spain will have played another four qualifiers. It will have also possibly played an entire Euro’s tournament, and the players will have started another fully professional, full length club season.

Australia’s best players have gone to Europe to match their players at club level. Many have made an impressive impact.

However, due to the sheer number of competitive matches that it plays, Australia simply cannot dictate when it plays European nations. Even the high-profile sides like the USA and Brazil cannot find fixtures easily. Yet Australia must play them.

Even at the cost of an embarrassing loss, coaches and available senior players must be able to analyse our players up close. Teagan Micah, Courtney Nevin, and Charlotte Grant all enhanced their reputations on a difficult night.

Gustavsson maintains that he found some answers in this game. He said that the game was to be looked at as two 45-minute matches.

“Considering the experience we had on the park in the first 45 to commit to a game plan like that against Spain, one of the world’s best team’s peaking for the Euro’s… I’m actually really happy and proud about the girl’s commitment,” he said.

“When you need to play Spain sometimes you are forced to defend in a very different way than we are used to.

“I think it was a good mix between high pressing sequences, tough pressing, and then the low block patient defending.”

“We need answers, and we need investment in our program”

Obviously, things took a turn after the break. Australia conceded six goals.

“In the second half, we looked at other things,” Gustavsson said.  

“We wanted to rotate players and look at players.

“I want to be very clear now, this is not about blaming an individual player for this loss. These players are representing a situation we’re in right now.

“We finished the game with four players playing in NPL and one player playing in college. To expect those individual players to match up against Spain is not fair to the individual.

“I am ready to take that hit as a coach, because I said that from day one that we need answers, and we need investment in our program.

“I think this was very clear where we need to make investment, and players need to get in an environment where they can thrive and be ready for international football.”

This final point is key. Europe is leaving Australia behind in terms of investment and scheduling. Australia must play largely on its terms and fit into its timeline.

At their best, the Matildas have the individual players to match any side but the opportunities to do so are becoming more infrequent.

It may have been the worst possible time to play the best possible team, but there was no choice but to fight on in a tough situation.

Losses can be overcome, lessons can be learned, but to quit before kick-off because our favourite players were not available would have been far more damaging.

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