With the February Camps and March’s Algarve Cup, the next four year cycle has officially begun.
It probably sounds like hyperbole but, for Australia, it is arguably the most important in their history.
While the Matildas were always competitive, 2007 saw Australia begin to gain attention on the world stage. Australian women’s football has been building exponentially since then and in the next four years, that “championship window” is well and truly open.
Ranked number 6 in the world, for the first there are real expectations on the team. Along with that expectation comes a number of questions to be answered during the lead up to France 2019 and Tokyo 2020.
At the upper end of the Matildas playing group is some serious talent but what separates the very top nations in the world is depth. It is a question that has evidently been on the mind of Alen Stajcic and building depth is going to be key over the next four years.
For the Matildas it is not just about overall squad depth, it is about positional depth as well.
Most noticeable in the full back positions. While Steph Catley is one of the best left backs in the world – as recognised in the recent FIFPro World XI shortlist – the question remains, who fills in if Catley is injured. TWG’s Cassandra Cocciolone had raised that question in June 2016 and it was answered in the Rio 2016 Olympics quarter final.
On that occasion it was Elise Kellond-Knight – who has previously won honours in that position – who ably slotted into that position. However, it was a case of robbing Peta to pay Paula.
Possibilities for the left back position include former Young Matildas captain Amy Harrison and Newcastle Jets captain Gema Simon. Harrison is returning from an ACL injury at the end of 2015 but prior to that, the 2014 W-League Player of the Year looked to be making in-roads into the Matildas squad. With Sydney, Harrison has been deployed as a left back and a midfielder.
Meanwhile Gema Simon has been one of the most consistent full backs in the W-League. With reasonable pace, Simon has the ability to get up and down the flanks. Another player to keep in mind in the next cycle is Canberra United championship captain Nicole Begg. Begg took off the 2016/17 W-League season but in the past, like Simon, she has been one of the most consistent left backs and similar attributes.
The movement of Kellond-Knight to left back highlighted the need for a back up holding midfielder. The forced midfield reshuffle saw Emily van Egmond stepping into KK’s holding midfielder role.
Again Van Egmond ably stepped into that position but Kellond-Knight is now one of the best holding midfielders around. Essentially re-shuffling results in the players occupying their second or third best position which in the end costs the team in some way. A holding midfield back up is a harder question to answer.
Aivi Luik has performed the role well for Melbourne City but bad injury luck and Father Time sees her chances diminishing. Teresa Polias has been tried in the past but in honesty, there are no real natural options after those two. Developing an option will take years and it will probably be a player who takes the time to learn the role much like Kellond-Knight did.
Then there is the question of right back. Again, since 2011 Caitlin Foord has essentially had a mortgage on the position. However, with her continual growth has an attacking force, there is the need for one or two players to hold down the position. Clare Polkinghorne in the last 18 months has slotted in there but most of her club and international experience has been at centre back.
The options in this position include the familiar and the new. For a while Melbourne City defender Teigen Allen was the preferred back up but Allen fell off the radar after a good performance in the 2014 Asian Cup Final. In good form, Allen has the aggression and experience to clamp down on wingers.
The new is Wanderers defender Ellie Carpenter. At 17, Carpenter is still young and performances in the AFC Women’s Olympics Qualifiers and minutes in the Olympics indicate she is still raw. In her favour is the ability to learn reasonably quickly and really, there is no substitute for international match experience. Also a possibility is Sydney FC’s Georgia Yeoman-Dale who has been trialled in the past. While not in the Algarve Cup squad, she is young enough to have time on her side to develop.
These are just a couple of positional depth questions that are not going to be solved overnight but they are ones to ponder.
2. Style evolution
In reading a business article the other day, a quote from a tech CEO struck a chord: “If you don’t evolve, you die”.
Australia has a pretty good Plan B. It is based on possession, quick movement and when it’s on, it is exciting and few teams can counteract it.
But as more nations gain access to Australia’s game plan, naturally they will find ways to disrupt and neutralise. So as Australia switches from being the hunter into the hunted, can they evolve their style to take on the very best at the pointy end of tournaments?
Which leads to the second style question of an alternative plan. Much like alternative facts, this would be a second option to the style Australia adopts. Surprisingly, not that many teams in world football have two viable formation or game plans. The USWNT are actively trying to develop one but most other nations have just the singular plan. A good second or even a third variation could prove very handy for Australia down the track.
Staying true to a plan is understandable but, when things aren’t work, will the Matildas have the ability to switch it up?
3. Player Management
For a large portion of the Matildas team – between W-League, overseas club and Matildas – football has become a 12 month commitment.
They are the first generation to have this privilege but with it comes a new set of challenges. Playing 20 to 30 club matches (depending on the league) and 10 – 12 Matildas internationals (with an intensive, high energy game plan), one of those is the risk of overuse injuries including soft tissue and stress fractures.
Communication at club and international level has to be a part of this management and unfortunately, that has not always been Australia’s strong point in the past.
With the trend set to continue and number of full time footballers set to rise, the management of player loads and injury prevention is going to important. Not only for the longevity of the player – which should be paramount – but ultimately the success of the team.
4. De Vanna Dilemma
Then there is the question of Lisa De Vanna. There was some speculation she may retire after the Rio 2016 Olympics but, at this stage, she appears to be playing on.
Heading into her 13th Matildas year and with 120 caps to her name, the Matildas co-captain is undoubtably in the twilight of her career. That said, she is still one of Australia’s most dangerous and feared weapons.
Unlike other nations, Matildas have – for form, financial and physical reasons – rarely played right into their 30s. Some nations have handled the question of their ageing superstars well. Japan found a role for 37 year old Homare Sawa, who was impactful right until her last game. Likewise Brazil with 38 year old Formiga. Meanwhile Canada has altered the role of Christine Sinclair to ensure she continues to be consequential. Others have – see the Wambach and the USWNT situation – struggled with finding a position for a player of immense reputation.
In keeping with the question of player management, how she is deployed and utilised in the coming years will be curious to watch. What is known is 33 year old legs don’t have the same capacity as 23 year old legs so finding a role for her – whether it is a return to an impact substitute days – is going to be important.
5. Generation Next
Finally, the question of how, or if at all, GenNext gets a look in. That is a more tricky question and goes to the question of depth as well. There are a couple of standouts coming through but balancing and managing their introduction and absorption into the major squad another thing to watch.
Bonus Question: Can we find a way to get the Matildas onto free-to-air tv? Much like the Socceroos, they are the one of football’s biggest assets and, with the increased pressure coming from other sports, highlighting their international credentials could only be a positive thing for the game.