A viewer of recent Matildas matches may have some wondering what is going wrong. However a closer examination shows progression and a way forward to Olympic Group success.
Football is results oriented and in the recent string of friendlies we saw the Matildas lose to Germany 5-2, lose to the Netherlands 5-0, lose to Denmark 3-2, and tie Sweden 0-0.This string of results, in the final months of preparation prior to the Olympics, could seem very concerning.
These negative performances though have reasonable explanations.
Prior to their Germany and Netherlands defeats in April, two of the top teams in the world, the Matildas had not played together in over a year.
Most of their goals scored were in part conceded due to the Matildas making errors, instead of a lack of talent, tactical ability or individual capabilities in the team.
These errors continued into the third match of the year, against Denmark, with two of the Danish goals being Australian produced own goals.
By the fourth match of the year, played two weeks ago against Sweden, the Matildas reassuringly showed a more clinical and errorless team.
Moreover, many important major players were injured over the previous months. Steph Catley and Kyah Simon were both absent from the first two friendlies. Chloe Logarzo and Elise Kellond-Knight only recently returned to club play and have yet to feature for the Matildas in 2021.
That healthy quartet dramatically change the defensive and offensive capabilities of the Matildas. With over 336 caps between them, they also bring a wealth of tournament, international and club experience to the side.
Another important part of the Matildas’ shaky play can be attributed to their change in manager. Tony Gustavsson took over the team in September of 2020. He needed to wait over six months to unite his full squad.
All coaches and teams go through growing and adjustment pains. Four games to implement a new system is a reasonable amount of time to expect fluctuations in results, especially with a reconstituted team.
Even more encouraging is that while the argument could easily be made that every line in the Matildas formation has struggled this year, the most recent game against Sweden saw them work as a much more disciplined team with the capacity to innovate and be creative throughout the match.
This was in large part due to a major change in tactics by Gustavsson, switching from a 4-3-3 to what most often resembled a 5-2-3. This formation reduced the eleven game unbeaten Swedish team who had scored fifteen goals in the last five matches to a nil-nil draw.
In the 5-2-3 the three centre backs, which for most of the match was composed of a back line up of Catley - Polkinghorne - Carpenter, were supplemented on the outside of the back line by midfielders Butt and Raso.
The five back formation used its midfield wingers as a defensive balance, swinging from side to side. When one of the wingers went on the attack, the other winger would drop back more into defence, giving a complete four in the back.
Emily van Egmond added to this defence through a defensive midfield coverage position. This allowed the Matildas to play their first match of the year in which they did not concede a goal.
It was a welcomed performance against the fifth ranked Swedes who will also be the Matildas’ second Olympic opponent. However, whether this formation would be optimal for the upcoming Tokyo games needs greater evaluation.
Of the twelve teams who qualified for the Olympics, eight proceed to the quarter-final phase. This means the last placed team in each group and the worse performing third placed team get eliminated at the end of the group stage.
Due to the difficulty of group G, the Matildas’ group, there is a realistic probability that this will be the group with the eliminated third placed team, Australia should be aiming for at least a second place finish.
The challenges Gustavsson has is to make a team capable of beating New Zealand in the first match, that can then meet the offensively capable-defensively sound Swedish team in the second match and at minimum get a draw, and which then can finish the group stage, the third game in seven days, against the United States. This will be no easy feat.
The Matildas are lucky. They are meeting their opponents in order of difficulty. The heat and humidity in Japan will require a lot out of the players physically. If they are able to extract points in their first matches, when they are still fresh, before meeting a USA who have a very deep roster, they should be in good position.
Rotation will be necessary to deal with the pace of matches. Gustavsson utilizing his squad properly by ensuring that individual players do not burn themselves out in a group game will be vital.
So how to set up the Matildas to get the required results and exit the group stage? Is the 5-2-3 the best option?
A conventional 4-3-3, with Alanna Kennedy as the second centre-back, would arguably be better to increase the Matildas offensive capabilities for the first game.
While tactics used in the Sweden match have proven the most effective this year, they are not without their downsides. The first important one is that while Catley and Carpenter are very effective in the three back, this formation reduces their proven ability to go forward.
Offense will be necessary against the first Olympic opponents. While the Football Ferns haven’t won against the Matildas since 1994, they currently have a number of high caliber defensive players in their back line.
When they last played in March of 2020, Tom Sermanni utilized a back five in all three matches. Should he not change his tactics, the Matildas will meet a defence composed of Ali Riley, Meikala Moore, Abby Erceg, Claudia Bunge and CJ Bott.
Breaking that defence will require the Matildas to commit forward and have dimension to create space. Catley and Carpenter would be ideal and necessary for this. Keeping them in a back three would eliminate their capacity to do so.
While the Kiwis could try to score on the counter, their offensive threat is not great enough to mandate the vigilant tactics of the 5-2-3 formation. A 4-3-3 would therefore be more appropriate for the first match in order to get a win against the Kiwis.
For the second match of the tournament against Sweden no change in formation from the 5-2-3 utilized last month would arguably be mandated as it showed it can neutralize their offensive threat.
While the Swedish team is expected to field a more seasoned squad than the one who last met Australia, so will the Matildas.
With the return of Logarzo and Kellond-Knight, and the ability to use Foord who did not feature last match, this should add an increased ability to create more chances on goal and hopefully help give more room for Kerr to operate.
Capitalizing on those chances, keeping the same discipline and composure like the last match and avoiding mistakes will be key to Matildas second match success.
The final match of the group stage will prove to be the hardest one. Not only is it being held six days after the first match, but it is against an incredibly high tempo, extremely fit and very skillful USA team with a deep roster.
Australia have met the US three times since the last Olympics, winning one match, tying one and loosing the last match. They have showed that the Americans can be contained, even beaten.
How Gustavsson will decide to play the Matildas against them though will depend on a number of factors.
The first will be where they stand in the group. The better the Matildas come out of the first two matches points-wise, the more deep set we should expect them to play against the US.
If the Matildas are expected to exit the group, there is no need to tire their squad before the knockout phase.
As the US have shown to be ruthless, regardless of their standing, the 5-2-3 formation would arguably be best regardless of how the Matildas performed against New Zealand and Sweden.
The presence of Catley and Carpenter in the centre gives Australia the pace need to counter the speed of some of the American strikers.
The pendulum defence also gives the midfield wingers the ability to push forward, while having the defensive line coverage for the capable quick American counters.
A double use of Kellond-Knight and van Egmond in the centre two midfield pairing would allow for additional defensive cover, while bringing in good ball distribution.
Discipline, teamwork and the minimization of mistakes will be key for the last match, regardless of what their formation is and regardless of what their standing is.
As spectators we will have one more chance to see the Matildas before the Olympic competition starts. They are scheduled to play Japan on the 14th of July.
The Japanese team does not play at all like any of the group stage opponents will. It could give us another chance to see a new Gustavsson’s change in tactical formation, or it could confirm what we will expect to see in Tokyo.