Isn’t football, in the end, all about the timing?
Matildas midfielder Clare Wheeler had barely been on the pitch three minutes, thrown into the lumbering final stages of Australia’s second friendly against the USA in Newcastle on Tuesday, when she made what turned out to be a game-changing — and possibly career-defining — tackle.
Seeing American midfielder Ashley Sanchez about to gallop away to start yet another piercing counterattack, Wheeler made what a colleague described as a “high-risk, high-reward” decision.
The fringe Matilda, realising she only had a few minutes to impress head coach Tony Gustavsson before his selection of Australia’s squad for January’s Asian Cup, took the gamble.
She didn’t throw her right leg in front of the escaping Sanchez, so much as guide it, cupping the ball under her turned in-step, before using the momentum of the rain-slicked turf to curl the ball beneath her leg and prop herself back up in a single, graceful movement.
A half-second extra either side and Sanchez’s leg would have been taken out and a card drawn, or Wheeler would have missed the ball entirely.
But she didn’t. It was timed and choreographed to perfection. It was ballet on grass.
It was also the moment that, ultimately, turned the game.
Following the tackle, Wheeler fed the ball to an exhausted Steph Catley, who clipped a cross in for Sam Kerr to control and lay off for the coiling Kyah Simon. Simon, seething at having missed a sitter in the first friendly on Saturday, lashed at the ball, which deflected off the leg of USA defender Becky Sauerbrunn and flew into the back of the net.
“Sometimes that isn’t credited enough,” a relieved Gustavsson said of Wheeler’s efforts afterwards. “You see the goal-scorer — and obviously it was brilliant that Kyah stepped back and scored because she missed that chance [in game one] — but the key to that goal is Clare Wheeler’s tackle.
“We said we need to be more physical, win our fight plan – our one-on-one duels – and Clare was the game changer that came in with that mindset. And without that tackle, we wouldn’t have scored so huge credit to her.”
It begs the question, then: Why didn’t she come on sooner? The Matildas have faced heavy criticism under Gustavsson for their defensive frailties, which were on display again on Tuesday after conceding to the USA in the fourth minute, but there are also growing questions over the depth and flexibility of the team’s midfield.
The retirement of veteran Aivi Luik after the Tokyo Olympics, and a long-term injury to Elise Kellond-Knight have left a gaping hole in the defensive midfield position. It is a position as necessary as it is under-appreciated: the omnipresent, metronomic central player who is often the glue that holds the forward and back lines together.
Since the Olympics, Gustavsson has plugged the gap with two capable midfielders in Emily Van Egmond and Kyra Cooney-Cross.
But these are two players whose careers to date have been built on their attacking qualities: Van Egmond’s vision to find space and unlock defences with key passes, Cooney-Cross’s shooting technique and frightening acceleration when moving forward with the ball.
Against the USA on Tuesday night, both midfielders were part of the starting XI, with Van Egmond playing the deeper-lying role. However, perhaps also through a combination of fatigue and the energy-sapping humidity of Newcastle, the midfield looked at times tired and disjointed. Passes didn’t connect, support triangles were too slow to form and the energy in one-on-one challenges was lacklustre.
Or it was, until Wheeler — the only clearly identifiable defensive midfielder in the squad — came on in the 86th minute.
“I need to look at the game [again to see] if it was the right time.
“Maybe it was the right time because we’ve got the effect of it and we scored.
“Would it have been even more effective if I did it earlier? I need to look at the momentum of the game.
“One of the reasons why I didn’t change is I felt we had a momentum going […] I felt that we were playing good, we had advantage. And you need to kind of sense that moment as a coach: When do you do that change?
“But I’m going to look at the game and see if I could have done it earlier or if it actually was perfect.”
There is something more to be said, then, for perfect timing.
Indeed, it is the foundation upon which Gustavsson’s entire coaching philosophy— his compartmentalising of “preparation mode” (friendlies) and “performance mode” (tournaments).
Timing threads itself throughout everything here, from the varying minutes given to players on the field, to the schedule of friendlies that are organised in the build-up to major competitions, to the speed at which players are integrated into the team over the course of a multi-year cycle.
Gustavsson himself only gets, in total, roughly three months with his players each calendar year. If he does not time things perfectly, he cannot achieve the goals that have been set out by and for him.
This USA friendly series is the last time we’ll see the Matildas before they travel to India to play — and, according to Gustavsson, seriously challenge for — the Asian Cup, a trophy they first won over a decade ago but have fallen agonisingly short of lifting again ever since.
Based on this two-game series against the USA, some are sceptical the Matildas can reclaim the Asian title.
However, this is not the first time Australia have headed into a major tournament after a series of unconvincing performances. It happened before the Olympics, too, yet Gustavsson was able to lead them to an historic fourth-place finish.
January, then, will be the next big test of Gustavsson’s broader approach, and whether these challenging friendly games have given him enough information to translate those lessons into the “performance mode” that tournaments require.
Depending on the Matildas’ results in India, we will all be able to better assess whether his large-scale vision and preparation with this side has arrived too early, too late, or whether he — like Wheeler — has timed it to perfection.