In the week leading up to the Matildas’ first friendly match against the USA on Saturday afternoon, Tony Gustavsson spoke about how he and his team were treating the game as a “dress-rehearsal” for the 2023 Women’s World Cup final.
All the routines, he said, were being done in the same way: press conferences and planning meetings, analysis work and training content.
It was an unusual departure from his own approach to previous friendlies, which he had always categorised as “preparation mode,” as opposed to the “performance mode” of major tournaments, such as the Tokyo Olympics.
That’s how he was able to explain (or, in a harsher light, explain away) some of the concerning, inconsistent performances of his side since he took over in January; they were, and are, all part of the longer project.
But this stand-alone game, played at the venue chosen to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup final, would be different. This, as much as they could mimic it, would be the end-point of that project.
“I’ve always talked about the process,” Gustavsson told media the day before the game, “but this isolated game is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to handle a game similar to a World Cup final.
“We’re gonna go in with a mindset that it’s all about winning this game and nothing else.”
He’ll surely be relieved, then, that this was just the dress-rehearsal.
A 3-0 loss to his former national team – with the first goal scored in the 24th second following a mix-up between his two teen-aged centre-backs, one of whom was on debut – is not the kind of World Cup final he had probably been trying to manifest.
It is, of course, difficult for any team to perform after a moment that will likely be clipped into a “fastest goals ever scored” YouTube highlights reel. It visibly knocked the energy out of the team, and sucked the air out of the record-breaking 36,109-strong crowd at Stadium Australia.
But this is the thing about tournament football like World Cups: you must expect, and be able to adapt, to the unexpected.
And leading into this first friendly, it was no different.
In the days beforehand, a bug had swept through some of the players, affecting their fitness and availability. Some, like Alanna Kennedy and Emily Gielnik, were carrying injuries. Others arrived late from half a world away, deeply jet-lagged and missing crucial training time. Others still, like Clare Polkinghorne and Sam Kerr, were being load-managed.
These various player ailments, all of which unfolded days out from the game, is as close as Gustavsson may get to replicating the preparation for a World Cup final: by that point, after a tight, gruelling three weeks, bodies are beginning to fail: injuries have claimed one or two players, clubs are concerned about their stars being over-worked, others are called up as rapid replacements despite having missed significant gelling time. Most, though, are just exhausted.
Against the USA on Saturday, we saw what one version of Gustavsson’s adaptation – his response to the unexpected – looked like. Having lost his two senior starting centre-backs, Gustavsson chose two of the youngest, most inexperienced players on the squad in 17-year old Jessika Nash and 19-year old Courtney Nevin to take their place from the opening whistle.
It came as a shock to most given both Ellie Carpenter and Steph Catley played centre-back roles at the Tokyo Olympics, while others like Karly Roestbakken and Angela Beard, both of whom were kept on the bench, have experience in the role at club level.
The teenagers’ naivety was, unsurprisingly, exploited. The opening whistle had barely faded from the air before a mis-cleared header from Nash and a lack of player tracking from Nevin led to the USA’s opener.
It was the second-fastest goal the Matildas ever conceded, and a particularly unfortunate start to the senior career of a young defender in Nash who has been touted as a future captain of the senior side.
One wonders whether Gustavsson couldn’t have taken a less risky approach; the same that saw him move Ellie Carpenter into centre-back alongside Nevin after substituting a frazzled Nash at half-time.
“We need depth in the back-line and we need to look at players and be brave enough to actually get them into these types of games,” Gustavsson told media afterwards.
“Normally, if this was 15 years ago and I was coaching, I’ll probably give them 10 minutes at the end when we’d either won or lost the game.
“But those minutes are not at the same value as warming up, a record crowd, US in front of you, in the stadium that’s going to hold the World Cup final. To be able to deal with that, in that environment, is what we need.”
To their credit, they did: the two youngsters – and the rest of the team – settled following the early goal, warming into both halves. Indeed, by the end, the Matildas out-possessed the Americans 61 per cent to 39 per cent, out-passed them 506 to 335, and had 7 corners to their 2.
They even had more shots on target (8 to 6), and were it not for a dazzling debut by USA goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who kept out fizzing strikes from Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Mary Fowler, as well as a bizarre moment from Matildas striker Kyah Simon who missed a totally open goal, the score-line likely would have reflected what became a much more even statistical contest.
But the fact is that those things did happen, and the score-line remains a stark reminder of the Matildas’ ongoing frailties, both at the back and up front. Gustavsson knows that.
“[When] I say we’re going to treat this as a World Cup final, it’s a very important reminder that the World Cup final is going to be won and lost inside the 18 [yard box]; inside the penalty areas,” Gustavsson said.
“I think we’re winning the game in between the boxes […] but then when you look at the actual finishing, they win the finishing game by 14 to 11, and the score-line three-nil.
“So where are games won or lost? It’s how you convert those penalty entries to chances, and conversion rate in scoring. And I think they were much more clinical than us in that area. So I’m happy with the game in between the boxes, but we have a lot of learnings to take inside the boxes from today.”
But the two penalty boxes aren’t the only spaces where lessons are, or should, be learned. It’s inside the coach’s box, too.
Because Saturday’s game against the USA wasn’t just a dress-rehearsal for the players. It was one for their manager, as well; a test for how Gustavsson could handle the kinds of unplanned injuries and unavailabilities, inclement weather, sceptical media, and expectant crowds that will likely meet him come 2023.
His response to the ubiquitous centre-back problem arguably missed the mark in game one. Whether we see the return of old cast members, or if their understudies are given a second rehearsal in game two on Tuesday, remains to be seen.