Emily van Egmond: Australia's stand-in hero
The Matildas' exploits thus far in the first-ever FIFA World Cup on the sports-mad continent of Australia have been truly remarkable. However, on the opening night of Australia's showpiece sporting event, a significant spanner was thrown into the works. Tony Gustavsson called upon the experience of Novacastrian Emily van Egmond, a traditional midfielder, to fill one of the most significant holes in world football.
The world-class talent, and perhaps the greatest footballer Australia has ever seen, Sam Kerr, was forced out of the lineup and would not be seen until the 80th minute of Australia's Round of 16 victory over Denmark. With Kyah Simon still afflicted by a horrendous ACL injury and the Matildas without a straightforward striking replacement, van Egmond needed to step up.
Emily van Egmond has thrived in a false nine role alongside Mary Fowler for the Matildas. (Dean Lewins/AAP Photos)
Emily van Egmond has been a part of the Matildas setup for over a decade, being selected in her first World Cup squad in 2011 as a 17-year-old and scoring her first goal for Australia in that tournament against Equatorial Guinea in a 2-1 victory. A midfielder true to the name, van Egmond's defensive and attacking instincts have been widely celebrated. However, the youthful and talented Kyra Cooney-Cross and some awe-inspiring displays from Katrina Gory have seen van Egmond fall out of favour in the Matildas' midfield, at least as a starter.
Van Egmond had only amassed 169 minutes of international play between the Matildas' 4-0 thumping of Sweden in late 2022 to coming on as a substitute against the Republic of Ireland in Sydney a few weeks ago, as the Gorry/Cooney-Cross combination gathered momentum. She only featured from the bench in the friendly against Sweden, Thailand and again in the Tournament of Nations victories against Czechia, Spain, and Jamaica. Her status as a bench option had seemingly been sealed in the Matildas' final warm-up match before the World Cup against France, as van Egmond came on for the woman she would eventually deputise for after 62 minutes.
In the wake of Kerr's injury, leading to what might become the most discussed calf in Australian sporting history, van Egmond was given the unenviable task of deputising as a striker until her teammate and captain could return. Van Egmond's efforts and exploits playing in a duel false-nine set up with the exciting Mary Fowler have been exceptional. If you hadn't heard of or seen van Egmond's style of play, you'd be forgiven for thinking she had always played as an out-and-out striker.
In her 324 minutes, van Egmond has scored and provided an assist, using her instincts as a midfielder to serve as a dynamic pivot at the heart of the Matildas' attack. Van Egmond does not possess the physical gifts of many other Matildas attackers. She may not have the pace on the ball like Caitlin Foord or Fowler or the explosive speed and aerial ability of Kerr. But van Egmond has been able to hold up in an unfamiliar position and allow Fowler, Foord, and Hayley Raso to shine, along with Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter, when they can invert into midfield from their fullback roles.
This role as a facilitator is represented in her impressive passing statistics. Van Egmond has averaged 1.6 key passes a game this tournament whilst also having a respectable overall pass percentage, completing 65% of her pass attempts. This level of passing accuracy has been expected when considering her usual presence as a midfielder. She has formed a unique partnership with Fowler while supporting the younger, more athletic, and technically gifted Matildas by holding up possession to progress the ball forward.
Van Egmond has excelled at using her physicality to keep possession for the Matildas while winning the ball back in advanced areas, averaging 0.8 tackles and interceptions per match. Her poise and calmness in a team featuring the incisive fast dribbling of Foord and the delightful turns and close control of Fowler have been a revelation. This poise was best demonstrated in her assist for Raso's third tournament goal against Denmark, as van Egmond elegantly controlled a Fowler cross before unselfishly laying it off for her teammate to finish with ease. Against France, she was also able to create an opportunity after some miscommunication between French goalkeeper Pauline Magnin and left-back Sakina Karchaoui led to van Egmond pouncing onto the ball and giving the Matildas their best chance of the match.
Van Egmond celebrates after scoring Australia's first goal against Nigeria in Brisbane. (Elsa - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Before the tournament began, the loss of Sam Kerr in the infancy of a home World Cup would have been every Australians biggest fear, and that was undoubtedly felt when her name was not listed in the starting XI against Ireland. However, miraculously, the Matildas have put a loss that may have sunk other teams in the rearview mirror, with Australia now witnessing the talent of its other supremely talented women in green and gold.
Speaking to the media before Australia's quarterfinal triumph over France, van Egmond was asked about the Matildas' willingness to fill gaps where required.
"Whenever called upon or whatever role they have to play, everyone's ready, and that's just one of the great characteristics of this team," she said.
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Whilst she may not start against England tonight, arguably the biggest game in Australian football history, Emily van Egmond has shown a commendable level of versatility, strength, and resilience. To her credit, van Egmond has adapted to a new role in the Matildas setup for this World Cup and, so far, has shown the expertise expected of an experienced international, drawing on every one of her 120-odd caps for her country.
Australians would surely be remiss not to mention her in the long list of exceptional performers in this golden generation of Matildas' talent that has taken the country to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals for the first time.
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