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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

Flexibility key to Matildas success at the Paris Olympics

Last Wednesday night saw the Matildas secure qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics in front of a sold-out Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, smashing Uzbekistan 10-0 in an overpowering display. The result capped off what was essentially a flawless Olympic qualifying campaign for the side, winning all five of their games and scoring 26 goals while not conceding once.

The Matildas ahead of their 10-0 win over Uzbekistan last Wednesday night. (Image: Michelle Heyman OLY Instagram)


While the significant gap in quality between Australia and the teams they faced in their AFC qualification campaign should be noted, the comfortable and dominant nature of the side's performances must be commended. It was the most successful Olympic qualification campaign we have seen from the Matildas since joining the AFC, and it certainly will not be easy to top.


Manager Tony Gustavsson, a figure many fans have mixed opinions on, has vowed to learn from the Matildas' 2023 World Cup campaign and has looked to identify where the team has struggled.


"Post the World Cup...we did an analysis of what we needed to improve. We know we are top three in the world when it comes to breaking the last line. Our vertical game in behind the last line has been tremendously good over the last two years; our pressing game has been really good," Gustavsson explained following the dominant Uzbekistan win.


"But we have struggled in the buildup phase; to break the first and second line in possession, and we've also struggled a little bit against low blocks, to create where there is less space behind the backline.


"To see five games in qualifiers against low blocks and end up with 26-0 in goal differential, and see what we've done in terms of investing in that attack, that makes me really happy.


"Now we are sending messages to [the] opposition that; ok, if you press us, we'll go behind you because we use the space and speed and if you park the bus, we open it up because we have tools to do that now."

These are ultimately positive signs for the Matildas, who have been criticised for lacking versatility and flexibility. The tweaks and changes made across the two-legged fixture against Uzbekistan reflect some strong tactical adjustments by Gustavsson.


The first leg in Tashkent reflected the potential struggles without injured striker Sam Kerr. The Matildas, at least for the first 70 minutes, were simply unable to score against an Uzbekistan side that was happy to sit back and deny space. Gustavsson opted for the forward partnership of Emily van Egmond and Mary Fowler, which lacks an out-and-out goalscorer.


While both players are exceptionally talented in their own right, they are not suited to the demands of playing up front, where both would prefer to drop deep often and link up, rather than being an outlet on the last line who has the know-how to score goals.


Then enters Michelle Heyman, who opens the scoring in the 73rd minute, just eight minutes after being subbed on. Once this deadlock was broken, Fowler and Caitlin Foord both added goals of their own to ensure a three-goal win for the side.


Given the chance to start in the return leg in Melbourne, Heyman did not disappoint. With a hat-trick within the first 16 minutes, and a fourth goal added to her tally on the brink of halftime, she certainly showed her goalscoring ability to the 50,000 fans packed in the crowd.

This feat from Heyman was not just luck or a one-off, with the 35-year-old's presence and instinct in front of goal helping her become the A-League Women's all-time leading goalscorer, while also leading this season's Golden Boot race so far.


After announcing her retirement from the national team in 2019, Heyman capped off an inspiring return with five goals in just 70 minutes of action across both legs.


She has almost certainly nailed the starting centre forward position in Kerr's absence.

Another addition to the Matildas' camp for the two legs was 23-year-old Kaitlyn Torpey. Recently sealing a move to NWSL side San Diego Wave following her strong performances for Melbourne City, Torpey made a strong impression on her debut for the national team.


"In the first three days (apart of the camp), we were positively surprised how quickly she adjusted to the tempo; the last time I saw a player do it that quickly was Clare Hunt...that's why she started; it's not to try her out; she played as a starter because she proved in training that she was ready for it," Gustavsson said on Torpey's transition into the Matildas' setup.

Starting the first leg on the left wing, Torpey certainly looked nervous and overwhelmed at times. Not only was it her debut in a crucial fixture, but she was used on the relatively less familiar left side of the pitch. Torpey was subbed off at halftime; however, she did not let this affect her confidence.


"Mentally, she got that first game out of her system and now she could relax and do what we saw in training and really impressed...The fact that she's versatile and can be used in so many different positions, I mean, even as an outside back, she's floating in as a ten like Ellie (Carpenter) does, and she's smart in between the lines, she can play wide; very impressed," Gustavsson added.


Torpey can add depth and versatility to both the right-wing and fullback areas, a valuable trait to possess heading into tournament football that Gustavsson will certainly not look past.

Beyond this versatility, Gustavsson also looked to adjust how he instructed the already existing Matildas stars to play. Primarily viewed as a predominantly ball-winning and possession-circulating player, Gustavsson utilised Katrina Gorry differently in the second leg.


"Mini (Katrina Gorry), I think, showed us all a different type of Mini tonight, we used very differently than in the World Cup...her ability to be in between lines, in tight spaces, and play players in and [make] runs from deep in behind the backline," Gustavsson said, praising the diminutive midfielder.


Gorry's low centre of gravity and her intelligent positioning make her an influential player in the final third, which was especially evident with her assist for Mary Fowler's goal.


Gorry's recent move to WSL side West Ham may play a part in allowing her to take further steps forward in her career, playing in one of the strongest leagues in world football and competing against some of the best players in the world.

 

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Katrina Gorry (right) in action for West Ham. (Image: West Ham United)


Partnered alongside her Matildas teammate Mackenzie Arnold, Gorry has thrived in England, seamlessly fitting into West Ham's side as a key player.


"I've loved it. Obviously, I've been watching it (the Women's Super League) for a long time. We've got so many players scattered across the league now, and it's just been absolutely amazing," Gorry said post-match on her experience so far for the East London side.


"I'm glad I've signed with West Ham...they've made the transition easy and I've just loved every minute of being on the pitch with them, and [I'm] excited to see what the future holds with them and hopefully [we] keep on building something good."

An April friendly against Mexico and a two-game series against China is still to come in preparation for Paris 2024, which kicks off in late July. Expect further experimentation from Gustavsson and emphasis placed on preparing for what will be a massive tournament for the Matildas, as they look to secure a first-ever medal at the Olympics.


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