How the Matildas can bounce back from the mistakes of the Asian Cup
The Matildas will play their first match tonight since a disappointing Asian Cup campaign, as they face New Zealand in the first game of a two-match series. These games will be the first step in bouncing back from an infamous 2022 Asian Cup campaign. The side fell well below expectations, and critics asked questions about Tony Gustavsson’s position as the Matildas' head coach.
The Matildas did not meet the expectations of fans at the Asian Cup. (Fox Sports)
But time has passed since the shortcomings in India. With preparations for a home World Cup underway, it’s time to properly look at where it went wrong for the Matildas at the Asian Cup.
Furthermore, how can they rectify these issues for the World Cup, and what are the realistic expectations for that tournament? It’s no secret a vast majority of Matildas' fans expected to come out of the Asian Cup as champions. Going into the tournament as favourites and boasting arguably the best squad in its history, failing even to reach the final four was unquestionably disappointing.
Had they not been hosting the World Cup in 2023, it would have meant the Matildas missed out on automatic qualification for the tournament.
With their campaign starting in almost perfect fashion with a dominating performance over minnows Indonesia, some of Australia's flaws were soon exposed when they faced former manager Alen Stajcic and the Philippines.
From the word go, it was clear that their game plan was to sit back and frustrate the Matildas and hit them on the counter. And for the majority of the match, it was working. The Matildas struggled to create chances early, and once they did come, they struggled to put them away.
Uncharacteristic misses from Sam Kerr highlighted the team's frustration. Meanwhile, the Philippines were patient and created some good chances early on. They could quickly have gone ahead on multiple occasions in the first 15 minutes.
It took the Matildas 51 minutes to break down a resilient Philippines at the Asian Cup. (The-AFC)
Once the Matildas did find a breakthrough - in the second half - it was game over. Still, Stajcic laid out a blueprint for other sides to nullify them, which South Korea did to perfection.
An otherwise dominating display from the Matildas only resulted in frustration. They struggled to create meaningful opportunities against arguably the highest-quality side they had faced up to that point.
A controversial penalty for South Korea early on only added to this frustration. It was clear that South Korea’s resilience had gotten to the Matildas' heads. Despite having time to fight back following So-Yun’s screamer, it almost felt like there was no way back for the tournament favourites.
The Matildas dominated all four games at the tournament. Yet their struggles against a low block and an overreliance on crosses to a heavily marked Sam Kerr proved the side's undoing.
The first point should’ve been something the backroom staff was aware of preparing for this tournament. With the substantial gulf in quality, it was clear that most sides' game plans would be, particularly in the group stages.
It was surprising this approach wasn’t something Gustavsson or Football Australia planned for, instead of prioritising high profile matches against big nations. Those warm-up games allowed for more open games leading into the tournament, rather than facing opponents similar in style and stature to those in Asia.
Ironically, a lineup of friendlies against Ireland, Brazil, and the USA would be perfect in the lead-up to the World Cup. But unfortunately, it did next to nothing to help prepare for the sides Australia faced at the Asian Cup.
But the football world waits for no one, and there is no time to wallow in defeat for the Matildas with a World Cup around the corner.
Forward-thinking for that tournament needs to happen now. In the lead up to the Olympics, Gustavsson and the FA did well in organising friendlies against the world's best. Despite poor results in these games, the experience proved beneficial. They matched it with some of the best sides on the planet, even getting past team GB.
The Olympics proved that Australia are capable of mixing with the worlds best. (The Advertiser)
However, Football Australia mustn’t organise friendlies purely to put on an event. Once the draw is finalised for the tournament, they need to ensure that any lead-up games are similar to those the Matildas will play at the tournament.
It worked in the lead-up to the Olympics. Not doing it in the lead-up to the Asian Cup hindered Australia's ability to handle the styles of football they faced.
Another factor that needs to be considered for the 2023 tournament is more players being allowed to show what they can do with the national side.
Leading into the Asian Cup, opportunities were primarily given to teenagers, providing experience to those who will hopefully be regulars in the national team after that 2023 campaign.
It’s all well and good to give younger players experience. But unfortunately, it’s been at the expense of players who can make a meaningful impact in upcoming tournaments.
Gustavsson brought five uncapped players into the side between the last two friendly squads against Brazil and the USA. Aside from Remy Siemsen, all were born after 2000, only three got onto the pitch, and only Siemsen, the oldest, made the Asian Cup side.
Emma Checker has spoken out about limited opportunities for those around her age. That lack of opportunities saw Ally Green switch allegiances to New Zealand.
Ally Green has decided to represent New Zealand at international level after minimal opportunities in the Matildas setup. (Twitter: @ally_green5)
However, Gustavsson's latest squad announcement seems to backflip from this trend. Only two changes have been made to the Asian Cup squad. Both were forced due to injury, with Katrina Gorry and Alex Chidiac replacing Holly McNamara and Kyra Cooney-Cross.
It seems Gustavsson is sure of his best squad now, which is a positive. However, he’s running the risk of having the Matildas being seen as a closed shop, with those outside the squad currently feeling as though their chance will never come.
A set-in-stone squad could come back to bite should injuries occur when the World Cup comes around, so peripheral players must be given their chance. Should they be needed, they can slot into the side easily or even just be allowed to prove they’re better than those ahead in the pecking order.
The original squad for the New Zealand friendly series only had one change from the Asian Cup squad. (Twitter: @TheMatildas)
Considering the disappointment of the Asian Cup, many fans were hoping to see some fresh faces on the team. Avi Luik has been touted as one that Gustavsson could rest from this squad to make way.
Her role in the side is primarily as a backup centre-back or central midfielder, and at 37 years old, she isn’t someone who is a necessity for a friendly squad.
Gustavsson could balance the squad by ensuring his best players get minutes together, and give those on the fringes a chance to prove themselves. It should only benefit everyone leading into the World Cup. But, crucially, it will also restore the faith in many Australian football fans. These actions send the message that the team is trying to rectify their January disappointment.
There’s no doubt about the quality the Matildas currently possess. With each game that passes, the side adjusts more and more to Gustavsson’s style of play. Should they recognise and rectify the mistakes of the Asian Cup campaign, a successful World Cup isn’t out of the question.
How far can the Matildas go at the World Cup next year? (Sporting News)
The prospect of winning the tournament isn’t outlandish, although it is more or less wishful thinking. But the Matildas certainly have an opportunity to go deep in this tournament, particularly with it being on home soil.
Gustavsson, his backroom staff, and Football Australia must ensure our preparation is perfect and the squad is in top form for the tournament.
Then, there's no reason why such a run can’t happen.
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