The Matildas didn't solve Ireland, but they won
Scrappy. Nervy. Ugly. If you told any Matildas fan before last night's FIFA Women's World Cup opener that these three words could sum up the game, they would have been worried about the result. As it turns out, Tony Gustavsson's side experienced all that and still came away with three precious points. Front Page Football was at Stadium Australia to provide an insight into how Australia overcame a plucky Irish outfit.
Steph Catley (centre left) wheels away in celebration after scoring the decisive penalty for Australia against Ireland. (Twitter: @TheMatildas)
The 1-0 win will be remembered for its 75,784-strong crowd and Steph Catley's John Aloisi-esque match-winning penalty, which secured all three points for Australia. In all honesty, that's it. But there's context.
For starters, disaster struck for Australian fans before kick-off as Sam Kerr was nowhere to be seen in the Tillies' starting XI. As discovered later, the star forward was injured whilst answering questions at Wednesday evening's pre-match press conference, with head coach Tony Gustavsson preferring not to release the information about Kerr "until the last second coming into the stadium."
Thus, the Gustavsson era now faced one of its most adverse moments yet, and the improved depth the Swede had consistently lauded recently was about to receive the ultimate test. After the friendly win against France, Gustavsson noted that Kerr, Caitlin Foord, and Steph Catley had all come off when the score was 0-0, and the Matildas still won. He added that his side had done well sticking to their game plan and demonstrating patience. In a way, had Australia replicated a similar sense of game management and know-how, they may have found last night's contest far more comfortable.
But comfortable, it certainly was not. Ireland's rigid 5-4-1 system out of possession, persistent long throw-ins down the line, and almost impressive determination not to play out from their goalkeeper all led to a frustrating night for Australia.
On paper, stylistically, and from five minutes of viewing, the Matildas should have easily disposed of Vera Pauw's side. Although it's not that simple, there are elements of the Matildas' performance against France a week ago - which happened to have the same scoreline - that went missing in Sydney.
Casting our minds back to post-France, Gustavsson again reiterated the time he and his coaching staff had put into game management with the side. Against France, he said the team utilised four different strategies during the game, and "they just did it." To display such malleability against a top nation naturally means it should be easier to replicate against the lesser Ireland. Last week, in an in-house interview, Emily van Egmond reiterated the importance of sticking to the game plan and principles, as they did in Melbourne and generally.
Kerr's absence undoubtedly threw a spanner in the works of fundamental principles. But Mary Fowler, who had performed so admirably at Marvel Stadium, was a more than capable replacement. Besides that, Gustavsson trusted the Kennedy-Hunt partnership that served his side well a week earlier. There was only one change, but it involved his most important player.
It's not just the goals. Kerr has an incredible understanding alongside Foord, and they can easily create space for each other. The Matildas could not play the same way with a player profile such as Fowler replacing Kerr. The Manchester City midfielder floated as a natural number 10 in a 4-3-3 set-up, as the wingers, often Cortnee Vine on the left and Hayley Raso on the right, took up deliberately high and wide positions.
Fowler became an afterthought in the Matildas' build-up play as the first half progressed. Towards the end of the first period, it was noticeable how Ruesha Littlejohn, one of Ireland's two starting central midfielders, was essentially tagging Fowler when the Matildas had possession. With Fowler struggling, a creative spark had to come from elsewhere.
Vine was the target for multiple switches of play early on, and there were occasions, first spotted in the 28th minute, where she would hang on the touchline whilst match-winner Catley drifted inside. Unfortunately, Australia didn't notice the space created for Vine on this particular occasion and generally did not look to get her involved enough. The Sydney FC winger seemed to find a way to negotiate two defenders on multiple occasions, and her first touches, particularly on long, raking passes, were exquisite.
In the 15th minute, we saw Gustavsson's new-look front three (Vine, Foord, and Raso) interchange for the first time, as Foord switched to the left and Vine moved up front. In the 58th minute, there was another front-three shake-up, with Raso having a spell in the central striking role. It's natural for a side to interchange positions as such, but it had no genuine impact, and perhaps Gustavsson would have been better served to make systemic changes.
The Swedish coach made no significant alterations to his system throughout the night. Instead, the Matildas would individually test Ireland with alternative movements across the ninety minutes. Again, such variation was limited, did not have the desired impact, or took too long to implement.
Catley and fullback partner Ellie Carpenter threw different 'looks' at the rigid Irish set-up. In the 43rd minute, Carpenter pushed higher and wider to allow Raso to come inside towards the ball. But whenever Australia's young prodigy looked to advance herself, Ireland's Marissa Sheva did a terrific job of sticking to her like glue: a straightforward task set by Pauw. It was not until the 60th minute that we saw Carpenter have genuine success in an attacking sense, overlapping Vine down the right as Fowler slipped her in behind. Four minutes later, Ireland briefly had a back six; such is the nature of how teams react to Carpenter's attacking capabilities. But we did not see it again. Maybe Carpenter's timing in joining attacks was off, as Gustavsson felt post-France.
On the other side, Catley also looked to invert occasionally, doing so briefly on the stroke of halftime. In the 59th minute, Catley drifted inside again to create space for Fowler, and if the 20-year-old had shown more composure and did not burn possession, a tangible chance could have been forged.
The increased lack of composure was surprising when the side had shown so much of it only a week earlier. Throughout the opening 20 minutes against Ireland, there was absolute confidence emanating from the Matildas as they looked to play forward at every opportunity and do it quickly. But strangely, from about the 20th minute, they started to force the issue too much, and by the end of the first half, Gustavsson's side had seemingly lost their way a little bit, struggling to play forward and frustrated.
Many would inevitably turn to Kerr's absence as the critical indicator, but it was not. Alternatively, Australia needed more creativity of movement and patience. Even after Catley's opener, the Matildas still struggled to seek the decisive pass in the final third.
In saying that, the action which led to awarding the decisive penalty was a glimpse into the Matildas who beat France. Australia was patient as the ball found its way to Kyra Cooney-Cross, who crossed towards a collapsing Raso, adjudged to be pushed from behind by Sheva as the referee pointed to the spot.
Despite finding the goal and clinching the points, there remains a feeling Australia did not genuinely resolve the Irish stubbornness they had to face last night. Gustavsson said post-match the Matildas know they can do much better in an attacking sense, emphasising how his job is to "look at different scenarios" for them to thrive.
Such thinking ties into the "tournament football" and "game management" Gustavsson keeps mentioning and how the team needs to know how to navigate both elements. He also explained how they have three very different opponents from a tactical perspective, making it almost imperative to be adaptable.
The Matildas adapted to Ireland by deploying a not full-blown press but still reasonably aggressive. They looked to press fullback to fullback in the wide areas as much as possible, exposing Ireland's general lack of quality in possession. Katrina Gorry was crucial in this aspect, demonstrating supreme focus in the press to ensure no time on the ball for her direct opponent to receive and face forward. Her ability to be combative and commit to 50/50 challenges was necessary for the Matildas to match Ireland's physicality, which Clare Hunt mentioned as a strength multiple times on Monday.
Although adequately bringing intensity and aggression to the fixture, the Matildas still became bogged down by Ireland's approach. After 35 minutes, Gustavsson's side had only 43% possession, with the Irish having 33% and a relatively high 24% in contest. For Australia, it felt like they had more quality but struggled to control the tempo and create at that point. Come the 76th minute, Ireland is amid a spell of pressure, and a Matildas' response does not seem like it's coming. In truth, they didn't return serve, only staying solid through determination, fight, and the introduction of Clare Polkinghorne in the 83rd minute, seeing the side switch to a 5-2-3 system.
The late system change, although understandable given the scoreline, forced the Matildas to be pegged further back.
“I think there’s been a couple of games now that we’ve ended the game with a back five, and it has tended to work really well with us, especially when we’re under the pump like that,” Mackenzie Arnold said post-game.
Hunt added that the Matildas naturally would drop slightly deeper with a back five. She described the overall tactical battle afterwards in an intriguing fashion.
“We’ve got to do tactically what we need to do to get the win, and that’s what we did,” Hunt said.
That is precisely what tournament football requires and what the discourse will be for the Matildas when they face nations such as Ireland. Tactically adapt to win, not play football that is easy on the eye.
Vine said last week that France was a “very transitional game, and it is a part of our game to be very transitional." But the reality is sides like Ireland are too smart to fall into that trap, and perhaps Nigeria will be inspired by their Group B counterparts and follow suit with a defensive-minded game plan.
Multiple Australian players immediately described what it was like to face such an approach after the final whistle.
“We knew they were going to be so difficult to break down and do what they do well, and they did. They did everything we expected,” Catley said.
“I think it was the rhythm of the game. They had a bit of momentum, and I think we just wanted to shut them out as best we could,” Hunt added.
Vine gave the most insight into how the Matildas prepared for the 5-4-1 and Gustavsson's messaging during the game.
“It’s something we did focus on during the last few weeks, five at the back. It’s difficult to break down. I think we had our moments that we got through, but it was very difficult,” Vine said.
“He wanted us to keep composed and switch the ball a bit more. We started to force the balls instead of keeping control and taking our time to go, and that’s the main thing he talked about at halftime.”
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The Matildas did have far more success in the wide areas in the second half, so there was an improvement in that sense. They finished with 18 final third entries from the left and right channels combined. Yet, admittedly, in Gustavsson's words, there was "very little space" to work in and manufacture regular opportunities for Australia.
They still had more attempts, but only two were on target out of the Matildas' 13 shots. So the struggles were there to see both through the eye test and on the stats sheet and despite losing, Ireland's game plan almost worked as well as they wanted it to. The Matildas had few in-game responses and laboured to victory, with much improvement needed against Nigeria, particularly if Kerr, as expected, misses out again.
Game management is critical, but last night was not an example of the type Gustavsson wants from his players. Australia escaped rather than held firm throughout the final 25 minutes and may have walked away without a victory on another day. Expressing a sense of calm, poise, and control has to be priority number one in Brisbane; the style and tactical profile will need to evolve.
But, as Hunt said on Monday, "the results will speak for themselves." Last night, the result, and the result only, certainly did.
Click here to read about Sam Kerr's inclusion in the FIFA Museum's new "Calling the Shots: Faces of Women's Football" exhibition!