The reasons behind the Matildas sub-par international window
The recent international window for the Matildas was an opportunity to test themselves against world-class opposition. It should have been an assessment of where the side is at compared to their European counterparts as the World Cup edges closer.
Instead, it was a fringe squad named to head to Spain and Portugal. And while those selected gained valuable experience against world-class opponents, the quality disparity was palpable, and fans were understandably upset.
What transpired in these friendlies does need to be taken into context. Missing eight key players will damage the quality of any team, no matter their squad depth. However, how it came about, through a self-inflicted situation those in the set-up should have seen coming, makes the results disappointing.
The first result, a 7-0 thumping at the hands of Spain, was unsurprisingly followed by a tirade of criticism for Tony Gustavsson. While some of it is justified, how that defeat occurred cannot be blamed on him alone.
Tony Gustavsson's tactics and team selection have been called into question following the Matildas loss to Spain. (Impetus Football)
Football Australia and the coaching staff should have foreseen that key figures in the Matildas' squad would need to rest well before these friendlies came to be. In the last international break, Gustavsson selected a full-strength team. The Swede could have instead taken an opportunity to rest them following the Asian Cup.
Say there was any inkling that these players needed this period to recover. Organising friendlies away to European opposition about to kick off their Euro’s campaign should not have been the decision made.
Foresight is crucial in international football; unfortunately, the powers that be never used it in this case.
The result was sending many fringe and uncapped players, some amid NPL seasons, halfway across the world to face one of the world's best female national sides. The quality disparity was apparent. And whilst Matildas fans will know that this will not be a side that would play Spain in a World Cup fixture, it does raise questions of squad depth leading into the tournament next year.
Larissa Crummer was one of the fresh faces in the Matildas squad, making her first appearance for the side since 2018. (Optus Sport)
Gustavsson did say after the match that the original plan was to test the side’s 4-3-3 against Spain’s. But the evaluation from the sports science team that certain players needed a break forced him into a reshuffle.
When decisions such as those are left out of your hands, there is only so little you can do. Football Australia forced Gustavsson's hand, and he had to face Spain and Portugal without his best side.
He can come under scrutiny for the decisions made with the squad he did take.
Gustavsson cited personnel changes as why he switched to a 5-4-1 for this match, nullifying Spain’s fluidity by sitting deep and allowing little space to exploit behind.
It backfired massively, as, in the first stanza, Spain often exploited space between the midfield and defensive lines. The breakthrough may not have come until the 43rd minute, but the warning signs were there.
The Matildas were saved by the offside flag early in the game. (Twitter: @10FootballAU)
The choice of personnel in this system was also questionable. In that back five, only centre-back Claire Polkinghorne played in their natural role. Meanwhile, fullbacks Courtney Nevin and Charlotte Grant joined her in the wide centre-back roles. The wing-back spots were filled by Cortnee Vine, a winger, and Tameka Yallop, a central midfielder.
These selections were despite centre-back options Winonah Heatley and Matilda McNamara on the bench. They may be inexperienced. But deciding to field a backline consisting of midfielders and wingers rather than use players in their natural positions suggests a lack of faith in some squad members.
His decision not to use young star Jacynta Galabadaarachchi has also been questioned. Gustavsson has always talked about wanting his players to test themselves in professional environments. Jacynta has risen to this challenge and exceeded, being named Celtic’s Player of the Season and the Scottish Women's Premier League (SWPL) Young Player of the Season.
So why she wasn’t featured in these friendly matches is perplexing. She has done what Gustavsson has requested to a tee. Plus, considering the ability she’s shown this season and her eligibility for Italy and Argentina, capping her as soon as possible should be a priority.
Celtic star Jacynta Galabadaarachchi was an unused sub in the two friendly matches, and is yet to make her international debut. (The Celtic Star)
A lack of forward-thinking from Football Australia and some rather rash decisions from Tony Gustavsson were the key reasons behind that 7-0 loss.
But it mustn’t take away from the quality they faced either. Spain is very much in tournament mode. This squad is a golden generation preparing for a Euros tournament; they are favourites to win. They are undefeated in 23 matches and haven’t lost since the better side of the COVID pandemic.
And matches against European opposition are never straightforward either.
Even Alen Stajcic only mustered a 29% win rate against sides from the continent when women's football in Europe was still in its developmental phase.
During his time as Matildas coach, he faced European opposition 17 times, with the median FIFA ranking of these sides being 12. He won on five occasions.
Since Gustavsson began his tenure in 2021, the Matildas have played ten games against European opponents, winning only once but against sides with a 5.5 median ranking.
Ante Milicic failed to win any games against European opposition in his stint as Matildas coach.
It’s not an uncommon trend to struggle against European nations. But despite this, there were positive signs in the Portugal friendly, where Gustavsson seemed to correct several errors. Despite the match finishing in a 1-1 draw, the Matildas arguably should’ve walked away winners. They failed to beat Portugal twice in 2018 when they were ranked eight places lower, and the Matildas had a full-strength squad, so in context, this result is very positive for the side.
Princess Ibini-Isei opened her international account in what was an improved Matildas performance against Portugal. (News.com)
Since Gustavsson's introduction, there has been a noticeable element of short-term loss for long-term gain in the friendlies organised. He believes the Matildas must compete at the 2023 World Cup.
It was a successful strategy for the Olympics, where the side recorded their best-ever finish. However, it backfired when it came to the Asian Cup. The Matildas were forced to break down low blocks rather than play in more open matches as they had faced in previous years.
But no matter the lessons from these games, heavy losses will always bring a sour taste to fans' mouths. And in this case, fans are understandably angry at a result that suggests the squad has gone backwards.
While there were undoubtedly manager-induced mistakes in the last international break, simply placing the blame for the results onto Gustavsson alone is misguided. There were numerous reasons why those results came to be outside of the manager's control.
A positive result against Canada will be necessary to improve the public's mood. A negative one may not change Gustavsson's methods or the support he receives from the FA. But no manager wants to head into a World Cup under the microscope of fans.
The Matildas next play on September 6 against Canada at the newly renovated Allianz Stadium in Sydney.
For more of FPF's coverage of the Matildas, click here.