In 677 days, a mere 96 weeks from now, Australia’s biggest ever football event kicks off.
The Matildas’ chances of progression to the next round of the Olympic football tournament have taken a hit with a 4-2 loss to Sweden, as Sam Kerr scored twice but missed a penalty when 3-2 down.
Kerr’s two headed goals had Australia right in the mix but goals to Fridolina Rolfo, Lina Hurtig, and Stina Blackstenius mean Sweden enter the final match day with two wins in the bag, having beaten the United States. Australia will likey need to get a result against the Americans to progress.
The only change to the starting XI saw Teagan Micah make her third appearance for Australia in place of stalwart ‘keeper Lydia Williams.
The match showed the full spectrum of an Australian performance and exposed the concerns which followed the team into Tokyo to a greater level than in the game against New Zealand.
The opening 15 minutes from the Matildas showed what the team is capable of: resolute defence, dogged pressure, and pace in the wide positions.
Sticking with the flexible backline – three in attack, five in defence – made sense and was paying dividends. The pressure being applied to the Swedish players in the midfield was an important part of the overall defensive structure.
"That's football. I'm obviously disappointed. I apologised to the girls but at the end of the day that's football. I'll bounce back." @samkerr1 discusses a missed penalty after scoring two goals earlier in the Matlildas match against Sweden.#Tokyo2020 | #7Olympics pic.twitter.com/kNUdhgOwUt
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) July 24, 2021
It meant attacks that did enter the final third could be nullified by smart positioning rather than a foot race. This suited the likes of Aivi Luik and Clare Polkinghorne who are smarter than they are faster.
Of course, this meant the Matildas were susceptible to a quick counter if the wingbacks were too far forward and that is how Sweden opened the scoring. Steph Catley’s push forward opened the wing for Sofia Jakobsson to find Rolfo. It was errors in a similar vein which led to Sweden’s second, this time from Lina Hurtig.
Just as the defence switched between solidity and fragility so too did the Australian attack. Kerr’s two goals showed some of the best of Australia’s front three.
While it shouldn’t be the lone route to goal, a cross from out wide onto the head of Kerr is generally effective. Today, Kyah Simon and Caitlin Foord were the providers.
A penalty to Australia, courtesy of VAR as Foord was fouled, saw Kerr on the precipice of a hat trick. But the spot kick was saved by the trailing leg of Hedvig Lindahl.
Rather than aim straight down the middle or into the corners, Kerr picked a middle ground covered by a diving Lindahl who guessed the right way. It would have brought Australia back level to 3-3.
In between Sweden’s third and Kerr’s penalty, coach Tony Gustavsson made some changes.
Aivi Luik’s departure and Alanna Kennedy’s entry saw Australia revert to a flatter back four. This one substitution highlighted two of the biggest issues with this particular squad.
It can be argued after using the same 10 outfield players in two straight matches that this line up is what Gustavsson sees as his best XI, a sentiment many fans would agree with.
By extension, as evidenced by the New Zealand win and the opening 15 minutes of this game, both the line-up and the formation can work to great effect.
But using the same 10 outfielders again coupled with the change in formation once Luik came off suggests that the Matildas don’t have the personnel to maintain that formation outside of those 10 players at the moment.
Furthermore, Australia has the players to be able to play a back four. A defensive line of Steph Catley, Clare Polkinghorne, Alanna Kennedy, and Ellie Carpenter isn’t unheard of. But what the Luik substitution and formation change consequently affected is the midfield.
Barring Emily van Egmond, Tameka Yallop, and Kyra Cooney-Cross who replaced Yallop, the midfield after the change to a back four saw players who are better suited elsewhere trying to create things in the middle.
So looking ahead to the USA game, plenty of questions must be answered. The loss means Australia need something from the game against the reigning World Cup champions.
In order to do that, the Matildas need their best starting line up on the field. Will Gustavsson make changes? Two games in four days in a Japanese summer for most of the 10 outfielder players adds further weight to the column advocating for.
They are decisions which Gustavsson has two days to make.