The 18-year-old twice equalised for Australia, but Ireland scored the matchwinner early in the second half.
Boring. Cynical. Passionless. Un-Australian.
Last night those were just some of the words that were on social media to describe the Matildas’ performance against the world number one and defending world champions, the United States.
One word was neglected: smart.
That was a tactically smart and tournament savvy performance from the Matildas and the coaching staff. In a match where a draw would see both sides go through, the Australian team looked to attack the Americans in the opening half before playing much more reserved football in the second stanza.
While it was not what many considered “the Matildas way” or the “Australian way”, if history of tournaments have shown us anything, it is a winning way.
Tournaments like the Olympics, where the teams play matches every two days, are not just about who can play better during one match – they are also about which team can map out the tournament to peak at exactly the right time. This need for smart and savvy tournament management becomes even more critical when it is played during a hot and humid Japanese summer.
If there is a coach that knows about tournament management, it is Tony Gustavsson. He has been a part of three winning tournament campaigns with the side the Matildas played last night. London 2012 gold, and back to back Women’s World Cup victories (2015 and 2019).
One of things that Gustavsson said he wanted to bring to the team was game management and that is what happened last night.
In the second half, the Matildas could have gone all guns blazing at the USWNT and played the “Australian way” but at what cost? In playing high, they would have left themselves wide open to transition goals against a team that has the firepower of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press with the latter, Press, involved in 40 goals in the last 39 games for the USA .
Lack of tournament and match management has haunted the Matildas in the past couple of years and for all the re-writing of history with Alen Stajcic, the last couple of years have been up and down.
While the former coach rightfully deserved praise for creating an exciting brand of football with the team in 2015 – 2017, the reality is by 2018, the rest of the world had caught up that football style and were already starting to figure out the Matildas.
The evolution of the team was to play Plan A but faster.
Looking at the results in the final year of Stajcic’s reign demonstrates this in stark numbers:
– A 0-0 draw with Portugal (ranked 38th) while Australia was ranked fourth at the 2018 Algarve Cup
– A 2-1 loss to Portugal in the same tournament in the placings match
– A 0-0 draw with a 14th ranked South Korea in the Asian Cup where the team struggled to create
– Very late 1-1 draw with Japan with an 86th min Sam Kerr goal saving the team from a fifth place playoff
– A penalty shoot out win against the 30th ranked Thailand with again a late 90th min Alanna Kennedy saving the team
The run of results cost the team dearly in terms of points as they fell to sixth in the rankings.
What followed was a rally in the Tournament of Nations where they drew with the United States and beat Brazil and Japan.
However, all three teams in that tournament in hindsight were already preparing for the future while Australia was keeping (starting to burn out) the same squad.
When some of the top players were unavailable for the next tour due to injury, what followed was another runs of inconsistent results and performances.
– A 2-0 loss to France where the team was outplayed
– A 1-1 draw with England where again a late 84th min Clare Polkinghorne goal saved the day
– Then a 3 – 2 loss to the 39th ranked Chile at home
No-one knows conclusively what happened with the departure of Stajcic, but one thing is certain is that the way it happened has clouded the narrative around the performances of the team while he was a coach.
The highs (defeating and drawing with the United States and dismantling Brazil) are remembered but that final year of poor performances and results have been neatly shoved aside.
Then came Ante Milicic to steady the ship for the FIFA Women’s WOrld Cup in France. What was evident in that tournament was that women’s football had evolved significantly and Australia had not matured with it from 2017 to 2019.
Time in Europe plus the appointment of Gustavsson has shown that with the right time, the team can become a more mature and savvy team.
A genuine question is do you prefer a plucky, “go get ’em” style that ends in a loss or a pragmatic approach that ultimately ends in a tournament victory?
Australia has tried the first and it has ended often in disappointment at the 2011 World Cup, 2014 Asian Cup, 2015 World Cup, 2016 Rio Olympics, 2018 Asian Cup and the 2019 World Cup. Maybe it’s time to mature and try a combination of the two.
That’s what I saw last night; an Australian team growing up.