Catch your breath, slow your heart rate. The Matildas’ World Cup roller-coaster is over. It’s had everything, with strong tones of euphoria and heartbreak along the way.
It captured the nation’s imagination. It united the country. It created remarkable scenes (see Fed Square after Sam Kerr’s semi-final goal). It showcased the potential of the women’s game and so much more. It has been brilliant.
But for all that, some serious analysis from a football perspective is needed on a campaign where we probably exceeded expectations in terms of results.
All the record-breaking TV ratings, sell-out crowds and unimaginable national engagement aside, if you considered pre-tournament from a purely footballing sense what a tick would be, without wanting to be Family Guy’s Buzz Killington, you’d likely say making the semi-finals. That would have been the Matildas’ best-ever World Cup finish.
Indeed, this group did just that. Yet now that it’s over, there is a tinge of wanting more.
Those ‘what if’ questions from the semi-final create that. What if Ellie Carpenter didn’t allow Lauren Hemp in for England’s second goal? What if Sam Kerr nailed that close-range volley for 2-2?
Sunday’s final offered some consolation with Spain’s technical masterclass appearing a cut above anyone else, leaving us with the cold comfort we likely wouldn’t have won it if we made it through.
So GGArmy’s Ben Somerford reflected on the good, the bad and the ugly from the past month at an unbelievable Women’s World Cup on home soil.
So incredibly proud of our girls! You gave it everything and inspired an entire nation! Hold your head up high and here’s to the future! #matildas
— Cathy Freeman (@CathyFreeman) August 16, 2023
There are so many positives to take from this tournament. The team kept four clean sheets, led by Mackenzie Arnold overcoming some early jittery set-piece moments to undoubtedly cement herself as the team’s number one as well as a national hero with her shootout heroics against France.
Then there was Alanna Kennedy who produced arguably her best month of football in her career date. Clare Hunt, who turned 24 in March, continued her revelatory rise at international level with aplomb. Keeping clean sheets against Canada, Denmark and France was impressive, particularly the side’s discipline. Big kudos to coach Tony Gustavsson.
Gustavsson copped some criticism for the style he employed which I understand. Australia often allowed the opposition to boss possession, relying on a counter-attacking style. Our strengths are speed and power, not technical ability in tight spaces, so that worked until we faced the top sides, England and Sweden, who made their possession count. But it must be noted, despite that, the Matildas still kept creating chances with their explosive style on the counter. The side’s ability to keep generating opportunities was a positive.
Katrina Gorry and 21-year-old Kyra Cooney-Cross forged an excellent midfield duo, the latter appearing a star on the rise with her technical quality and control. Arsenal duo Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord’s connection down the left flank was arguably our best attacking outlet, with both having big moments throughout the tournament.
Hayley Raso may not have been at her typical best down the right wing but she managed three goals, often benefitting from good work down the left. And then there’s Mary Fowler, who showed why many consider her the future of the Matildas with her outstanding vision, passing range and ball control. She’s an understated architect who oozes coolness and has started a black gloves trend.
Sam Kerr didn’t have the tournament she wanted and that is a great shame, but we’ll all remember her stunning strike in the semi-final giving the Matildas all the momentum until Lauren Hemp stole it away.
Among all that, it’s exciting to know Hunt, Cooney-Cross and Fowler as well as Ellie Carpenter, who you can forget is only 23, will all be around for the next decade.
The Nigeria game is a distant memory now. But that 3-2 loss meant the pressure was on in our final group game against Canada.
We passed that test in flying colours in a famous night for the Matildas, but the situation created by the Nigeria defeat meant the Matildas faced one extra do-or-die game compared to their knockout rivals. That seemed to impact the side in the latter stages, appearing fatigued and exhausted in the semi-finals and third-place playoff.
Part of that was due to Gustavsson not rotating the players enough. His reluctance to utilize the depth he’d worked so hard to develop in the lead-up to the World Cup was frustrating. But we also didn’t really get that opportunity due to the Nigeria result, while all three other semi-finalists had already clinched last-16 advancement prior to their third group games.
Nine members of Australia’s squad played 540 minutes (nine hours) or more during our seven-game campaign across a month. Eight started every game. That’s a lot. That is a good lesson for this group in tournament play, something the Europeans have better experience in.
In saying all that, as much as the players seemed exhausted by the end of the tournament, part of the challenge was the quality of opposition also improved the further we went. England and Sweden were worthy winners against us.
Last night, the Matildas were the most watched TV program in Australia … since 2001.
And it smashed the record for biggest streaming event ever in Australia.
— 7Sport (@7Sport) August 17, 2023
After that ride, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I’m also not a Gustavsson hater. He has some great strengths. He galvanised this team together. He took pressure off them. He brought out their strengths.
But he also has some weaknesses, like his reluctance for player rotation, suggesting a lack of faith in his squad depth. That wasn’t just in his starting line-ups but also his apathy at injecting substitutes to change momentum earlier in games, despite his “game changer” moniker for subs.
Gustavsson’s decision to bring on crafty creative type Alex Chidiac in the 85th minute when 3-1 down against Nigeria was way too late (they scored their third goal 12 minutes earlier). He again turned to Chidiac at 3-1 down against England in the 88th minute against England. It was too belated for her to impact. It’s tough to be a “game changer” when you only get 5-10 minutes.
Kyah Simon’s selection, in hindsight, was baffling given she played no minutes and barely trained until late in the tournament after an ACL injury suffered in October. With all those aforementioned issues, that felt like a wasted squad spot.
Similarly, Gustavsson wasn’t proactive or agile tactically, again meaning we were unable to shift momentum in games.
We soaked up pressure well, but couldn’t pose a varied threat to our opposition. That worked but not against the best.
There’s heaps to like. And the truth is this tournament showcased some of our potential, so now we should aim higher and develop a way to beat the best.
— CommBank Matildas (@TheMatildas) August 20, 2023