<
>

Faith, not results, keeping Tony Gustavsson in charge of the Matildas

play
Pressure on Gustavsson? 'The results haven't been there' (0:49)

Joey Lynch tells The National Curriculum that he is fed up with the "excuses" Tony Gustavsson has been making as Matildas head coach. (0:49)

Expectation management was a major topic for Tony Gustavsson heading into the Matildas' two-game series against Canada, both for the games ahead and retroactively for the 16 months since his first match as head coach. Before the contests, the Swede sought to "draw a line in the sand," as he put it, between the then and the now; a demarcation between the disappointing showings that had come before and the next 10 months before the 2023 Women's World Cup.

This coming period, it was proclaimed, marked the beginning of a new phase in the team's journey. No longer was it about experimenting with different approaches and throwing youngsters in to try to create badly needed depth; instead, focus would turn to fostering the chemistry, cohesion and continuity that would be needed in order to mount a challenge come next July.

- Subscribe to ESPN AU/NZ's football podcasts
- The Far Post | The National Curriculum | More

If this sounds familiar, it should because it's remarkably similar to talk of switching from "preparation mode" to "performance mode" in the lead into the Asian Cup: A transformation that ultimately ended with the Matildas being bundled out in the quarterfinals. And, alas, for three of the four halves that Australia played against Canada, the same problematic themes in the team's play that have been identifiable since a 5-2 loss to Germany in Gustavsson's first game in charge on April 11, 2021, were again doggedly persistent. Critics were calling for results. The coach wanted performances. And in the end, neither really got what they desired.

Gustavsson spoke glowingly of his side being able to put together a strong opening 45 minutes in the aftermath of Tuesday's 2-1 defeat. But the obvious riposte to this is: If 17 months into his tenure, how is a good half representative of the team progressing at a rate that is going to allow it to challenge the world's best in less than a year? Yes, the 45 minutes were promising. But games go for 90.

Frustratingly, while Gustavsson also said post-game that "I don't want to sit here and protect myself," his oft-noted absence of key players and fitness concerns that struck during camp -- which was matched by an understrength Canada -- joined a long list of perfectly reasonable explanations that have come to define his tenure. More rationalisations as to why the team's performances are yet to match even the tempered expectations that come with a more sombre analysis of the shifting dynamics of global women's football.

Certainly, the current approach is a demonstration that it is not enough to simply plug in one of the world's most feared attackers in Sam Kerr, place Australian football's "unicorn", Katrina Gorry, at the base of the midfield, or integrate one of the most exciting young players in the world, Mary Fowler, into the squad, and expect success. No matter their talent, every player needs to be deployed in positions and alongside carefully selected counterparts that help to maximise their talents while minimising their weaknesses; a disparate group of puzzle pieces that when assembled correctly create a devastating whole.

But unfortunately, now months not years before 2023, the Matildas are still not playing at a level that the talent in their ranks would seemingly indicate the team is capable of achieving.

Given the stakes involved, it's inevitable that the coach will be scrutinised and Football Australia will be asked if this is acceptable. A former USWNT team assistant, Gustavsson has acknowledged this is how this works at this level, and if it needs reiteration one can ask Mark Parsons or Martin Sjogren's views after their ouster from the Netherlands and Norway jobs following the Euros. This is elite football, and it's supposed to be ruthless.

In 18 games against foes ranked inside the top 20 nations in the world since Gustavsson took charge, the Matildas have won only once -- an emotionally charged homecoming game against Brazil at Bankwest Stadium in October 2021. There were leaks against Socceroos coach Graham Arnold for a less adverse run of form. But casting aside results, which can be misleading, and instead charting the trajectory of the football, the performances, concerningly, continue to follow a similar theme.

Take Tuesday evening's loss. As one would expect from the occasion, things started with energy and passion: Australia rode an emotional wave in pressing high and hard, getting the crowd behind them, and putting their foes on the back foot. Linking with Gorry, whose unique qualities and approach appear to have quickly cemented herself as the team's regista, Fowler was lacing highlight through balls into the path of Kerr. Caitlin Foord was getting the rare opportunity to get the ball at her feet and almost won a penalty. Canada, the Olympic champions, didn't have a shot in the opening half, Tameka Yallop had a stabilising performance and Charlotte Grant was bouncing back. It looked like this was Gustavsson-ball, at last.

Yet, as exciting as things were, and how good the vibes felt, the team was still heavily reliant on moments of broken play and transition to create their shots on goal -- Fowler's early strike originating from a terrible goal kick from Canada keeper Kailen Sheridan -- and ended a first half in which they were handily on top with an xG of 1.04, per the broadcast. When, inevitably, the team's energy waned and the second half commenced, fatigue sapped the Matildas' press and the rapidity of their play dwindled. The tide quickly turned as Canada seized control of the game, and two goals in 16 minutes from Manchester United signing Adriana Leon provided a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Speaking post-game, Gustavsson said he knew the second-half flurry would come -- but forewarning apparently didn't come with a Plan B.

With the similar playing styles of Fowler and Emily van Egmond in midfield -- despite the limitations of deploying the duo already being demonstrated in the first match in Brisbane -- a consistent foundation that allowed the side to play out through a press and build out from deep wasn't there. And without the injured Ellie Carpenter masking these issues by dominating the right flank, promising attacks for the Matildas dried up further still. As a domino effect, defensive foibles that have become so familiar, and which frequently have just as much if not more to do with where the side is losing the ball than the actual players in the backline, arose.

That Alex Chidiac, a player comfortable with dropping to receive the ball in crowded areas before looking to advance it, only received 13 minutes across the series' two games -- and was introduced when Gorry was at the point of exhaustion -- was disappointing.

Up top, Kerr ran into the problem of being marked by a defender in 19-year-old Jade Rose who was able to largely match her physicality and contain her. The teen had been called up after a raft of injuries to the Canadian backline, and she shone. Australia, meanwhile, turned to 37-year-old Aivi Luik as their main defensive cover; she was talked out of retirement ahead of the Asian Cup, and, even then, her play suggests she perhaps should start.

Ultimately, as Sydney Morning Herald journalist Vince Rugari wrote, it was a game in which there was one step taken forwards, but two steps back. Again. Seemingly every time there has been a positive moment for the Matildas to build on in the past two years, there has inevitably been some sort of letdown that prevents it from being built upon and used as a foundation for greater things. Some of it has been unavoidable. But far from all of it. And with every passing window before the once-in-a-lifetime shot at a home World Cup, the pressure not to squander it ramps up not just on Gustavsson, but on the entire setup; on the staff who have taken a greater role in his tenure, and the federation that described his appointment as a test of its Football IP. The stakes are that high.

Yet for all the talk outside the walls, the internal faith, as Gustavsson declares, at least appears to be strong. Football Australia has consistently supported the coach, and publicly and privately backed him. If he's going to stay, it's a resoluteness they need to demonstrate. And given the logistical challenges involved in changing coaches -- the buyouts, the recruitment, the upheaval in support staff that occur -- the time to move, if it were going to happen, was arguably after the disastrous Asian Cup. Now, it's difficult to envision the federation making a move even if they want to.

Gustavsson has asked for faith heading into the World Cup, and it looks like he'll get it from those who have agency in this matter.

But until there are concrete signs of consistent progress, a coherent image emerging as the puzzle pieces are put together just the right way, faith may be all supporters have to go on as they dream of 2023.