The Matildas are out of the Asian Cup. The quarter final defeat is their worst finish in the tournament and in any other year World Cup qualification would be at stake.
Questions are being asked of the coach. Tony Gustavsson has taken full responsibility but that is unlikely to satisfy his doubters, or all of his supporters.
With 18 months until a home World Cup, what happens next must be carefully considered. When Football Australia removed Alen Stajcic months away from the 2019 tournament, they did so without a replacement in mind.
The eventual manager, Ante Milicic, performed reasonably well given the circumstances, and the Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament produced some of the best Matildas football of recent years.
However, he entered the role with no experience in women’s football and some aspects of his game plan such as a high-line defence did not translate to the Matildas well.
He had also agreed to take on Macarthur FC in the A-League while still managing the national side. It was a far from ideal solution and did not endear him to supporters.
The Matildas went almost a full year without a manager, even without matches to play during COVID, this was valuable time lost.
The coach will be scrutinized, but in the short term and before any replacement is sought out. So should his actual role.
When Tony Gustavsson was given the job in September of 2020, it was designed as a long term position.
The Swede has been widely acknowledged as the tactical mind behind the champion US Team. The Matildas had failed to beat European opposition recently and looked outmaneuvered by Italy at the World Cup. It was thought his nous would help bridge this gap.
Thanks to the players they produce, the consistency of their clubs and national side and the success of their coaches, Sweden is a popular womens football resource and its clubs a much prized destination.
Gustavsson’s role has so far been two-fold. To achieve in the immediate major tournaments and to address depth issues highlighted by the performance gap report and regenerate the squad.
In essence, he was expected to win trophies while developing a new generation of players.
Either Gustavsson over-promised or had too much asked of him. His responsibilities need to be reassessed.
This is a herculean task to achieve in less than two years. He had early success in the Tokyo Olympics. The Matildas finished in fourth and Mary Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross established themselves in the squad. So far so good.
These players were long expected to step into the senior squad, both trained with the World Cup team in 2019 and both had very different but anticipated paths to the top.
After the Olympics, it became visibly more difficult to create the depth the report demanded. Uncovering potential new players became a priority in friendlies.
Long term this is essential, in hindsight it was not ideal planning to win the Asian cup.
The mounting losses against top 10 sides did not bother fans, and likely still won’t. Australia needs to be exposed to these teams in order to bridge the gap. The previous method of playing minnows and underfunded South American teams had not yielded results either, so it was logical to try something new.
However, it was a missed opportunity to further work with the relatively successful Tokyo squad.
That Olympic team developed the tactical flexibility to switch between formations within a game. Players like Courtney Nevin and Charlotte Grant were earmarked as fullbacks to support Catley and Carpenter and the squad became accustomed to playing with a back three.
Clare Wheeler has been added since. Her form in Europe and in last season’s W-League, plus her position as a defensive midfielder made her impossible to ignore.
In efforts to start regenerating the entire pool of potential Matildas between the Olympics and India, the team and the manager had to basically start from scratch in every match. All that had been drilled into the team for Tokyo had to be re-established right before the Asian Cup.
To be clear, experimenting in friendly matches is a good idea, but using them to look at the entire next generation right now is bad timing.
Rebuilding a squad while simultaneously contending for trophies is a strategy that has worked at club level. Ante Juric has great success with this at Sydney FC. Adelaide United’s program looks to be bearing fruit, while Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory have put the building blocks in place for this to occur.
At an international level, it does not look achievable. The job of the national team coach cannot be to develop and expose the next generation to senior football while trying to win trophies.
That is what youth systems are for, in the USA the colleges and clubs perform this function.
The best way to develop the next generation of players is a whole separate discussion that divides opinions, but nobody would consider it ideal for a senior coach to attempt it in a World Cup year.
In the absence of any youth tournaments (the kind that unearthed Karly Roestbakken for 2019), this has been the gig Gustavsson signed up for. It just does not seem doable.
Matildas legend Melissa Barbieri is correct when she says the time for experimenting is over. The manager needs to work with a selection of players capable of performing in 2023.
But importantly the coach needs to be able to manage for the present not simultaneously plan for a future half a decade away.
The lead up to the Asian Cup showed that it should be one or the other. Whoever the manager is, achieving both is unrealistic and as we’ve just seen, counter-productive.
If the manager is to be looked at, so to must the actual job. Otherwise, whoever is in the seat will have the same issues.
For the next year and a half, they need to narrow their focus on the job immediately at hand.
Some clichés are true, one game at a time.
Interchangeable game changers
The Matildas have depth in attack. But many of these players are very similar in style or in terms of positioning. Kyah Simon, Cailtin Foord and Sam Kerr all prefer to play centrally. Cortnee Vine and Hayley Raso occupy the same role and Remy Siemsen is a classy centre forward but positionally similar to Kerr.
Tony Gustavsson refers to players as “game changers” but for the game to change, different types of strikers might be needed.
This is not a popular opinion, but the long ball is not an awful tactic, if you have the players to make it work.
You need tall, strong, technically skilled strikers that can change the way your team attacks and more importantly, how the other team defends.
In 2006, Guus Hiddink selected an uncapped and nearly anonymous Josh Kennedy for the World Cup. The reasoning was his height and style of play would give the Socceroos a different option, a new dimension.
He did not score, but caused havoc for Japan and Croatia in that tournament, there was no match up for him.
Tara Andrews has been capped for The Matildas, there is nobody in the current set up those plays like she does. She can hold up the ball, link play and bring down a long pass like few others. She is one of the tallest players in the A-League Women and would be an impossible matchup for most sides.
This would not be an experimental selection. It would be selecting the type of player that would thrive under the emergency plan that the Matildas resort to.
If you are going to launch the ball long, or send in speculative crosses, would you rather a center back moved upfield on the end of it, or the six-foot tall Newcastle Jets all time leading scorer?
Andrews may not always be in the top five Australian strikers, but she is a perfect tactical fit for the Matildas if they really do want a point of difference.
If the aim is tactical versatility, it makes sense to use a variety of players in attack.