Not the start we were hoping for.
The Matildas went into the World Cup as they always seem to in tournaments – full of hope and optimism and ‘this is our time’ hype. All teams do that, to some level, but this Matildas team was going to be different.
We’ve got some of the best strikers in the world in our team and some great up-and-coming youngsters alongside some experienced campaigners. Sounds like a pretty balanced mix.
We have a new coach who came in under some controversy and has only been in charge since mid-February. Since then, we’ve had an almost constant chirp about ‘bringing back Staj’ and questions still hanging over the team about what actually happened. That sort of thing is distracting and while I’m not saying it affected last night’s result, it has to have an impact mentally on the team to continually have the coaching questions still hanging over the team’s head.
Despite all of that, we forged ahead on the road to France with high hopes and optimism.
The game last night was not the Matildas I thought I’d be watching. It was frustrating at times, seeing how easily the Italians broke our backline, and how big a hole we have in the midfield.
The only thing that stopped me from yelling at my TV in frustrating at seeing another wayward pass or sloppy defending was my sleeping wife.
We have so much pressure at the back (sometimes self-inflicted) and yet play slow football there when we gain possession – I know there’s this new philosophy where goalkeepers are seen as the 11th player and are used as such, but boy it’s annoying to see the ball go backwards when a forward pass is on offer, especially when we don’t use that backward pass option to reset in the mids and offer options to go forward again.
Sam Kerr is always going to be marked out of the game – or attempted to anyway – and we know that. So we have to come up with better ways to counter that and bring Foord into the equation to offer an alternative.
Kerr can beat a single marker easily – heck she can beat a whole backline if she gets the right ball – and if you’re playing everyone else in except Kerr early, you draw players away from her. Someone will always have the job of sticking with Kerr, but using alternative attacking options as a ploy to draw players away from our best striker will free her up for those runs only she can make.
Defensively, we’re a schmozzle. Clare Polkinghorne is one of our best defenders, but someone isn’t communicating at the back at all. There seemed to be a distinct lack of organisation, especially during set plays. We seem to be taking a tactic and not deviating, which from an outsider’s point of view, looks like we’re not giving the players enough confidence to call plays as they see it, and make their own on-field decisions.
And the most frustrating part about that is it’s nothing new.
Defence is something we’ve been struggling with for a long time, and putting someone in charge of organising and moving players around at the back, changing tactics when needed on-field, would go some way to improving that.
A coach I had back in my junior days (when I was an attacking mid-fielder) said to me that football is like a game of chess, and I never really understood that until I pulled on the gloves and started playing in goal.
That was when it occurred to me that as the only one on the field who could see everything, I could move my players around as I needed, which, if we were good enough and trusted each other enough, would make our opposition play their game the way we wanted them to.
Simple things like knowing an opposition striker only kicked with their right foot meant the defender only needed to turn them onto their left to make them less potent.
Or seeing a runner positioning themselves wide to make a run in on a free kick and alerting a defender to mark them and blunt the attack.
It was fascinating to be able to dictate play from the back, and when you watch professional games from a high enough vantage point you can see where runs are going to come from. You can see patterns forming, movement happening, spaces opening up.
Someone on the field needs to take charge of that sort of vision, and that someone is normally the goalkeeper.
I don’t know what sort of set-up the Matildas have with their defence, and while I think Kerr makes a good captain of the side in general, someone needs to take charge at the back. Polkinghorne has always done such a good job for the Roar, and is most comfortable playing a bit of a sweeper-ish role at the back when it’s needed, and sneaking up the field when the play allows.
The way we’re playing in defence at the moment pulls her away from that natural game.
Playing high in the backline works when the opposition aren’t making runs in behind, and when we have enough speed at the back to cover counter attacks.
Put simply, we just don’t have the types of players required in defence to play a high defensive line, so we need to change, and play to the strengths we have instead of trying to make players adapt and play roles that are unnatural for them.
Now look, I’ve never played at an elite level. The extent of my experience is in over 20 years (almost 30) in local amateur leagues, most of that time spent between the sticks. I also did some time as a senior women’s coach (again, local league) and as a kids’ coach.
And though I know a local league is far from the heights and complications of international football, there are some things that are universal.
A coach’s job is to bring disparate individuals, with different strengths, weaknesses and superpowers, together into one cohesive unit.
To look at the players they have and mould the strategy around them, not the other way around.
Coaches will always have preferred methods of play, preferred set plays, preferred shapes and formations.
But there’s no point in sticking blindly to those preferences if you don’t have the players to fit them.
We have some truly great players in the Matildas set up, and some fantastic players knocking on the door of selection.
As an outsider looking in, it just seems that players are being asked to play outside of their natural abilities.
That does nothing for the player or the team.
Let’s hope that at the very least, we plug our gaps in defence before the Brazil match rolls around. Because it only takes one goal to win a football match – but a whole bloody lot of effort to defend it.