How Gustavsson aims to make up for lost Matildas time

Full article first published in SBS’ The World Game:

Finally getting the chance for a belated, in-person look at his side with the Olympics rapidly approaching, new Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson is relishing newly announced international matches against high-powered European opposition.

On Thursday, Football Australia announced that Australia’s most beloved sporting team would be returning to the pitch this April, when they will take on European powerhouses Germany and the Netherlands.

Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s Germany awaits on April 11 at the Brita-Arena in the German city of Wiesbaden, before they will then face Sarina Wiegman’s Dutch at the NEC Stadium in Nijmegen on April 14.

With logistical problems thrown up by COVID-19 having consistently frustrated efforts by the FA to schedule fixtures for Australia’s national teams in recent months, the return to action is welcome news for Australia’s women; their portion of the Tokyo Olympics scheduled to commence on July 21.

By the time the April contests against the two heavyweights arrive, it will have been well over a calendar year since the Matildas last took the field – a 2-1 win over Vietnam to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics – and over six months since former USWNT Assistant Coach Gustavsson was named as the side’s new boss.

This dearth of matches, however, hasn’t been matched by their international rivals, with numerous nations around the world already having seen their national teams return to the field in recent months – including the Germans and Dutch.

The two sides themselves met on February 25, the women in orange recording a 2-1 win at the Covebo Stadion thanks to goals from Jackie Groenen and Danielle van de Donk, and both also defeated Belgium in February.

Needless to say, finally getting the first chance to do away with internet communication and put his new charges through their paces in person, Gustavsson is understandably excited and eager to make up for lost time with his group.

“I think, first of all, I need to put the brakes on myself a little bit because of the excitement – not to be too ambitious and try to do too much at once,” he said.

“Obviously I’m really, really excited to finally get the chance to meet the team in person and have a camp.

“I think what’s important is that me and the staff are really trying to pinpoint in this short preparation time for the Olympics just what is the most important things we need to do and try to tick that box as soon as possible.

“I’ve said from day one – and when I’ve spoken to the players – my aim is to try to get as good of an understanding as possible, as soon as possible, about every individual’s core qualities and then merge that into team performance.

“I think hopefully at the beginning of the camp the players are going to see that what we do on the field is going to mimic their qualities and it’s not that they’re going to come in with a lot of new information and get all of a load of information and maybe having problems performing.

“Is it going to be something new? Of course – you need to get the players to understand and see the same picture. But it’s all going to be based on the qualities that they already have.”

April’s fixtures loom as something of a baptism of fire for the Matildas’ new boss; Die Nationalelf and Leeuwinnen representing two of the toughest challenges in football.

The Germans are the reigning Olympic champions while, in keeping with their nation’s footballing history, the Dutch – who have also qualified for Tokyo – were vanquished in the final of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“I really want to credit the FA for showing the willingness and really the understanding of how important it is for this program to play as tough of a schedule as possible,” Gustavsson explained.

“I could have gone down the road of an easy start as a new coach, get a couple of easy games where we can get some positive results and get the belief in there but we can’t waste a minute.

“We need to play as tough a schedule as possible and looking at these two games now with Germany and Holland – the winner of the Olympics and a World Cup finalist – it’s tough to find a more difficult schedule than that.

“I love the fact that the federation has really shown an understanding of how important that is, even though it means a tough challenge for us as a team.

“It’s what we need to test ourselves to see where we’re at and in order to prepare for the Olympics.”

Unfortunately, with the realities of COVID still an unwelcome fact of life, no players based in the W-League will be eligible for selection for the 23-player squad for the coming games; Gustavsson instead needing to select his squad entirely from European and American-based players.

Already, Brisbane Roar’s Emily Gielnik and Clare Polkinghorne have announced their imminent departure for Europe before the cut-off date for selection – dealing a significant blow to their side’s finals hopes.

“I’m always operating under the framework that I’m given and I trust the expertise that I’ve got [access to],” the Matildas’ boss said.

“Do I feel for the W-League players? Of course I do. You can imagine that yourself: you go into the W-League, you want to perform and prove to a new coach you deserve a chance and now you’re not eligible for selection.

“If you remember in November we did an ID camp to make sure we got a lot of players under the eyes of the Matildas coaching staff.

“And I don’t want to make any false promises but my hope is that we can create something similar between this camp and the June FIFA window so we can have the availability and possibility to bring in some of those players that have played very well in the W-League to make sure we’ve seen them under our control as well.

“And I’m not just referring to young potential future players, I mean the whole spectrum. Because for me it’s not about how old you are, it’s what you perform – no matter if you’re a young up-and-coming 17-year-old or if you’re an experienced player that’s been around before.

“No doors are going to be closed. Obviously, it puts them in a tougher situation, you do the math there, it’s tough for now, but it doesn’t mean the door is closed.”

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