Gustavsson seeking to balance fresh faces with finding consistency

The need to find an equilibrium between playing for the present and planning for the future is one of the great, vexing constants for coaches, and Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson is well aware of the tightrope he is walking heading into 2023. 

Fielding a starting XI packed with experienced players that were largely playing in their positions of choice, the Matildas’ produced one of their best performances since Gustavsson arrived as coach on Saturday; running out 3-1 victors over Brazil thanks to goals from Clare Polkinghorne, Mary Fowler, and Emily van Egmond. 

Even though he was, rightfully, quick to note on Monday that some defensive foibles, particularly in transition, were again present and that the Seleção are in a period of rejuvenation, it was the type of performance that the squad will seek to build upon with an Asian Cup less than 100 days away. 

But therein lies the conundrum for Gustavsson; the coach facing down the conflicting need to build upon the foundation laid by his side ahead of an assault on continental glory and the continuation of the process of renewal that he has embraced in his 11 months at the helm of Australia’s women. 

In entering the field in the 90th minute, Sydney locals Remy Siemsen and Bryleeh Henry became Matildas number 216 and 217 on Saturday night — the 11th and 12th players to make their international bows in 2021. That figure represents the highest number of debutants for the national side since 2007, when the likes of Tameka Yallop, Kyah Simon, and Elise Kellond-Knight made their first appearances in Green and Gold. 

Beyond the debutants, 56 players have received at least one call-up to a national camp so far, with Henry representing the 16th to receive the honour for the first time. 

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As an individual that calls his substitute “game-changers”, Gustavsson has frequently spoken of his desire to build the Matildas’ depth heading into a home World Cup in 2023 — using the limited camps and games he has with the team to expose young and inexperienced players to life in the national setup and gauge their ability to contribute in the years ahead. And in the form of Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross, he has already intergrated two youngsters that shape as key contributors for years to come.

This, however, has been juggled with preparing a squad to perform as a cohesive unit at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year at the looming Asian Cup next January. 

And beyond the obvious issues of cohesion on the field, there is also the reality that for every young player that establishes themselves as a regular part of the squad, another has to make way for them — something that carries significantly more sting than normal with a home World Cup on the horizon. 

“That is one of the most important questions from a leadership perspective; to find this balance that we’re talking about,” Gustavsson said on Monday.  

“On the one hand, as a national team, you have very limited time together. Both training but moreso games. If you look from now to the World Cup and to how many camps and games we have it’s very, very limited. Even though the time sounds like it’s far away it’s going to come quickly. 

“It’s [finding] that balance.

“One, preparing the team to be able to perform in terms of cohesion with a smaller group of players that know how to play with each other and get natural in a team. Where you can quickly get up to speed… have that understanding and chemistry and cohesion in the team. In order to do that they need to play a lot of minutes together. 

“But on the other hand, we also know from [the Women’s Performance Gap report] that we need depth. In order to win something in a tournament, you need to be able to rotate throughout the tournament but also you need cover for injuries and suspensions. We need to make sure we bridge that gap.

Melbourne City captain Emma Checker is amongst the ten defenders in the Matildas squad for the Brazil games
Image Credit: Football Australia

“We’ve seen this year we’ve tried to balance it in a way where we could perform in the Olympics but, at the same time, bring players in either by exposing them to this training environment or getting them on the park. 

“I’m really, really appreciative of the leadership group in here and their understanding of where this team is and where it needs to be. 

“Because there has to be an acceptance from these core players that maybe know they deserve to get more minute but they have a buy-in that ‘we need these players with us in 2023 so let’s bring them on even if it costs me some minutes in this game’. 

“Because we need to do this together.” 

As was made evident by his selection of ten defenders for the two fixtures against Brazil, building depth across his backline remains a key area of focus for Gustavsson on the road to 2023. 

Though first-choice back four Steph Catley, Ellie Carpenter, Alanna Kennedy and Polkinghorne are amongst the most experienced players in the Matildas squad, none of the other six defenders in the squad for this round of friendlies possess more than ten caps. 

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In total, the Matildas have conceded 31 goals in 13 games in 2021 — with the centre of the defence emerging as a particular area of concern.

“I’ve been honest on that since day one, even when I announced the Olympic roster, I said that I, unfortunately, had to leave some really good attacking players out of that roster,” Gustavsson said. 

“We have tons, and I mean tons, of flexibility in attacking midfield and forward positions. But we have throughout the years, even before I arrived, look at the Performance Gap report, we’ve lacked some depth in defensive positions: defensive midfield and backline. 

“That’s one of the [areas] we need to get more depth. You saw in 2019 when Laura Brock was injured before the [World Cup], Polks [Polkinghorne was] injured during the tournament, there was a lot of moving pieces from players moving from midfield and outside back. 

“Maybe instead of one player out, one player in that lack of depth can sometimes hurt in tournaments, so we definitely need to look at that in the lead into 2023. 

“If you look at the games since I started in April to now, there’s been a lot of backline players that have got exposure, both in a back four and a back three. If you look at all those friendlies, it’s very few games that I started with the same backline from one game to another. 

“Again, I’m coming back to that balance between consistency and getting the chance to play together against getting players in. 

“I’m very aware of the situation and these are discussions that my staff and I have conversations about in camp. At the end of the day we want to win the game, but not at the expense of the long-term development journey of this team.”

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Header Image Credit: Football Australia

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