Plenty of room for improvement as Matildas turn attention to Norway | Richard Parkin | Football
In terms of the spectacle, you could not have asked for more from Australia’s 4-1 win over Jamaica. A pulsating end-to-end clash, enlivened by spells of break-neck attacking intent, slick interplay in midfield, and committed recovery in defence. For opposition video analysts however, the Matildas showed plenty to cause consternation, but offered equally as much to raise hopes.
Ahead of the Brazil clash Ante Milicic was at pains to point out the need for his side to control tempo against an opponent that could be dangerous on the counter-attack. Despite identifying this, the match went end-to-end. Against Jamaica, a team blessed with remarkable individuals irrespective of the lack of preparation that dogged the collective, Australia again failed to maintain sustained possession, dictate the tempo, and exert calm game management for large portions of the match.
“That’s where we get done, in transition,” Milicic said. “In the second half they made a change and we couldn’t deal with them … with the speed they had. At 2-1 we got a little bit nervous, so tho first 20 minutes of the second half wasn’t great.
“We get nervous on the ball and then we lose our playing structure. Even tonight, there are times when our centre-backs can inject with the ball because there’s space there to outplay their striker two-v-one, but instead we’re playing the ball into midfield players that are marked or under pressure.”
They are illustrative quotes. After conceding eight goals against the United States and the Netherlands much criticism has focused on the Matildas’ defence. But lost among a fixation with the high line issue (Australia have been playing this tactic for years and didn’t suddenly lose the ability to do so under Milicic) is the fact that neither Australia’s attack nor midfield have fired consistently across the three group-stage games either.
In reality the flowing, fluid front-third movement that the Matildas launched against the world’s best team pre-tournament, turning them inside out time and time again, has not been evident in France so far.
Australia’s chief attacking threat against Jamaica came from crosses from deep – but even with Sam Kerr’s prodigious aerial talent this won’t be nearly as effective against disciplined, compact, well-organised defences. Like Norway.
In midfield, the Matildas’ best performance came against Brazil, where Tameka Yallop and Chloe Logarzo bustled like twin hummingbirds on an unrelenting hunt for nectar. But it’s in the deeper holding midfield position that Australia have struggled.
Not a natural No 6, Emily van Egmond has played well when afforded space and time, but when pressed has been guilty of cheap turnovers – as have many of her midfield colleagues – a point highlighted by Milicic due to the poor selection of passes from the back third into congested areas.
It’s an area of the field crying out for the team’s most natural holder, Elise Kellond-Knight, who has seen limited minutes in recent months amid niggling fitness concerns.
At the back, across three Group C games, Australia have started with three different left-backs. Given the shortage centrally following the withdrawal of Laura Alleway and injury to Clare Polkinghorne, the team’s most experienced left-back Steph Catley is needed centrally. And Kellond-Knight, who started there against Brazil is also sorely needed in midfield.
It could mean another baptism of fire for young Karly Roestbakken – only called into squad a fortnight ago and having seen just one minute in the national shirt before being handed her starting debut against Jamaica.
If Australia have impressed in patches in all three games so far, now that they’ve arrived at the knockout stage of the tournament nothing but a complete performance – in defence, in midfield, in attack – will be enough against Norway on Saturday evening.
It is a challenge that is as much mental as technical.
“At times we need to realise we don’t have to score from every attack,” said Milicic. “We need to keep it, go on one side, come back out and go the other way and be patient. When we do that we look good, but at times we just put ourselves under unnecessary pressure.”
Repeatedly, Milicic has spoken of bravery and of courage. It takes courage to play out from the back. It takes courage for a backline to press high and condense the space on the pitch. It takes courage to remain patient in the final third.
As seen against Brazil though, when really up against it the Matildas have found that courage. On Saturday against one of only four nations to have won the World Cup they will need to find that resolve and resilience not just in bursts but in long, protracted spells. Across 120 minutes if possible. It’s a lot to work on on the training ground with the round of 16 just days away.