The day before the Matildas’ first ever friendly against Spain, head coach Tony Gustavsson seemed to have as many questions as the rest of Australia about what might happen in that unprecedented 90 minutes.
“How many boxes can we tick? ” He asked.
“Where are we as a team? »
“Can you lose the match but ‘win’ a player?”
“How fast are these [new] the players adapt to the tempo?
“Can we still control the game without the ball?
“Who could play the role of number nine [without Sam Kerr]?”
It was uncharted territory, after all: the Matildas had never played against Spain before, and they were doing so without almost their entire regular starting XI. Six of the players called up to this side from Huelva were uncapped, while nine others had 10 or less appearances at that level. Nine of them currently play in the state-based National Premier Leagues.
Their opponents, meanwhile, are in a completely different place. Spain are 10 days away from kicking off a European Championship campaign which they are one of the favorite nations to win.
Their squad is made up almost entirely of full-time professionals playing for Barcelona – who have just played their second successive Champions League final – and Real Madrid. Not to mention that they are also managed by the reigning Ballon D’Or winner, Alexia Putellas.
It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that Gustavsson was as intrigued as anyone by the unfolding of this unusual game.
Indeed, the shocking feeling of seeing fringe players like Larissa Crummer, Courtney Nevin and Charlotte Grant in the starting line-up was only heightened by the clumsy selection of a Christmas-themed Aussie anthem that blared into the Nuevo Colombino stadium speakers.
Despite all the uncertainty in the days leading up to this game, one thing was almost guaranteed: Australia wouldn’t see much on the ball. And that’s how it happened; within minutes, Spain had settled into their passing rhythm as the Matildas gathered into two tight defensive banks, often with five at the back.
It may not have been the dynamic, athletic or attacking style we know them for, but as the first half wore on and Spain struggled to break down the green and gold wall in front of them, let it be the Matildas playing attractive football mattered less than whether they played effective football in the circumstances.
And for 43 minutes they did. This motley group of Australians kept one of the best teams in the world at bay.
There were several answers to be found in the questions posed by this first half: an improvised backline so well organized by veteran defender Clare Polkinghorne that the Spaniards were forced into long speculative passes, pushed into wide uncomfortable channels and called offside several times.
A six-meter surface dominated by the intrepid young goalkeeper Teagan Micah, whose distribution and positioning had improved significantly. A standout performance from young right-back Grant, who perhaps has the biggest shoes to fill in Ellie Carpenter’s long-term absence.
And another feather in the cap of returning midfielder Katrina Gorry, who matched her opponents for technique, balance, vision and anticipation (and even hit the crossbar herself) in her case the strongest yet for the 2023 selection.
Overall, Australia forced Spain – that tiki-taka team considered by many to be the country‘s current ‘golden generation’ – to work for them.
But after the break, at just 1-0, the answers turned into questions.
Emily Van Egmond’s removal from midfield does not appear to have been considered tactically, with the veteran being replaced by debuting left-back Jamilla Rankin, leaving more space in the middle for Spain to dominate – which was not helped by the change from a 5-4-1 to 4-3-3.
None of the interchangeable centre-forward options of Emily Gielnik, Larissa Crummer or the late appearance of Remy Siemsen provided much confidence as to who could adequately replace Sam Kerr as a hold-out striker. up or transition, while the substitution of an injured Micah for the less assured Mackenzie Arnold created a new and uncertain defensive dynamic.
Thirteen minutes later, Australia had conceded three goals; Granted, their opponents had rallied, but the Matildas suddenly looked scattered and disorganized, especially as they adapted to Spanish breaks behind their wider defenders.
They struggled even more to control the ball out of possession, which became even more difficult after Gorry was substituted, and rarely chained more than three passes together before being overwhelmed by high pressure from Spain .
Arnold’s positioning and hesitation in the penalty area was also clear, with three of Spain’s six second-half goals coming in areas one would expect a keeper to command.
At full time, with the score at 7-0, the game stats were more of a reflection of the game than many expected.
Spain totaled 23 shots against Australia’s 4, including 10 on target against 0. They had the ball 76% of the time – one of the highest the Matildas have ever faced – and created nearly three times as many passing with an accuracy level of 89. per cent to Australia’s 66.
Despite this, however, Gustavsson said he found answers to the questions he asked the day before.
“In the first half we got answers which, given the experience we had on the pitch in the first 45, of committing to a game plan like the one against Spain – one of the best teams in the world [preparing] for the Euros, when we’re in a completely different situation right now – I’m actually very happy and proud of the girls’ commitment,” he said.
“When you play against Spain you sometimes have to defend in a very, very different way to what we are used to. I think it was a good mix of high pressing and high pressing sequences, then the patient defense of the low block.
“Then I think there was a good variation between playing the long ball and the transition game, but also sometimes being braver with the ball.”
But the clearest answer of all, he said, was evidenced by the second half – and it’s an answer the rest of Australia should heed.
“In the second half we wanted to do different things: we wanted to rotate the players, watch the players. And I want to be very clear now: it’s not about blaming an individual player for this loss.
“I’m ready to accept that as a coach because I said from day one: we need answers. And we need investments in our programs. It was a very, very clear. [showing] where we need to make investments and where players need to grow in environments where they can thrive and be ready for international football.
“I think we need those answers, not in the short term – and especially not for me.
Time will tell if Wednesday morning’s game against Portugal will create even more questions than answers as the World Cup draws ever closer.