The frustration of the Westfield Matildas

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It’s one of those days, the night after an important national team game – a lovely time as it has allowed you to clear your head from the emotion driven thoughts of the previous evening but still close enough to the event so as to be able to recall every moment like it had just occurred.

The advantage too, is that it allows time to give you other people’s perspective and thoughts on the match in question. Yesterday morning the Matildas lost 1-0 to Brasil in the FIFA Women’s World Cup – and the mood seems reasonably positive. National coach Tom Sermanni was “very pleased” with the way the side played, the goss all over Twitter is a nation proud of their girls efforts and even the often critical Craig Foster was singing the praises of the performance after the game. Everything must have gone well then, an unlucky loss for a superb team performance with tactics to suit? Well, excuse me for playing devil’s advocate, but taking off the green and gold coloured glasses will reveal that the performance was nothing but disappointing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love women’s football in Australia! I am forever spreading the word, dragging friends to W-League matches, bursting with youthful optimism and have even exchanged vicious words with a colleague of mine for being harsh on women’s football in an article. But there comes a point where you have to stop being naïve and start calling a spade a spade.

To put things into perspective, last night’s performance would have been acceptable four years ago. An era where we did not have the Westfields W-League, we did not have strong competition for places and we did not have the resources that the FFA are providing to women’s football today. We now have all this and more, not to mention arguably one of the top three talent pools available to international sides worldwide. We should be a women’s football superpower such as the USA and Germany, not in the future, but now.

We have to accept that we are no longer in the position where we should be happy with a loss, regardless who it is against. USA and Germany aside, if coached properly we should easily beat anyone and even give the two superpowers a run for their money. We have to accept that the W-League is doing its job and providing us with such quality depth in all positions that [apart from the USA], every nation is envious of. We have to accept that we need to do better, and that last night was nowhere near good enough.

Our opposition last night, Brasil, are not a world superpower. They had a good World Cup four years ago, but are now a side of ageing stars with a reputation they don’t deserve. Strong at the back and willing to throw their weight around defensively, yesterday they didn’t have anything more to offer. Un-clinical and disorganised they were there for the taking, yet we did not seize this opportunity.

So what went wrong? The real question is where to start?

The three components that contributed to last night’s performance were; incorrect selections, a poor formation and a dreadful playing style. Yet if we take it back even further it can be seen the roots of the loss were upon squad selection, where a reliance on ‘old favourites’ and players out of form being picked hinted at what was to come.

Fast forward to match day and a quick look at the team sheet confirmed what many expected, a disappointing line-up – but Sermanni managed to further surprise even the most cynical of supporters when a 4-4-2 was announced to accompany the players.

I won’t get into an argument saying which formations are greater than others, but I will say two things;

1) All the most successful teams of the modern era play 4-3-3 or a proponent of the 4-3-3 (4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 etc).

2) The players who are in the Matilda’s squad are all suited to playing a 4-3-3 or variant. Any other formation and players will be out of position. Which is exactly what happened.

In midfield there were essentially four central midfielders taking all the slots. Tameka Butt and Heather Garriock, both players worthy of a starting spot, were shifted out wide. Butt had played that position for Brisbane at times during the season, but was always quickly returned to her attacking midfield spot where her great footballing mind and exquisite passing skills could truly be taken advantage of. Garriock, a player of great class, no longer has the pace to play out wide and again needs to be shifted to the middle where her experience and skills can be used to guide the Matildas around the park.

Key players such as Clare Polkinghorne, Sally Shipard and Sam Kerr were also left on the bench and all could have slot into a 4-2-3-1 for maximum effect. With the long-ball happy Collette McCallum replaced with Australia’s best defensive midfielder, Shipard, and Emily Van Egmond taken off for Sam Kerr this would have allowed a 4-2-3-1 with Garriock joining Shipard as a defensive midfielder, Butt to go up as an attacking central midfielder and Kyah Simon to lead a three pronged forward line flanked by Lisa De Vanna and Kerr. A line-up no team would take lightly.

Perhaps the most disappointing (yet sadly, expected) selection was that of Kim Carroll. Very reminiscent of the former Roar player Bob Malcolm, Carroll is a big, strong girl who can boot a ball but has the positional sense of a startled weasel. After a season of being caught out of position and gifting goal scoring opportunities to the opposition while playing for Brisbane, Carroll should not be anywhere near the Matildas. How ball-playing centre backs such as Ellie Brush did not even make the squad is remarkable. It was no coincidence that the technically and positonally sound Servet Uzunlar got so many wraps post match.

Unfortunately, no other top class specialist centre backs are included in the squad so Polkinghorne would have to take over, with the possibility of Ellyse Perry being selected over Elise Kellond-Knight, who was at fault for Brasil’s goal. In a perfect world you would have Brush and Uzanlar in the centre, with Polkinghorne as a wing back.

The insistence of playing Carroll was an indication of Sermanni’s game plan, one which would revolve around the long ball and being ‘tough’, an indication that was boosted with the inclusion of McCallum – a midfielder who builds her game around long balls.

Rather than play a passing possession game based on off-the-ball movement and build up play, the Matilda’s were reliant on long balls and solo runs, hoping to gain possession and line-breaks from low percentage options. Even in the first half where Brasil failed to apply any pressure to Australia’s midfield, we did not take advantage of the situation and still seemed happy to boot the ball up, hoping for the best. Playing with a 4-4-2 there are less ‘triangles’ and as such less passing opportunities, and this was very representative of the Australian game plan.

The Matildas reasonable first half showing was in many ways despite the game plan, rather than because of it and could very well be attributed to Brasil holding back. In the second half, once they pressured the midfield – the Matildas fell apart. The mind boggles trying to work out what exactly it was Tom Sermanni was planning to do, and how these tactics were ever supposed to obtain victory, and as his post-game comments suggest – he probably didn’t have an idea himself.

It is a disappointment to wait four years since the last World Cup, see the development of one of the world’s best competitions in the W-League, live and breathe women’s football only to be served up with a coaching performance of a very low standard and the realisation that although we should be challenging for the title we may not even make it out of the group stage. Of course not all is lost and our next match should see a win against an unknown Equatorial Guinea – but we can only hope that Sermanni sees the error of his ways in time for Norway.

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Christian Layland
Christian is co-founder and Chief of Staff of The Football Sack and has worked in media/marketing for FIFA, AFC, Football Australia, Western Sydney Wanderers, and Melbourne Victory. Also a coach, Christian has been on the Y-League coaching staff for Wanderers, and the A-League coaching staff for Central Coast Mariners.

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