Review: The Matildas vs South Africa

Whilst there are some who see a 4-1 win and a largely dominant performance as impressive, Saturday’s result and performance for Australia at Kingsmeadow did little to ease concerns of regular Matildas watchers.

The same old issues were still there – a lack of cohesion in midfield, way too few incisive rapid passes, an alarming number of poorly directed passes that caused a loss of possession, and a below par finishing in the box. They look to create the majority of their chances inside the six-yard box but lack the ability to convert enough of them to win games.

Australia have played 11 matches this calendar year and won six. Those wins have come over New Zealand (twice), Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and now South Africa.

It is worth pointing out that the Matildas have had dreadful luck with injuries to key players in 2022 – Ellie Carpenter, Alanna Kennedy, Kyah Simon, Emily van Egmond, and Chloe Logarzo are all key players and have all missed several international windows. Yet there remains more than enough talent in this squad to be going toe-to-toe with the world’s best.

Here’s my assessment of what went right and wrong at Kingsmeadow on Saturday.

Photo: Jon Barker

The Positives:

Don’t get me wrong, there were some good things on show in South-West London. Charli Grant was a sensation, particularly in the first half. The 21-year-old South Australian defender has long been pushed forward by the Australian women’s football community as a major star of the future. She has blossomed since being given an opportunity since Carpenter’s ACL injury to claim the right-back slot.

Grant has the sort of natural ability to read a game that cannot be taught. She can track multiple attackers at once and has an uncanny ability to put out minor defensive fires before they can become raging infernos. She did this with aplomb on Saturday. Charli can also mix it with the world’s best as she emerged as one of the only Matildas with any credit after their June defeat to Spain.

Alex Chidiac’s cameo as a substitute mid-way through the second half showed exactly what the Australian midfield could offer. ‘Chids’ loves nothing more than to win physical tussles and has the ability to play intricate passes both inside and outside to teammates to create multiple goalscoring opportunities. In an era where Gustavsson’s team are tending to switch play out wide regularly or play hopeful balls over the top, Chidiac offers something else and is deserving of more game time.

Teagan Micah finally got a start in goal. Micah is, to pretty much all Australian women’s football watchers, the undisputed number one goalkeeper in the squad. She was simply outstanding in the Olympics as the Matildas progressed to the semi-finals, but has rarely had a start since as Gustavsson regularly switches between PSG’s Lydia Williams,  West Ham United’s Mackenzie Arnold and Micah. The former pair are suffering from a lack of games in clubland (in Williams’ case) and regular basic errors in international football (Arnold), and it is inconceivable that Micah cannot get a starting spot. She is in consistently strong form for Rosengård in the Damallsvenskan and is clearly the best Australian goalkeeper.

Photo: Jon Barker

The Concerns:

Mary Fowler is the key link between midfield and attack and is an absolute gun on her day, but too often her ability to create is stifled by a loss of possession in the build-up, as happened at Kingsmeadow. Possession was coughed up too easily and passes were given away. Luckily on Saturday, Australia were able to win the ball back almost instantly, but against better teams, this leads to counterattacks and concession of goals – as seen against the likes of the USA, Spain, and Canada in recent months.

Kyra Cooney-Cross has all the talent in the world but is yet to impose herself on the international stage, again, not helped by a revolving door of midfield partners due to injury. But for a talented youngster to gain confidence at the highest level, she needs the experienced teammates around her to be solid and not making the fundamental errors that appear too often.

Mary Fowler (11). Photo: Jon Barker

It is the fundamental errors that are the most frustrating thing about the Matildas. This is a group of players who are, arguably the greatest generation in Australian women’s football history. On ability, potential, and skill they should be a shoo-in for a semi-final spot at the World Cup. But, experienced players making poor passing decisions, and switching off at the back regularly is alarming.

Then there is the centre-forward conundrum. Australia have arguably the greatest attacker in the world in Sam Kerr. Yet too often she is getting totally wrapped up by the opposition in international football and marginalised. The Matildas do not have a reliable partner for her in their existing squad. Fowler has played at 10 occasionally, but that robs the team of the Cairns native’s outstanding link play behind the forward line.

Remy Siemsen has been tried, but it’s a massive step up from being an A-League Women scorer, as she’s found since moving to AIK Solna in the Damallsvenskan, only scoring twice. Cortnee Vine had the role yesterday, but again, that took her away from what she does best – marauding runs along the right wing, cutting in and creating chances.

Perhaps the answer is currently sitting back in Canberra. The A-League Women’s all-time leading scorer is Michelle Heyman. She may be 34 and has not been picked since 2018, but the legend has all the attributes to be a perfect foil for Kerr from here on in. Devastating runs, outstanding link up, and the uncanny natural knack of poaching goals both outside and inside the box mean that it’s worth bringing the star back into the fold for at least one international window to see what she could bring.

Tony Gustavsson. Photo: Jon Barker

Tony Gustavsson’s squad are able to get away with their issues against third-tier nations, but in their matches against the World’s top ten sides, of which they have played nine (it’s only England they have not faced) in the last two years, these issues, along with an alarming ability to switch off in defence at times, have caused major problems.

The clamour has been building for a change of national team coach. That is not going to happen this close to the World Cup. Nor should it as Gustavsson is hugely knowledgeable, and someone who has been there and done it at the highest level, winning the Olympics and World Cups as the USWNT’s assistant coach. Yet, he can’t quite seem to get the best out of his team, and time is running out ahead of a home World Cup.

Australia have an outstanding international team – it’s time for them to step up and show it against the best in the world.