Matildas manager Tony Gustavsson has famously touted the two modes that his staff and team operate in. “Preparation Mode” is for friendly matches. It is where they tinker with lineups, explore tactics and expose themselves to challenging opponents. “Tournament Mode” is where ideally, the theories developed in preparation are put into practice.
Although an early Asian Cup exit put this plan under scrutiny from a sporting culture that sometimes believes in winning every game at all costs, the semi-final runs in both the Tokyo Olympics and a home FIFA Women’s World Cup show that it has largely worked.
Looking back at the Matildas preparation games, there are some big wins, some heavy losses, but some lessons learned in every game. Some were more significant than others, and the recent success can be directly traced back to these four games.
Australia 2-1 New Zealand April 8 2022.
This match in North Queensland was Australia’s first game since the shock loss to South Korea in the Asian Cup. Sam Kerr’s late goal put The Matildas back on the winner list, but it took until injury time, and with the knives already out for Gustavsson, it was far from convincing.
Despite the grumblings from critics, this game was pivotal to put Australia on the path that has led them to the World Cup semi-finals. This was Katrina Gorry’s return to the side and the first time she had been deployed in a key role for the national team in almost a decade.
The 2014 AFC Player of the Year has long been one of Australia’s most unique players, but in the long favoured 4-3-3 formation, previous managers struggled to find a place for her. She was used off the bench as an attacker, if at all. With Gustavsson looking to change the way Australia played, she moved into a deep midfield role. Her talents were to be used to link defence, midfield and attack.
Australia did not excel on the scoresheet, but Gorry dominated in this game and the follow-up a week later in Canberra. She has been amongst the first names on the team sheet ever since.
Gorry brought fight and composure to the midfield, along with an ability to retain the ball under pressure or move it quickly through her enviable passing range or close control.
It was instantly obvious that Gorry made a huge difference and put Australia on the path to steady improvement.
Spain 7-0 Australia June 26 2022
This was painful to watch, but in hindsight, it was a crucial defeat. When a star-studded Spain was named as an opponent it was hugely exciting. Sam Kerr would square off against Alexia Putellas. Two of the world’s best players would go head to head as Spain readied for the upcoming Euros.
In the end, the majority of Australia’s regular squad was withdrawn. In the World at Their Feet documentary, it is revealed that this was under the advice of the sports science and medical team. The Matildas were at risk of burning out physically and exhausted mentally after two years of playing and travelling under COVID restrictions.
This presented some Australian players with an opportunity. Among those who grabbed their chance was fullback Charli Grant.
Grant had been in the squad since the Tokyo Olympics. At that tournament, she was an alternate in case another had to withdraw due to COVID. She made her senior competitive debut during the Asian Cup, but with Australia reeling from the devastating news that Ellie Carpenter had injured her knee, they needed to see something from Grant.
The former Adelaide United fullback rose to the occasion. She was voted player of the match by Australian fans after an assured performance amid a wave of Spanish attacks.
Grant would immediately go on to captain the Under 23 side in The Philippines, and become vital to the next year of Matildas planning.
She has been on the bench for much of this World Cup, but her emergence as a genuine senior international was pivotal. Charli Grant allowed Gustavsson to work on fine-tuning the team rather than searching for an alternative to Carpenter for the next eight months.
The other non-playing Matildas were better off for the rest. As Europe’s giants went straight into a tough tournament, Australia’s stars were on beaches or visiting family. It provided a much-needed reset and may have been vital to their deep run into this World Cup.
Denmark 1-3 Australia October 12 2022
We’re back! After disappointing losses to Canada and a slightly scrappy win against South Africa, Australia finally put in a performance that reinvigorated the fan base and the players.
After conceding in the opening minutes, things looked bleak, but The Matildas responded in stunning fashion. Caitlin Foord dragged back a slightly fortunate equaliser before Katrina Gorry scored a long-range scorcher.
Crucially, young midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross played a major role following an impressive outing against South Africa. She used her full array of skills to win possession, direct play and take on players through the middle.
Foord sealed the win with another goal from outside of the box, but Cooney-Cross’s run and pass helped set it up. Off the bench, Alex Chidiac impressed on her return to the team. The depth in the team was now obvious and the football was delightful.
By the time they faced Denmark again in the Round of 16, there was full confidence that The Matildas could get the job done. Even though Australia were on the back foot early, a loss never looked likely and they were able to repeat this win when it mattered.
Australia 4-0 Sweden November 12 2022
This was a big win against a strong opponent that had beaten Australia in the recent past. By this time, Matildas fans were accustomed to honourable losses and theoretical victories in friendly games. Few were expecting a win, nobody expected a thrashing of the visitors.
Two goals from Foord, and one each from Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler did the damage on the score sheet, but it was an in-game tactical switch that set the team up for success on that day and beyond.
With Sweden dominating midfield early, Gustavsson’s team switched to a good old-fashioned 4-4-2.
Gorry and Cooney-Cross paired up in the centre as twin box-to-box midfielders. Hayley Raso and Cortnee Vine pushed wide and dropped deeper to provide support in both directions, and Foord moved closer to Kerr and the goal, adding support and firepower. Charli Grant was able to cut inside and become an extra midfielder in possession.
This was impressive because Australia had found another system that they could switch to when needed, one that got the best out of some of their best players, and provided another option that opponents had to play for.
Confidence never really dropped after that win. Although they lost to Scotland in April of 2023, it was seen as a blip rather than a backward step. Defeating a highly-ranked European nation that had knocked them out of the Olympics was huge. But the way they played was even more important. The pieces had clicked in the dugout and on the pitch. They have not looked back since.