Australia should no longer accept 'honourable defeats'
Following two tense hours of football in Nice, the Matildas' hopes at the FIFA Women's World Cup rested upon Sam Kerr. And her alone.
"Only big players can miss penalties, because small ones don't take them," coach Ante Milicic said following Australia's penalty shootout defeat to Norway on Saturday. It's true.
That post-match comment from Milicic becomes rather conspicuous, though, bearing in mind two substitutions in the dying minutes of extra-time. Missed or converted, or if her effort was saved, that Kerr even took that first penalty for Australia was perfectly microcosmic.
Not to say that comment is a diversion of any potential blame, though it is definitely plausible to perceive it as such. Rather, this relates to the characteristic of bravery in football. Kerr and Emily Gielnik were brave to step up and live with the consequences, along with Steph Catley, who converted her penalty.
The Matildas were resilient in searching for an equaliser -- and eventually getting it, somehow. At the other end, Lydia Williams showed remarkable determination to make crucial stops after suffering a knock from Lisa-Marie Utland. These are qualities that are not only admirable in life, but what Australians feel is synonymous with their sport. Will truly is a skill.
But luck runs out, and when that happened for a disjointed Matildas outfit on Saturday, Kerr then suddenly had to salvage everything. the preceding 120 minutes that effectively put Kerr in that moment of isolation were, tactically, the footballing definition of fear. Or inanity. Or both. Any way one looks at it in those terms, it's not good.
Milicic's pre-match comments were like a window into his framing of the game.
"We'll continue to be brave and play our way of football," he said. "A little bit has to do with our personnel, the changes that we've had and in the lead-up to both in this tournament.
"We're comfortable with the work we've done on our defensive issues and in transition, and we really just need to execute on the day. But again, I think it's clear that you'll know what kind of an Australian team will go out onto the pitch tomorrow night."
Last week's 4-1 win over Jamaica was undoubtedly Australia's best attacking performance of the tournament -- not in the amount of goals scored, but the nature of possession -- but changes were inevitable. Consequently, so, too, was a laborious struggle with the ball over 120 minutes, against a Norwegian side looking to play on the break.
Australia's best opening for the whole match came in the opening minute of play, and from a transitional scenario for good measure. Upon the breakdown of Norwegian possession, Caitlin Foord finely played Kerr in through the channel. The striker was unable to capitalise on the opportunity, and, unfortunately for the Matildas, Kerr's involvement in phases of possession was eventually peripheral.
Tameka Yallop effectively playing as a second striker meant Emily van Egmond was ponderous at the base of midfield where, against Jamaica, she showed effectiveness with an actual reference point forward of her in the centre of the pitch.
Chloe Logarzo's impact was then dramatically hampered in attacking phases. As such, there was an inherently repetitive pattern of play on Saturday. On very few occasions did Martin Sjogren's side not have the weight of numbers in the middle, continually filtering the Matildas laterally.
Rarely did Ingrid Syrstad Engen and Vilda Boe Risa have to scramble out of shape in midfield and turn toward their own goal because of penetration centrally or in the half-space. Play was in front of them, but that was not because they were impenetrable. The ability to quickly spring positively impacted Norway's transitional phases -- much like in Australia's opening two games -- and it proved little surprise when Isabell Herlovsen put the Gresshoppene up in this kind of scenario in the 31st minute.
Because of that predictability in Australian possession, Caroline Graham Hansen's influence only grew. If not for Williams, victory would have been assured. In spite of Elise Kellond-Knight's equaliser straight from a corner, Norway's dominance was clear for all to see by extra-time, except the Australian coaches pitch-side.
Why should we expect any different, though, with Milicic's decisions and responses over the course of this World Cup or pre-tournament friendlies in mind? Or Australian youth teams in possession under Milicic? Or the Central Coast Mariners' phases of possession as Ivan Jolic clapped and shouted enthusiastically from the sideline while he assisted Paul Okon?
As noted in February, Milicic's teams at youth international level have been notorious for formulaic and dead possession. Zooming out, though, the Matildas played in a manner no different to the Socceroos in January, when they were knocked out in similar circumstances by the United Arab Emirates in the Asian Cup.
From the struggle on the ball against Italy, what led to the difference between the first and second halves against Brazil, to the change in complexion last Tuesday and back to the norm on Saturday, it made Milicic's comments after the shootout loss baffling.
"I think that -- in fact, I know in every game, we dominated possession, we took more shots, we had better field territory than our opponents in every game in the group," he said.
"I thought that we deserved our place to go through in the group."
What coaches say in public and within a dressing room can admittedly be two different things, but it encapsulated Australian coaching. Possession in football today requires risk to mitigate risk, and possession itself is not dominance. As poster children of Football Federation Australia's technical body, such an overall interpretation from Milicic and Jolic -- along with van Egmond's father and Matildas assistant Gary van Egmond -- was frighteningly off the mark.
Ultimately, before our eyes and not our ears, a genuine force of nature such as Kerr transformed into nothing more than a heading target in the penalty area and wall passer with her back to goal. Meanwhile, Katrina Gorry has gradually been cast aside despite being the key to getting the most out of that talent and, on her day, being one of the best midfielders in the world. How very Australian football.
It requires risk to give scope to certain players for attacks to truly function, but for many in Australian football, quantity is better than quality. The fewer touches on the ball, the better. Play quicker, not smarter. Are the control of tempo, fluid movement and the consequent manipulation of defensive positions foreign concepts to Australian football? Or are they recognised and not acted upon, because of fragility?
Whatever the answer, on a primary level, it's why the Matildas are on their way home. The fact Australia even faced Norway, let alone had to go to penalties against them, shows it.