Let’s talk about last night. I don’t want to, if you watched the game you probably don’t too, but it’s important to acknowledge and consider the good, the bad and the ugly. If there is one thing last night was, it was ugly. Uglier than having a pimple in the middle of you face on school photo day and far more stressful than I’ve ever felt for any uni law exam. Drawing 2 all against Thailand is not an easy thing to stomach during reasonable hours of the day, but witnessing that, together with an extraordinarily average performance, and no napping prior to a 12am game (amateur mistake I know), which goes into extra time and penalties, is beyond stomachable, rather we are in a lactose intolerant person downing a bottle of milk and pint of ice cream kinda territory.
Ordinarily I would take you through a “play-by-play” of how the match panned out. But it went to penalties, and by extra time all my notes do is cuss multiple times and say “bro, I’ll write something if someone scores, otherwise I’m too tired, I’m out”. So as a matter of fairness and my sanity, let’s not do that. If you for some unknown reason you want that type of match report, head over to my twitter @mollyappleton93, where I rant and raved live as the match happened. You know, do this if you’re a sadist or Thailand fan (I love you Thailand fans, but I need some space right now, so please let me deal). Instead I’m gonna write some of the key sleepy observations my still sleep deprived self thinks of the game.
The Team Sheet.
Tournament football is hard, especially from a player management perspective. Every nation has their preferred starting eleven, but it would be foolish to think that starting eleven can play five games in the space of fourteen days. I don’t care how “professional” and “fit” a team should “be”, footy players are people too and no way can all those people have the legs to last such demands. So with that in mind, Alan Stajic once again toyed with the starting line up. Key players were on the bench, yes, but see that starting line up and look me in the eye to tell me that each player isn’t individually national team worthy. Of course with so many changes to the side, the commentator mentioned six and I’m too tired to check if they were right, there will be difficulty with cohesion in attack and communication in the back. But that isn’t a team selection issue, that’s a training issue, plus a lack of urgency issue (which I will mention next).
Whilst not our strongest line up, I’ve got only complaint on it because otherwise it’s a side that ought to be capable of playing a semi final against any side, not just Thailand, and winning. My complaint is, why start our slowest centre back against a side whose main tactic going forward is a long ball over the top of the defence with pacey forward Kanjana getting on the end of it. This isn’t a new tactic for them. They used it somewhat against us in Perth, and those balls from the midfield were too perfect to be a new idea for the team. The balls over the top demonstrated many a games fine tuning that play. Yet we played our slowest centre back. I’ve played as that slow centre back (well centre back, I’m always slow), and to come up against that type of thing is utterly demoralising when you simply don’t have the legs to deal with that kind of thing. I know, only one half of play and Steph Catley came on for Laura Alleway, so mistake rectified, we looked a bit more capable of dealing with these situations then. But the damage was done at this point. Confidence in the back line is important in semi finals, and that simple error of starting the wrong centre back demolished any confidence we could have otherwise found in our defence.
We lacked it. Flat footed until probably the last 10 minutes of regular time. We were writing the book about lacking urgency, who would have thought this was a semi final?We were making an elephant look more capable of being less flat footed. Our fight and hunger for every ball just wasn’t there, and by the time we found it in the dying minutes of regular time and a player up, Thailand already had the confidence of being the better side for most of the 90 minutes and to try and come back against a side that structures itself so well off the ball was always going to be a terrible idea. A constant throughout this tournament, plus the Algarve Cup, is our urgency and tempo of play just isn’t up to scratch. We seem to play to the tempo of our opponent. Whether that’s because we are outnumbered completely in midfield, or our mentality isn’t right for those games, I don’t know. But something needs to give. We can’t go into games not playing quick, deliberate football that puts every defence on the back foot.
I’m pretty certain there is no player on that field who would have gone through the entirety of emotions like Mackenzie Arnold would have. Being the “reserve” goalkeeper is always a tough gig, whether you’re getting minutes or not. It’s a position people always compare the reserve player to the starter, even though it is difficult to adequately compare the two. Our first goal conceded was stuff up by Arnold, plain and simple. Yes Kanjana Sungngoen played a delightful chip, but Arnold’s footing wasn’t right after being caught getting back from no-mans land, and a keeper the height of Arnold shouldn’t be chipped from that kind of position. There were other times where she was caught too far off her line, or just lacking confidence which Thailand pounced upon (apparently don’t show Thailand blood because they will come for the kill). But then, the tables are turned and putting aside the regular 90 minutes, the game goes to penalties. A goalkeepers nightmare, but an opportunity to stand up and prove doubters wrong. And did Arnold prove doubters wrong! I’m not sure how, I’m not even sure if this is a legit expression, but Arnold got a much needed hat trick, she saved three in a row. My heart was pounding, I can’t imagine how hers held up. If this game was a matter of picking a team in the school yard, Arnold turned from that really nice kid who just can’t play the game and gets picked last, to the kid who is people will fight over and bribe to join their team. The two extremes. But I’m ecstatic this turned out well for Arnold, because she was head and shoulders the best keeper in the W-League season so didn’t deserve the madness of this games regular 90 minutes.
Thailand had a game plan. Not like South Korea’s where it was all about damage control. They instead went all in, fighting for this game. Every second ball. Whenever our players showed any sign of hesitation. They were there. And won the ball. Had this been a game of “who wants the win more”, Thailand won before the half time whistle. Add on the pace up front through Kanjana and you’ve got a side capable of beating any team with this type of tactic over 90 minutes. This Thai performance isn’t a matter of the Matildas not playing well enough. A performance of this quality by a side traditionally not looked upon as a top side, needs to receive credit where it’s due. They outplayed us, and they likely would have outplayed any team on the field today. A game is only a matter of 90 minutes (or in this case additional time and penalties). Thailand showed they can pull out the most marvellous performance for that 90 minutes. Joyous if you’re a Thailand supporter, interesting for the neutral in a “going to make the 2019 World Cup even more entertaining” type of way. Frustrating to tears kinda stuff though as a Matildas fan.
Our Lord and Saviour, Alanna Kennedy
All tournament, all last tournament, maybe even all the way back to Canada 2015, Alanna Kennedy has held our defence, and even more lately now, our team together. Her performance against Japan was impeccable. Her performance here was quality. Yes she got caught on the ball a couple of times. However the hardest job of the match went to the Matildas centre backs, dealing with those long balls and the pace Thailand had up front. Despite a whole match being tormented by those long balls and the very deliberate press of Thailand, it was Kennedy who stood up when we needed someone. A corner right on injury time of the regular 90 minutes, a goal down. It was Kennedy who got us the flaming equaliser right on the death of the game. We’re all about those death of the game goals from corners right now. Not only did this goal happen, but there were a couple times, both in regular and additional time, where Kennedy stood up from a corner and came close to creating another. Kennedy is class. There are a few take homes from this game, but lets just acknowledge Alanna Kennedy is a world class defender. Her name needs to be in the same breath as Sam Kerr when talking about players who bring it each game, as well as game changers. Kennedy has dragged our team to the finals during a tournament where we could easily have finished playing off for a lacklastre fifth spot.
To finish. There are a lot more talking points to this game. Like TONNES. And not everyone will agree on all of them, the beauty of football. But as a number of the Matildas players are saying of Twitter, it wasn’t our best performance, but we’re through to the finals. Qualification to a grand final should never be misunderstood, reaching the final of the Asian Cup with the quality on display this past 10 days is massive, no matter how ugly and stressful the games leading up to were. So eyes on the prize now. We have Japan to beat and a trophy to win. Can we do it? Of course. We have Alanna Kennedy, our new Lord and Saviour.
As for me? This game induced stress eating of milk-less cereal. I would rather take all my end of semester law exams on the same day, with no study week to prepare, than go through the rollercoaster of last night again. I might need to take up a more chill sport. It’s highly doubtful I would be more chill being a supporter of a more chill sport though.
Semi Final Results
Australia 2(3) – 2(1) Thailand
Japan 3 – 1 China