Any hints of fingernails have disappeared, because it was an absolute nail biter between the Matildas and China to wrap up this leg of Olympic qualification. Physicality, structure and late chaos marked the affair, with a rocket by Emily Van Egmond enough to cancel out Tang Jaili’s 86th minute goal. To decompress, let’s break it down a little.
To start off with, Ante Millic has had his eye on this fixture the entire competition. His starting eleven and substitutions all measured calculations to ensure his preferred starters were fresh and available to play the clash. Perhaps the opposite can be drawn from China, with coach Jia Xiuquan opting to field the same team in the two matches prior.
These coaching decisions played out in this clash can perhaps be highlight to one thing: Familiarity. China had it, with their structure and combinations oozing of a team who’ve had many minutes under their belt next to one another. For the Matildas, it was a bit like trying to remember how to play with old mates after a summer holiday. A simple example of this was the usual flowing connection between Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord being off with the wind, particularly early in the first half.
The true game changer was China’s ability to pull off a high press. China had done their homework. The Matildas almost always look to play the ball out of the number six position. Especially against quality opposition. Any moment the ball was played between Elise Kellond-Knight, at holding midfield, and the Aussie centre backs, China looked to shut down options. The two forwards took a centre back each, while Ma Jun left no room for Kellond-Knight to turn on the ball. With the Matildas fullbacks out of range, high up the park, it was a difficult day in the office.
As a kid many are taught to be between the player and goal when defending. The Matildas were unable to capitalise on China doing the opposite. Rather, China made the field look more congested, earned turnovers and capitalised on having the extra midfielder given their 4-4-2 formation.
Additionally China weren’t afraid to be physical. The moments they were caught out, with a Matildas player on the ball and looking at space in the final third, a tough challenge to win the ball or stop play wasn’t far off. Similarly on the other foot, the Matildas brought the same level of physicality.
Changing It Up
The moments the Matildas were able to expose patches of space and link the ball up in the final third when Kerr was on the wing. The most eye-catching in the 60th minute, when Kerr tracked back, nicked the ball to flip the switch on a counter attack. The move sprung life into the Matildas play, even though the attack didn’t come to full fruition. Whilst switching Foord and Kerr isn’t a fail-safe plan B when the midfield is being choked, it definitely provided a different dimension to play.
A change midway through the second half of Kellond-Knight with Tameka Yallop may have raised some eyebrows. The move could also be pinned for conceding a goal, however again it provided something different. Too often Kellond-Knight was facing towards her own goal when on the ball, without support to find a better pass. By replacing her with Yallop, not only was there fresh legs, but a player who will always look to play forward and attack, even in the deeper role. This option would probably be better utilised when the Matildas are chasing, rather than able to settle for the result on the board as we were prior to the substitution. Still, it was the closest thing to a plan B that happened on the day.
Late Drama and Chaos
Who doesn’t love it when all the goals happen in the final ten minutes? China had been knocking, and knocking. Those deadly, calculated counter attacks, particularly towards the end of the match where they were all three pronged, showed no sign of giving up and finally paid off. A diagonal ball to spring the counter to the flank for Wang Shanshan to chase, soon connected with two others in the centre. The movement between Ma Jun and Tang was too much for Alanna Kennedy to deal with. Tang went unmarked, the ball slipped to the forward, who let it rip into the net.
The ‘never say die’ mantra became more than what’s stamped on a jersey, the Matildas lived up to it once again. Causing chaos, the match spread out in the dying stages, with space opening up. It was patience that lead to the equaliser. Recycling the ball, Kyah Simon took the time to tee Van Egmond up to score yet another Olympic qualifier belter. The type of magic that led to a deserved dog pile for the goal celebration.
This qualification tournament has provided the opportunity for testing different attacking ideas for the Matildas. Glimpses of that were shown against China, when the opportunity arose. Here was the first chance to really hone how they play out of defence under pressure and hold up against a team who are physical and love to counter. We barely passed the test.
To win silverware, that’s the area that’ll need working out. The connection between defensive midfield and the rest of midfield needs to be found again. What better way for the Matildas to iron out these vulnerabilities than against the World Champions USA, and to back it up against a quality Canadian outfit.