Fresh legs, intensity and heart.
The Matildas had their backs against the wall with Brazil arriving for game two.
It seems ridiculous, but I really do think some of our best football was in the second half, despite losing a two goal lead. I’ll break it down further, but in a nutshell we had a midfield that was working both defensively and creatively. The dream.
Throw in players who have been out of form like Alanna Kennedy and Lydia Williams having their best performances this side of the COVID pandemic, and it’s an unusual game in every sense of the word.
It’s not the result we wanted. Momentum ebbed and flowed. The 2-all draw was probably a fair result though.
Left unmarked at the edge of the mixer, a cleared header lands at Clare Polkinghorne’s feet. No hesitation, just pure heart, Polkinghorne hammered it into the net. The centre back was the difference for the first half.
The Matildas only non-Foord chance of the first half brought pure relief and joy.
Ok to set up the second Clare we need to talk about the painful parts of the first half. We were out muscled, out classed and out hungried (I know not a word, but you get me). The midfield started with Tameka Yallop, Emily Van Egmond and Kyra Cooney-Cross.
Put simply we were slaughtered between the midfield and defensive lines once Brazil broke our high forward press.
For all the quality Cooney-Cross brings on the ball and ability to read play, she doesn’t bring the hunger to win the ball back in a 1v1 situation. Time and time again, often sparked by Adriana, Brazil would be able to run at our defence deep into our half with no pressure. All the while Cooney-Cross was running in the wrong direction and not immediately shutting down the threat.
Van Egmond was then forced to drop deeper, with Yallop still sitting high. A shift to a five back arrived late in the half with a tiring Yallop at wing back. It was a big yellow brick wall with little else but prayers patching us up as Brazil just lacked that killer instinct to capitalise.
The second half. Clare Wheeler was introduced into the game. A total game changer.
I’m a firm believer each midfield needs that ankle biter, who is willing to always go to the ball first and shut down a player 1v1. Wheeler can also pass incredibly well and doesn’t get muscled off the ball often. She’s the type of player that this side has needed with the likes of Aivi Luik, Elise Kellond-Knight and Katrina Gorry unavailable for various reasons.
Wheeler for me is the first name I would be putting down in the starting XI for our next match. Much like discovering a new flavour of icecream it’s becoming the “go-to”.
Cooney-Cross remains in the conversation for midfield. However her playing a deeper role is much better suited to when the Matildas have a lot of the ball and she can be utilised to control the tempo. If we need to win the ball and have a buffer to help the defence? Wheeler needs to be kept at 6.
I’m going to talk about two default systems.
The first is a positive. I’ve knocked the pairing of Kennedy and Polkinghorne together recently, I know that. I’m happy to eat the humblest of pies when they produce a good performance.
I’m eating humble pie. First goal aside, the pair played out of their skin against Brazil.
Stats usually lie, but the one with how many tackles Kennedy and Polkinghorne completed would be a good and significant one. They showed up. They didn’t get caught with a ridiculously high line, which equally helped Lydia Williams not get caught out with her decision making off her line and remain focused purely on shotstopping, which she excels at.
Are Kennedy and Polkinghorne in a back four the answer? I still am in the camp of the pairing is a product of necessity and lack of experienced/quality alternatives. It’s also a product of Ellie Carpenter and Steph Catley being phenomenal at fullback and having to pull either of them into centre back throws a wet towel over the Matildas attacking edge.
After tinkering with a back three and different pairings, we’ve reverted to the default Kennedy and Polkinghorne flanked by Carpenter and Catley. As demonstrated in the last 10 minutes of the first half, clearly we will turn to a five player backline at times. But 433 has made it’s return and has stood up to the Brazilian challenge.
Second default system? The long ball game.
It is a challenge because when our defence was under pressure, particularly in the first half, all we wanted to do was hoof it up the park for Sam Kerr or Caitlin Foord. Plan B, C and D were thrown out the window.
The long ball game is rarely a delight to watch and certainly isn’t when it’s not successful. The 2019 World Cup was enough evidence to prove it’s unsuccessful. We don’t need more for this but apparently we’re willing to give it anyway.
Thankfully Mary Fowler being redeployed as an attacking midfielder, coupled with Wheeler relieving some defensive pressure, acted as a circuit breakers.
Short and sweet, the second goal is everything good about Australian football.
Carpenter the architect. Wheeler starts things, Catley finds Fowler, who turns to spread play to Carpenter. Carpenter runs with the ball, combines with Kyah Simon then feeds Kerr. Kerr doesn’t miss from that range.
The replay doesn’t do it justice but my dreams will be filled with nothing else. It’s the type of football we can and should play against a high press. Now I want to order more servings of it.
I need to talk about Brazil otherwise I feel like I’ve not done justice to the game.
On the field, Adriana tore our midfield apart for the first half and then again threatened in the second. Marta and Debinha too proved their worth in gold and asked so many questions of the Matildas backline.
Off the field the atmosphere the Brazilian’s brought was phenomenal. Sometimes you wonder if they will show up time and time again, and each time the South American team plays in Australia they do. It’s my favourite part of playing Brazil. Next time I want to be at the stadium feeling the rhythms of the drums and singing chants right back at them.
As Marta said, the Brazilian fans were an extra player on the field.
“I’m going to keep going,” were the words Marta said in her post-match interview. So see you when the Matildas inevitably meet Brazil in the World Cup semi-final in 2023. I already can’t wait for that one!