A two-game end-of-year friendly series against an emerging women’s football nation, months between significant competitive games. It’s hard to be either overly-critical or overly-impressed by a Matildas showing that on the surface has taught us simultaneously both a lot, and very little.
Competitive at France 2019, Chile are no easy-beats. So dual wins, while perhaps expected, still needed to be achieved. As coach Ante Milicic pointed out post-match in Sydney, the South Americans were probably the perfect opponent for this stage of the Matildas’ preparations. “It’s a team that’s drawn recently with Brazil, a team that’s got a strong footballing culture, it’s actually a type of opponent that causes us problems.
“A direct style of football, a stop-start game that makes it [all about] transition. A couple of good individuals – they’re the ones that we struggle, in patches, against.”
And struggle at times they did. By his own definition “nervous”, too prone to allowing the game to be stretched, Milicic emerged frustrated after the Sydney performance, bemoaning the Matildas’ inability to kill off the contest, telling journalists post-match: “the coaching staff, we don’t need a final 10 minutes like that.”
And yet in the circumstances, the positives were evident. With some players appearing in their first competitive match since the July World Cup and scheduling clashes denying Young Matildas like Karly Roestbakken, Mary Fowler or Kyra Cooney-Cross a chance to appear, these were understandable performances.
Most pleasingly, in these twin friendlies the Matildas took significant steps to addressing the two biggest concerns exposed at the France World Cup: a lack of depth at centre-back, and an over-reliance on Elise Kellond-Knight at the base of midfield.
Despite playing only in the WNPL – a level Milicic criticised midweek as “too big” a gulf from the professional level required for Matildas – Jenna McCormick made her Matildas debut at centre-back, looking assured in her role, alongside both first-choice starters Clare Polkinghorne in game one, and Alanna Kennedy in game two, with Emma Checker also performing well as a late substitute.
It was a position that caused notorious headaches in France, with Laura Alleway’s pre-tournament injury leaving the Matildas with just two recognised centre-backs. On this showing the stocks, should Australia qualify for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, will look far healthier.
Across the two games Milicic was also able to experiment considerably with his midfield, with the absence of first-choice defensive screen Kellond-Knight allowing new combinations to be tested.
Having tried, with mixed success, playing Emily van Egmond in a deeper role than she’s used to, the performances of Aivi Luik in game one and Tameka Yallop in game two were especially pleasing – especially the latter, who under Milicic first featured as an attacking wide forward in a hyper-aggressive 4-2-4 against the USA. Such is her footballing intelligence, the well-travelled Yallop adapted admirably to her new role, bringing her trademark physicality and aggression as well as poise.
Normally after a World Cup there can be a major turnover in personnel, but Milicic and his staff were shrewd in selecting a squad for France 2019 with Tokyo 2020 also in mind. Veteran Lisa de Vanna appears the only major casualty of that campaign, although the coach is adamant she remains in selection contention.
With the flying winger’s absence comes an additional evolution. Rather than speedsters down both flanks, with Caitlin Foord starting nominally on the left of a front three but drifting more centrally, it allowed left full-back Steph Catley to play more aggressively, moving into the vacated space, and gave more support centrally for Sam Kerr to be fed by means other than crosses.
Like that period when the Socceroos appeared to have no other avenue to goal apart from via the golden forehead of Timmy Cahill, when Kerr is in such prodigious goalscoring form – the kind that 40 goals in 41 games in 2019 suggests – the temptation is huge for the Matildas to try to run everything through the skipper.
At the World Cup at times it became too predictable. In these games there were just the hints that the evolution of Foord as a playmaker could invite others such as Chloe Logarzo or Van Egmond to pick up this load from midfield.
As also seen in these twin friendlies, with every competitive match it becomes more apparent that Ellie Carpenter is a jewel in this Matildas side. With 38 caps to her name, yet still a teenager, her continued improvement should delight Australian fans. Her pace and prodigious fitness are already well-known, but her positioning and game awareness continue to grow. If Milicic can help improve her final-third decision-making Australia could unearth a full-back of the calibre of Philip Lahm or Lucy Bronze.
With Olympics qualifications in February the Matildas have plenty of room still to grow. It’s glass half-full or glass-half empty as to whether we saw enough here against Chile.