Socrates is worried! Here is a lament from the idiot sports philosopher who has coached multiple sports for multiple years but has recently forsaken his earlier loves for Rugby, Rugby League and Basketball for “the beautiful game.” Some people who have only ever loved soccer will argue that he is not a real football person and that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. They are probably right. No doubt he still has a lot to learn about soccer. But his heart is aching. Maybe he has nothing to worry about because his fears are based on ignorance. Even so, he needs to get it off his chest. Here Socrates cries out “What’s wrong with the Matildas?”
I hate the feeling of watching your favourite sports team and, even when they are winning, thinking that they are just not playing that well. That’s how I feel about the Matildas. What’s worse is that I have been feeling that way for ages. I remember, a couple of years back, thinking that, in time, they would be unbeatable. Thinking that they had the potential to smash France, England and even the United States. In early 2018 I was certain that they had a chance at winning the 2019 World Cup. Maybe I was naïve. Maybe I was just a biased Matilda lover. But when I looked at players like Foord, Kerr, De Vanna and Simon… and the young Raso and Carpenter who were beginning to show their potential, I really thought that they had a shot. But since 2018, they just haven’t looked right.
Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in the players! If I were selecting a World 11, I would have Kerr and Foord in my starting line-up right now! I would also find a spot on the bench for Carpenter, Raso and Simon too! These women are world class. The rest of the crew are strong, tough, dedicated and technically adept as well. As a team, the Matildas should be near the top of the world rankings. But they are not. And when they are on the field, they don’t look anything like a top-ranked team. There is a problem.
Kiah Simon announced publicly before the first Olympic Games qualifier against Vietnam, a while back, that she believed that the team had now reached a “new level.” I trust Kiah Simon. She knows her stuff. She is a gun player and an intelligent analyst. I believed her. I was encouraged. Excited. But after the 5 – 0 victory over the Vietnamese in Australia and an even closer match-up in the away game, I am not so sure. The team that I love still looked out of touch.
China unlucky to not beat Matildas
Its true that they were better than they had been earlier against China (in the qualifying tournament), but, for me, only marginally so. But, in truth, the Vietnamese, while plucky, were not the same “in your face” threat that the Steel Roses had been. It seems to me that the Matildas can turn on goals (even when they are not playing particularly well) against lesser opponents but look all at sea against teams that can not only play a bit but are willing to match the Matilda’s aggression. China were unlucky to not win against the Matildas. They were the better team.
The disconnection between the forwards and the backs, for the Matildas, in the China game was excruciating. I hope Kellond-Knight’s relegation to the bench for the first Vietnam game was injury related rather than the result of her perceived poor performance. While it’s true that KK struggled against the Chinese, her problems seemed less about her form than about a lack of effective team strategy for the Matildas. Whether you play basketball, hockey, soccer, water polo or any other sport (where it is common for defending teams to employ a “high press”) trying to employ one single strategy for the entire game to beat the press is never going to work if the defending team have been well coached and can execute the press effectively.
The Chinese were brutal against Kellond-Knight, Kennedy and Polkinghorne. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems likely to me that the reason why they continued to do what was blatantly not working, was because that was what they were instructed to do. It was expected that the Steel Roses defence would “run out of steam” in the second half and then the Matildas would spring into action. Only one problem. The Chinese did not “run out of steam.” They were magnificent. I do hope that KK was not thrown under the bus after her team’s lack-lustre performance because, for me, it wasn’t her fault. She and her mate Aivi Luik (on the bench) are still the team’s two best passers.
Other than the goal that saved Australia’s skin in the dying moments of the game, the best moment for the Matildas came in the second half when Kerr took the bull by the horns, swapped places with Foord, and then tracked back from the wing to provide some support to the holding mid field. She quickly scored a turnover then executed some mid-field passing magic with Foord that nearly resulted in a goal. Kerr’s decision to break out of the mindless maintaining of a rigid structure that wasn’t working nearly broke the game wide open. There should have been so much more of it!
Poor passing game
Then there were the Vietnam games. Yeah, we scored five goals, in the first game. Yeah, the attacking mid-fielders supported the holding mid-fielder much more when bringing the ball up-field, thus, opening passing lanes to all points further forward. Yeah, the team had their moments and a couple of the goals were crackers. But did we look great? Not for me.
On numerous occasions the television commentator lamented the poor passing between the players. He kinda had a point in the sense that the passing game looked out of kilter but his inference that it was the passer’s fault was not always correct.
Passing is a dynamic, organic, multi-person team skill. Passers and receivers both have a role to play. There should be a chemistry between them. On numerous occasions against the Vietnamese, passers placed intelligent balls into vacant spaces where team-mates should have been but the pass receiver through lack of awareness, slowness or flat-footedness was often unable to react in time enabling Vietnamese defenders to sweep and steal possession. Yes. There were plenty of bad passes in the Vietnam games… but there were also lots of occasions when potential pass receivers were standing around statically pretending that the passer’s job was to somehow magically get the ball to them!
Our passing game against the Vietnamese also seemed predictable. Ninety-nine percent of the time passes went to people who everyone on the field (both teams), everyone in the stands and everyone watching the game on television knew exactly who it was going to. Slow, deliberate, lateral and back passing to an obvious receiver might make possession stats look good but its not going to provide too many challenges to the defenders. Holy cow. I think it was half-way into the first half before I saw a player execute a skip-pass (cut-out pass) to a wide team-mate.
The passing ills seem to be particularly problematic in the mid field. While our forwards have not been setting the world on fire lately, in their defence, it is difficult for forwards to work offensive magic when the limited possession you are receiving comes slowly and in a disorganized manner.
Matildas shooting against the Vietnamese also seemed off song. Off target shots that should have found the back of the net can be excused. That happens. But failure to take open shots when the opportunity arises is more problematic. Insistence on working the ball to close range might seem a good strategy when you have terrific forwards, but that is not always going to work when defending teams have jammed the box full of defenders. When you have a team with lethal long-range shooters like Kennedy, Van Egmond, Simon, Foord and others it is sinful to not take shot opportunities when they are offered up. Taking shot opportunities from range also has the effect of forcing defenders to close out on potential shooters thus creating space for the forwards closer to the goal.
With the Olympic Games coming up, I am worried. I can’t recall the Matildas playing sublime football against high end opposition in ages. But, perhaps the delay in the tournament will work in the Matildas favour. Extra preparation time might give them the chance to work out the bugs. They can beat anyone! They have the players!
To win at the Olympics in 2021 they are going to need to beat the best. To beat the best, they are not only going to have to find a fast, smart and visionary passing game but they are going to have to find strategic wisdom and flexibility. They are so good I am confident that they can do it. But they have some work to do!