Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson has defended his decision to not use a blend of senior and inexperienced players in his starting lineup after Australia suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Canada on Saturday afternoon (AEDT) in Langford.
Gustavsson made sweeping changes for the clash against the reigning Olympic gold medallists, picking an experimental XI for the first of two friendlies in the west of Canada.
The Swede’s messaging throughout the December window has been clear, as he looks to use this opportunity to “gain players” heading into the Paris Olympics – a tournament they will look to qualify for next February in a two-legged tie against Uzbekistan – before focusing on their preparation for the Games in the windows to follow in April and May-June.
And it’s not the first time the Matildas boss has completely shuffled the deck, having done exactly that in a 7-0 loss to world champions Spain last year, which was criticised at the time.
In fact, the loss against Canada was their largest since the defeat to La Roja last June.
Gustavsson hinted he would experiment and make wholesale changes heading into the game for Canada, but it was a decision that was criticised by Network 10’s Andy Harper, believing Gustavsson should have looked to have more of a blend of inexperience and senior players in his starting lineup.
“We said we wanted to go extreme today and really test ourselves against one of the best teams in the world,” Gustavsson said.
“Always when we come to camp, you have an idea of what you want to do. We had three late setbacks in terms of injury replacement coming in. I’ve had a lot of debate and discussion. I listen to my experts around me with my sports science and officials about load management and players.
“For example: if you have a player that only have one game [in them], which game are we playing that with? If we mix, maybe we get two solid performances but also on the expense of maybe continuity in a potential starting lineup.
“With the experience that we had out there today with Teagan Micah that was our first goal keeper through the whole Olympics. I look at her as pretty experienced even though she had a few caps.
“Look at Aivi (Luik) and ‘Polks’ (Clare Polkinghorne) with experience, (Clare) Wheeler has been with us with a lot of tournaments, (Courtney) Nevin has been with us a lot.
“Age-wise and a number of caps, maybe not so experienced, but there was still enough there to feel that we had a balance and a structure but I really credit the players to be committed to what we did.
“Three goals getting dispossessed in our own half. It’s not about the line up per se. It’s that individual action right there, right then, but the fact that they tried, and went all in on it and sometimes growth hurts, growth and development hurts at times.
“And as long as you know, why you’re doing it and what you’re doing and, and it’s up to me also to protect the players in this journey.”
He added: “Then you know what it’s like, you’re always going to be criticised for not testing new players or testing too many new players at the same time. There’s always going to be opinions out there.
“But we had a clear plan going into this camp that we wanted to use one game for the players that hasn’t played that much and one game with more continuity and more closer to starting lineup that we had in the World Cup.”
Gustavsson handed starting debuts to Charlize Rule and Sarah Hunter, and blooded fringe Matildas including Remy Siemsen, Teagan Micah, Clare Wheeler, Amy Sayer, Alex Chidiac and Courtney Nevin who have little national team experience.
Clare Polkinghorne, Tameka Yallop and Aivi Luik were the only starters with more than 40 caps to their name.
Polkinghorne was in fact the only player in the starting XI to start a game at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, while Chidiac, Yallop and Nevin saw some minutes as substitutes.
But the Swede is confident the fringe and younger players will benefit from the experience, using Charlotte Grant and Cortnee Vine as examples of players who have flourished in the national team setup since.
“I actually think it’s going to be easier this time around,” he said.
“I had to work hard on that the first time to get the buy in, but remember we won a player in Charlotte Grant and Cortnee Vine in that Spain game, for example.
“But back then I did not do a good enough job to educate the public outside of the team.
“The team knew why we did and what we did, but I had to work really hard for the buy-in. Now we’ve done it before and they know why we did it and, and this is just a one off. It’s not going to be a year process or half a year. It’s that one off.
“I definitely think it’s going to be easier for me to, to have that buy in and a couple of players already said it straight after the game, ‘this is exactly what we needed’.
“It’s so fast. You have so little time, so little space. It’s completely different from the training game environment we’re in club land.
“So some of these players really needed to see it, now they can take this experience back and work and prep for the next time they come into this high tempo football, that international football is.”
“I mean, as a senior national team, when you step on the field, you always want to win.
“I said that yesterday as well, even though we roll tape, we’re here to win the football game and you can’t say that winning is not important because you’re winning, great and winning mentality and all that.
“But I also said that we can’t just put out a line up to win on the expense of the long term goal, which is develop this team and take it to the next step.
“So we were willing to risk a result, not that we wanted to lose, but we were willing to look at players tonight and it cost us and we’ve done it a couple of times before.
“If you look back at Holland, Germany when I started. The Spain game, Ireland game, Thailand game, Scotland game, Portugal.
“There’s a lot of games there when we have looked at a lot of players, to look at the depth in the roster to also test where we are. Where are we as a nation? Where are we with this team in terms of the depth in the roster as well?”
Gustavsson hinted the Matildas would play a stronger team for the reverse fixture in Vancouver, which will take place on Wednesday afternoon (AEDT).
Alanna Kennedy, Hayley Raso, Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Katrina Gorry and Emily van Egmond all came on in the second-half, while Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter, Steph Catley and Clare Hunt were unused substitutes and could all be in contention to start at BC Place.
From an individual perspective, Gustavsson was pleased with the performance of Rule who stepped in to play alongside Kennedy for the final 30 minutes in an unfamiliar role in centre-back.
“I really credit the players to commit to the game plan,” he said.
“I said before that I wanted to… get some answers and the 30 minutes with Charlie Rule at centre-back, [her] play was impressive,” he said.
“She hasn’t played that before. She has the profile I think that’s exciting if you want to play more with the ball and I think her last 30 minutes was very impressive.”
MATCH DETAILS FOR NEXT FRIENDLY
Canada v Matildas
Date: Tuesday, 5 December 2023 (local) / Wednesday, 6 December (AEDT)
Kick-off: 7.00pm PST (local) / 2.00pm (AEDT)
Venue: BC Place, Vancouver