The major question facing Matildas after magical year
The Matildas wrapped up their magical 2023 calendar year with a pair of disappointing losses to Canada, but there was plenty to write home about.
Tony Gustavsson‘s team delivered on years of promise with an excellent home World Cup run, which ended in a semi-final loss to England. Overall, the team won 11 of its 16 matches in 2023 (technically 10 if you count the 0-0 World Cup draw which they won on penalties against France as a draw).
After a stellar year, the Matildas have firmly launched themselves into the mainstream sports sphere, and are undoubtedly one of Australia’s most watched national sports teams.
Gustavsson’s side kicked off their year with the Cup of Nations, where they went 3-0 after wins over the Czech Republic, Spain and Jamaica.
More attention and pressure than ever
A 1-0 friendly win over France preceded the World Cup campaign where the Matildas captured the hearts of a nation.
However, it begs the question: is the team ready for the added scrutiny that comes with added attention?
Ex-Matilda-turned-commentator Grace Gill suggested it’ll be an adjustment period for Gustavsson’s charges.
”They’re definitely getting used to it,” she told SEN.
”It’s been developing for this team over the last six to 12 months because it’s right, they haven’t had the eyes and attention on them previously.
“Whether or not they are ready for it, as human beings you are never truly ready for anything.
“When you hear criticism, it takes some time to absorb it and reflect.
“These girls are professionals though and they would be the first to put their hands up and admit they had a bad game.
“They have plenty of eyes on them that they have never had before.”
Will Tony Gustavsson stay?
Perhaps the biggest source of controversy or uncertainty among the Matildas camp is the status of the team’s manager Tony Gustavsson.
The Swede well and truly popped up on the radar of some of the world’s powerhouse football nations with his work at the World Cup.
Gustavsson has been linked with both the United States and Sweden jobs, with recent reports claiming he’s already met with Sweden regarding a job with the men’s team.
To date, Gustavsson has emphatically rejected all suggestions that he’ll leave after the Olympics.
“There’s always going to be speculation, especially when you do good things like the Matildas have done,” he said after Wednesday’s loss to Canada.
“For me, I’m just focusing on the job I have and I’m focusing on the Matildas.”
Will a tactical switch pay dividends?
Despite his team’s World Cup success, Gustavsson has shown he is not content to stand pat.
The Matildas coach has rotated his squad almost every game post-World Cup as he looks to embed the next generation of players in as well as getting his team to play an expansive brand of football.
Australia has proved it is a lethal counter-attacking side with the likes of Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler able to turn defence into attack in an instant, but Gustavsson wants his team to be confident in playing out from the back.
With that comes some “growing pains”, as skipper Steph Catley admitted after the loss to Canada on Wednesday.
“We’re trying a few different things, a few different ways of playing, and sometimes that has growing pains,” she said.
“There’s times in the game where we’re not controlling it, but when we do it looks pretty good, so there’s definitely positives to take out of the game.”
“This might be the only and the one chance we have to play a top-ranked team before the Olympics start and I really wanted to use every single minute for this playing group in the second game to get exposed to this and try things,” Gustavsson added.
The new kids on the block
When Sam Kerr was injured to start the World Cup campaign, there were doubts over whether the Matildas would go very far at all.
However, Kerr’s injury allowed the lesser known players on her team to flourish on the world stage.
Young midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross signed a big deal to join Arsenal after her exploits in the World Cup, while Mary Fowler has announced herself as arguably the Matildas’ biggest star.
Just nine of the Matildas’ 23-player World Cup squad are on the wrong side of 30, indicating that the current core should be able to stay together and contend for major prizes in years to come.
While Kerr still remains prolific when on the park, she’s had an injury-stricken 2023 and it is likely that Gustavsson or whoever succeeds him will need to carefully manage the star striker’s minutes in the coming years, if she is to make it to the next World Cup.
At just 20, Fowler will assume the mantle of being the team’s biggest star from Kerr, but expect the 21-year-old Cooney-Cross and the likes of 23-year-old Ellie Carpenter to also make major waves in the coming years.
The big medal chance in Paris
Paris 2024 is looming as the Matildas’ best chance to claim an Olympic medal, with the team close to securing qualification.
Gustavsson’s side has just Uzbekistan standing between them and a spot in Paris next year, with a two-legged tie in February to decide who goes through.
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Australia came mighty close to its first medal in Tokyo, but lost to the United States in a 4-3 thriller in the bronze medal match.
With heavyweights England and Sweden already failing to qualify, and the United States nowhere near as strong as in previous years, there is a golden opportunity for the Matildas in every sense of the word.