Matildas’ draw with Portugal paints picture Australian football needs to see

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When Tony Gustavsson began his tenure as the Matildas’ head coach in January 2021, one of his first stated objectives was to get his players to “see the same picture”.

“I’m one of those people that wants to control the controllables,” he said in his first media conference.

“Not simplifying in terms of neglecting important details, [but] simplifying in terms of creating a picture that everyone sees.”


He was referring to a few different things: the new philosophies and systems he wanted to introduce, attempts to connect with players virtually amid lockdowns and border restrictions, and ultimately how to prepare the team for the Tokyo Olympics that, at that point, was only six months away.

Gustavsson took over the Matildas at a time when Australian football was beginning to reckon with its changing position in the global landscape.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

A lot has happened since that media conference, now close to a year and a half ago. A different and more complicated picture has emerged.

Stripped back to its numbers, the picture is stark: The Matildas have played 24 games since Gustavsson took over, winning eight, drawing five and losing 11.

Of those losses, three came against opponents lower than Australia in the global rankings (Japan, the Republic of Ireland, and Korea) — three games which were decided by a single goal.

The Matildas finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, though won just two of five games (and one in regular time) to get there.

They’ve scored 53 goals across this period and conceded 49.

Their longest winning streak – and the time frame in which they scored the most goals – came in the group stage of February’s AFC Asian Cup, where they blew past three emerging nations — Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand — with an aggregate score of 24-1 before losing 1-0 to South Korea in the quarter-finals.

Aside from the 4-3 win against Great Britain in Tokyo, Australia under Gustavsson has not won a single game against European opposition — nations that have made up 10 of the 24 games the squad has played.

In that context – the 15 months since January 2021 – this picture of the Matildas is not a pretty one. Their recent 7-0 loss to Spain and Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Portugal have only added darker paint to the portrait.

The Matildas coach puts his arm on the shoulder of dejected defender Clare Polkinghorne as he talks to her after a match.
Australia’s 7-0 loss to Spain on Sunday was its biggest defeat in 25 years.(Getty Images: Fran Santiago)

With the Women’s World Cup around the corner, it’s understandable that fans and the media are becoming restless. There appears, on the surface, to have been no improvement in the side that many expect to make a deep run in the tournament they’re co-hosting next year. Faith and patience in Gustavsson are beginning to fade.

However, just as there was following the Matildas’ unexpected Asian Cup exit, there is another, bigger picture that must be brought into focus here: Australia’s struggles against higher-ranked sides – particularly those from Europe – are nothing new.

Between 2011 and 2020, under the tenure of five different head coaches, the Matildas faced top 10 teams 42 times (accounting for roughly one-third of their overall opponents) with a win ratio of just 38 per cent.

And of the 21 games played against nations ranked in the top five in that period, Australia won just twice.

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