Matildas midfield laying the platform for Sam Kerr
At least for one night, there was music between the notes for Australia in their 4-1 win over Jamaica. Heading into Saturday's round-of-16 match with Norway, the benefits and risks of that truth will be something Ante Milicic has to weigh up.
In that vital win over the Reggae Girlz, Australia didn't play football like Australian teams usually play football. The Matildas' performance highlighted that, in footballing terms, there's a fundamental difference between outright speed and tempo.
And it was immediately apparent. In only the third minute, with the Matildas pinning Jamaica into their own half, Lisa De Vanna spreads the ball out to an advanced Ellie Carpenter on the right. With her back to goal, it's here Katrina Gorry innately splits defenders, opening up play both vertically and laterally on the pitch. Quickly to her left, then shuffling back towards goal between the defensive and midfield lines. It creates a multitude of consequences without her even touching the ball.
For Carpenter and Australia in attack, it creates two penetrative passing options. The right-back can either zip the ball into the half-space, where Gorry is situated, or out to Emily Gielnik on the touchline. As noted previously, a singular movement creating a domino effect, and here is where the dominoes fall.
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Carpenter opts for Gielnik, but Gorry's movement creates a kind of gravitational pull with Jamaica defenders Tiffany Cameron, Chantelle Swaby and Deneisha Blackwood. Having to cover the centre of the pitch, Cameron initially sprints to Gorry but then has to quickly recover to Gielnik. Blackwood also has to stay put or the pass behind the defensive line is on. What that movement has also done is allow Sam Kerr to dart into the penalty area -- after initially retreating with her back to goal -- while Gielnik has time to receive the ball under relatively little pressure, set herself and deliver a dangerous cross.
By the time Gielnik looks up, Kerr is one-on-one and in position. Nicole McClure flails at the delivery in the Jamaican goal with Chloe Logarzo also lurking. Australia did not score in this instance, but it was a window into the nature of control Australia can have in possession.
It served as little surprise a similar scenario led to Kerr putting the Matildas 2-0 up in the 42nd minute.
This time, Emily van Egmond crisply plays into Gorry. With very little time between first and second touch, Gorry delivers to an unmarked Kerr. What also must not go ignored is Logarzo's dash into the penalty area, which attracts the defensive attention of Allyson and Chantelle Swaby. It's why Kerr is unmarked. At 2-0, Australia were in control.
Although the opponent must be taken into account, finally under Milicic there was a sense of balance with the midfield's composition of Van Egmond, Gorry and Logarzo. As a consequence, the Matildas could turn the opposition defence towards their own goal, which then means there are potentially less numbers in their transitions.
Jamaica's two shots in total before Kerr doubled the margin were from dead ball situations -- Khadija Shaw trying her luck from the car park and an off-balance header from a corner, both going off target.
Even when Havana Solaun pulled a goal back in the 49th minute, after Shaw harried Van Egmond off the ball, Australia eventually regained composure. Importantly, Milicic's substitutions were the right adjustments, bringing on Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso for Gielnik and De Vanna respectively.
The bulk of the second half saw what is arguably Australia's strongest attacking lineup, at least until Steph Catley is able to revert to left-back. Although the second half raised questions on how well prepared Gorry has been physically in the lead-up to the tournament, the collective performance was much more fluid than the opening two games.
Throughout the match, the Matildas showed qualities in possession that Australian teams simply did not show -- movement, tempo, interchangeability. Not just speed, but clarity and sense. Each movement and pass had purpose, not just shifting between first and fifth gear. These aspects all lead to two things, an eventually strong relationship between attack and defence, while maximising the team's biggest goal-scoring threat.
Kerr scoring four goals on Tuesday wasn't simply borne of her own talent, but the collective doing what it could for her to show that talent. Despite being raised to messianic levels in Australian footballing circles, Kerr cannot single-handedly take Australia past the round of 16.
She needs this kind of collective functionality, to sustainably be put in positions to score. However, there are the consequences of her own deployment on the pitch and how that affects the collective in turn. It's something Perth Glory coach Bobby Despotovski suggested in February this year.
"Holding the ball with a player behind you, when maybe your speed starts going away -- those kinds of game smarts, you develop later on," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
It could explain why Despotovski has been more inclined to play Rachel Hill as a centre-forward for the Glory. The rationale, it appears, playing Kerr primarily with her back to goal arguably takes away what makes her so good.
Meanwhile, Foord was a square peg in a round hole, playing as the most advanced midfielder against Italy and in pretournament friendlies.
Though technically gifted, Kerr's pace and athleticism is her defining attribute. As a centre-forward, incompatibility emerges in her inclination to force first-time passes while dropping between the defensive and midfield lines -- let alone the timing of when she drifts. Kerr's best moments for the Matildas in France have been when she is facing goal, but having her lurking in the channels, solely playing off the shoulders of centre backs takes numbers away from the ball.
There's an argument to be made for Kerr to play off Foord as a pivot, while having the former coming in from the left doesn't necessarily remove her aerial threat. It could just eventuate in later phases of play. It may seem perverse to suggest, considering the 25-year-old has already scored five goals in the tournament so far, but Kerr has the potential to be even more dangerous.
The key, ultimately, is optionality. That is both with respect to Kerr and the composition of a midfield that can put her in best position. A more unpredictable and improvisational side, then becomes a harder team to defend. A harder team to defend, becomes a harder team to attack.