Gustavsson - “We saw this as an opportunity to really be brave on the ball"

Player of the match Mary Fowler, and CommBank Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson, spoke to the media after Australia’s 3-0 victory over Chinese Taipei in Perth on Wednesday evening.

Fowler was up first. The Manchester City forward was asked about her goal, a stunner from the edge of the area that started the scoring for Australia.

“In those moments you’re not really thinking too much, you’re just doing them [taking chances] off instinct and trying them out,” she reflected. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I had a few chances in the first half and that one in the second half went in so yeah, it was good.”

She started again in a wide attacking position, a role that she has been playing for her club side this season. She explained that she has been enjoying the freedom that her new role has brought.

“I think it always helps when you get the backing from the coach, the freedom to do that [attack] and rotate,” she said, reflecting on her partnership with fellow forwards Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord.

“I think we’re all, us three out there are all free-thinking kind of players and ball players. To be able to move around quite a bit, it’s very unpredictable for the other team, and it just allows us to play our game and have fun out there.”

Her coach Tony Gustavsson was full of praise for the 20-year-old.

“How am I going to keep the expectations down now!” he joked when asked about her exceptional performances over the international window.

“The way she pulls off that goal tonight is what we’re seeing in training every day. Left foot, right foot, inside of the foot, laces, clipped balls, anything… her finishing is just one of a kind.”

The international window finished with three wins from three, with 13 goals scored and none conceded. Gustavsson said that it was a challenging camp for a number of reasons, including lack of preparation time and staff turnover. However, he was pleased with what he saw on the pitch, particularly when it came to regaining possession and keeping clean sheets.

“You know when I came on board three years ago, everyone talks about this being a leaky defence, and we need to fix things and such,” he explained. “These are three teams that park the bus and transition, and you can be vulnerable in that.

“But we were clinical in our regains. To win the ball back, to stop the transition… we’ve been very, very focused on making sure that we don’t give anything away, 100% focus in every single minute. To put that into perspective we kept 13 clean sheets over the last year now. 13 clean sheets, just conceded 8 goals in 20 games, and I’m really happy with that.”

He praised the depth of the team and pointed out that it would be an incredibly difficult job to select 18 players for a potential Olympic squad if they are successful in round 3 of qualification.

Gustavsson was asked about the game against Chinese Taipei in particular, and what was said at halftime when it was still scoreless to spark his team into life.

“The thing that can happen in a half like that is that you could be frustrated,” he said. “And then you’re going in halftime and start yelling and throwing and ‘what is this, it needs to be better,’ and then players go out with insecurity and stress and start lumping balls in the box instead of playing our game.

“After an hour, things start to open up and then obviously the individual brilliance from Mary opened things up. But if you look at some stats… we have the most shots in this game out of all three, the best xG out of all three games, and still just three goals. So it was the conversion rate today that wasn’t there.”

He reiterated the work on the pitch that the backroom staff had identified since the World Cup, and how the team had worked to implement those changes in these qualifiers.

“We saw in the World Cup that we were fantastic in our pressing conversion rate, in our organised defending. We were really good at breaking the last line,” he explained. “But in our regain and in our combination play to break the first and second line, we were not world class.”

“We saw this as an opportunity to take that next step and really be brave on the ball and have that understanding. For having that little time going into these games and converting those meetings and those few training sessions, I also think it says a lot about what level these players have taken themselves to in order to be able to take that information in and then execute it.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 01: Mary Fowler of the Matildas celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal during the AFC Women's Asian Olympic Qualifier match between Australia and Chinese Taipei at HBF Park on November 1, 2023 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

“But I also think we couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the base over the last three years of good understanding of each other and the connections and synchronisation and understanding of movement… it’s about having the right players in the right position with the right mindset.”

Finally, he concluded by using the example of the on-the-ball work from centre-backs Alanna Kennedy and Clare Hunt to illustrate the good work done in the window.

“It all starts with the centre-backs because if they don’t draw players out to create space behind lines and they keep playing into pressure, it all fails,” he said.

“The message that we took with Alanna and Clare in this – you saw them putting the ball on the foot and just slow it down and you can go from that – ‘just play, play’ – no! Don’t play. Hold it, invite them and when they move, then we play and we get behind lines.

“I’m really happy about the improvement of the centre-backs because that’s where it all started.”

Australia will now play Uzbekistan in a two-legged playoff to determine qualification to Paris 2024. The away leg will be on 24 February 2024, and the home leg will be on 28 February. Details will be announced in due course.