Three Burning Questions: Matildas at the Tokyo Olympics

by Ben Somerford on Jul 20, 2021

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The Tokyo Olympics officially start this weekend but it'll be the Matildas who kick off the action for Team Australia on Wednesday night (9:30pm AEST) and expectations will be high for Sam Kerr's troops.

The Matildas have become the darlings of Australian sport in recent years, aided by a general public perception that they punch above their weight division, while the men's side, the Socceroos, are easily swept aside on the world stage.

A big part of that perception emerged during the last Olympics in Rio, when the Matildas pushed hosts Brazil in the quarter-finals, before a heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat. Tokyo is a long-awaited opportunity for redemption.

But a lot has happened in those five years, including numerous coaching changes and an underwhelming World Cup campaign, despite the emergence of a golden generation of talent.

There's also the 2023 Women's World Cup on home soil, which looms as the end goal, hence coach Tony Gustavsson's relatively recent appointment, which creates uncertainty about the Matildas being ready for Tokyo.

Five games without a win under a new coach on the eve of a major event will reinforce that. So GGArmy's Ben Somerford asks three burning questions ahead of the Games.

Can the Matildas serve Sam Kerr better?
The Matildas have only scored four goals in the five games since Tony Gustavsson took over. None of those goals have come from skipper Sam Kerr and that's a problem.

With no disrespect intended to her well-qualified teammates, Kerr is the Matildas' undisputed star player. Something sets you apart when your CV includes winning the most recent English Women's Super League Golden Boot, plus the US league's Golden Boot three times and being two-time MVP as well as a former Asian Women's Footballer of the Year award along with playing in the UEFA Champions League final and winning the Super League twice.

It's hard to diagnose fully, but Australia's style under Gustavsson has left Kerr with a lot to do on her lonesome. Gustavsson arguably has been more preoccupied with remedying their defensive issues, after conceding 10 goals in his first two games in charge, meaning support for Kerr has been limited.

More than anything, the game hasn't been played in the Matildas' attacking third enough. That's represented by the fact the side has only mustered 17 shots on target in their five games this year, which equates to 3.4 per game. Finding a way to get Kerr into dangerous positions will be key.

What's the best defensive system?
The previous question lends itself to this one as there is a balance to strike between the two. Long before Gustavsson took over, Australia's issue had been its leaky defence. An example of this is of the sides who reached the knockout stage at the 2019 World Cup, the Matildas conceded the equal most goals, alongside Cameroon.

Individual errors have been an issue, so reinforcing the backline has been seen as part of the solution. But you rob Peter to pay Paul.

Gustavsson has recently deployed a 3-4-3 formation, with Clare Polkinghorne running the show in the heart of defence, sandwiched between Ellie Carpenter and Steph Catley. The latter pair are two of the side's best players, although one of their strengths is bombing on. This formation restricts that. But it is worth noting the Matildas had a 0-0 draw with Sweden and lost 1-0 to Japan when deploying it.

The Swede tweaked that formation against Sweden, bringing on Alanna Kennedy for a midfielder to play alongside Polkinghorne in defence, which looms as an option. Kennedy is a proven player but, without wanting to be harsh, can be clumsy and prone to an error. The challenge is there for Gustavsson to solve.

Can the Matildas win their first Olympic medal?
This is the ultimate question and the aforementioned ones will largely dictate the answer. The quality is there. The 22-member roster largely plays at the highest level abroad.

Is the belief there internally given recent events? Not sure. Has Gustavsson's personality and style won the players over and embedded yet? Not sure either.

Ultimately the Matildas enter the Olympics with a heap of uncertainty about them. That's in the wake of Alen Stajcic's shock sacking in May 2019 and the brief Ante Milicic era where the side hasn’t been able to settle despite growing expectations.

And it's reasonable to assume expectations for the Matildas back in Australia will be piqued with a 9:30pm AEST Wednesday night TV timeslot on Channel 7 for their opener against New Zealand, which precedes the Opening Ceremony on Friday.

But it feels like the Matildas aren't the final product right now (the 2023 Women's World Cup on home soil is the end goal) and having been drawn in a tough group alongside the US and Sweden, it's difficult to see this side standing on the podium at the end.