Conclusions and Impressions from the Football Ferns x 2018 Oceania Nations Cup

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It was mission accomplished. Five games and five easy victories, the Football Ferns cruising into the next World Cup and Olympics with a comprehensive trophy-lifting performance at the 2018 Oceania Nations Cup. They scored 43 goals and never even really looked like conceding one in the process. It was a bit of a forgone conclusion when a team as strong as this one hit up New Caledonia but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot to learn from the tournament. In fact there was so much to learn that here’s a whole article about conclusions and impressions from the ONC2018 journey.

This was Tom Sermanni’s first opportunity to work with the Ferns since being announced as the new manager a few weeks earlier. He only needed a couple days in the job before unveiling his first squad, though you get the feeling his assistants would have had a lot to do with that considering that there was only a handful of changes from the squad that played Japan in the midyear and those changes were enforced. Anna Leat was about to go perform some legendary feats with the U17s, Hannah Wilkinson and Amber Hearn were injured and… that was it. Ria Percival was recalled having missed that game with injury, Vic Esson was added in place of Leat, and Katie Rood and Grace Jale came in for Wilkinson and Hearn. Sermanni getting a good look at the established first teamers. Think of that as establishing the baseline. It’s not often that international teams get to work together and develop tactics and combinations all that, so the camp in Auckland before they left was essential. The tournament itself was then a fantastic opportunity to flex what they’d been working on.

And what was that? Yeah so the first impressions are of a pretty exciting 4-3-3 formation. It’s hard to say which aspects will be limited against better teams but here we saw the fullbacks really looking to push forward and supply crosses into the forwards. The midfielders operated with a deep mid who’d often settle in close to the centrebacks when in possession, which allows cover for those fullbacks to attack, that was either Katie Bowen or Ria Percival. Two more mids of a more creative leaning, then three across the front. Those five attackers supplied the bulk of the attack while playing quite fluid with their positioning. Wingers swapping sides, striker dropping deep, midfielders overlapping, etc. Not a whole lot of funk from set pieces but we did see a tendency to deliver the ball into the box from deeper angles and especially as the tournament went on there was the intention to play the ball in behind the defence to run onto. It all worked wonders here. At the World Cup a lot of those instincts will need to be tempered but this is a formation which should suit the side pretty well in big games. You’ve got an extra midfielder so as not to be outnumbered in the middle as well as having enough attacking players to be able to commit forwards. Simple stuff from Sermanni but reliable stuff. Exactly what he was hired to offer.

Tell you what else, it definitely looked like the Ferns have got their mojo back. After a difficult year, that’s pretty crucial (and a relief to see). This has always been such a fun team with an incredible chemistry and in trying to work for better results and accountability the last manager destroyed that. It was stupid. Of course you can have fun in camp and still be completely serious on the field. Who’s more competitive than Ria Percival or Meikayla Moore? Since the Olympics the Ferns had lost eight of their eleven games, including all three under Heraf. So whatever was going on it wasn’t working on the pitch. Trying to go from one extreme to the other is a recipe for disaster. Tom Sermanni is an experienced manager who has achieved great things with the Australian national team and at a time when they were in a similar place to where the NZers are now. He didn’t do so great with the USA but they had higher expectations and different culture/personality. Sermanni already seems to have steadied the ship again and the players, by all accounts, are happy just to move forward. Happy being the key word. They looked like they were having fun again.

If we’re looking for a first choice starting XI then the team that started the grand final were also the eleven players who played the most minutes during the tournament. That seems like an easy enough formula to follow. That’d give us: Erin Nayler, Katie Bowen, Meikayla Moore, Rebekah Stott, Ali Riley, Ria Percival, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo, Katie Rood, Rosie White and Sarah Gregorius. You’d probably think CJ Bott has a good chance at pushing back in at right back and Bowen returning to midfield at the World Cup, getting both her and Percival in the middle for that extra cover. Also probably got Rood and or Gregorius dropping out if Wilko and Hearn are good to go. But that’s a strong frame to build from.

Katie Bowen and Betsy Hassett played the most minutes, each missing only one game. There was not a minute in the tournament in which neither of them were on the park. Bowen had a great tournament and Hassett was even better, showing off all her creativity with five goals and several more assists on the way to being awarded the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament. The winner surely had to come from the champs and Hassett is as deserving as anyone. Bowen and Percival would be my suggestions for runners up – Percival was the only player to feature in every game (four starts and one off the bench).

Every single player in the 22-woman squad got game time. Two members of the squad got senior debuts: Nadia Olla and Grace Jale. Olla kept a clean sheet in the semi-final against New Caledonia and Jale scored on debut as well as against the Cook Islands. She was the only player not to get a start but she appeared four times off the bench. Vic Esson, Katie Rood, Malia Steinmetz, Nadia Olla, Paige Satchell and Liz Anton all got their first career starts for the Ferns during the tournament. Grace Jale, Katie Rood, Emma Rolston, Sarah Morton and Paige Satchell all scored their first international goals for the Ferns.

On the other end of things, Ria Percival is now the all-time most capped Football Fern as she’s reached 135 caps. Went past Abby Erceg’s 132 on the way. In this current squad we’ve also got Ali Riley on 119 caps, Annalie Longo on 110 and Betsy Hassett on 107. Rosie White is coming up to that century with 95 caps while Sarah Gregorius has 88 of them. Then on the goal-scoring side of things Sarah Gregorius has surged up to third all-time with her eight goals taking her to 33 overall. A long way behind Amber Hearn’s 54 but just one shy of Wendy Sharpe. Rosie White is also getting up there, still sitting in fifth but with 23 goals to her name now.

Gregorius shared the Golden Boot at the tournament with Meagen Gunemba of Papua New Guinea. Crazy thing is that Grego only played three games. Eight goals in 270 minutes… mental. She scored two hat-tricks. Emma Rolston and Rosie White each scored six. Annalie Longo and Betsy Hassett got five. Katie Rood scored four. Meikalya Moore and Grace Jale got two. Ria Percival, Sarah Morton, Katie Bowen, Paige Satchell and a cheeky own goal make for the rest of them.

If there was any doubt that this team was completely clocked in then the early goals blew that away. Obviously they scored heaps across all five games but this team was especially lethal in the early stages of games. They took the lead after 21 seconds in the semi-final and about a minute in the final but even in the group games they were never without a goal in the first 15 minutes. They scored 13 goals in the first 20 minutes of these five games.

The coolest thing about this tournament was seeing some of the less experienced players really forcing their cases to earn more games into the future. Emma Rolston has had a great year. Got a bit of time with Sydney FC in the last W-League before signing in Germany with MSV Duisburg (a teammate of Meikayla Moore) where she scored her first Bundesliga goal a month or two back. Gets the opportunity here and, what do you know, goals did follow. That’s a very useful habit to have.

Katie Rood is in the same category, a player who should have had more international caps already, incredibly she wasn’t even in the squad for the Japan game, but the Bristol City striker (previously of Juventus, remember) was brilliant here. Four goals and plenty more assists. She was the best player on the park in the first game against Fiji and was rewarded with the start in the final, evidence that she’s earned a fan in her Ferns gaffer. The other one there would be Sarah Morton, who made her debut against Japan and featured in four of five games here. An energetic right back, she’s still at Auckland in the NWL but is making a strong case for a pro contract somewhere. She was shortlisted for NWL MVP.

It’s tempting to put Meikayla Moore in that category too but, let’s be honest, she’s well entrenched in the first XI already. The beneficiary of Abby Erceg’s retirement, Moore has picked up where Erceg left off. Having only played once off the bench at the 2016 Olympics, the game she was rested for against Cook Islands is the only game she hasn’t started since (15 out of 16 matches) – most of them alongside Rebekah Stott. If Erceg does return for the World Cup then Tom Sermanni has a huge dilemma. Stotty at right back? Might be the only compromise.

Paige Satchell is really freakin’ fast. Still a young player who is learning how to use that pace to the best advantage but wow is she quick. One of those natural gifts you really can’t teach.

What else have we got? It wasn’t Rosie White’s best showing but she is in her offseason at the moment and nevertheless she managed to score better than a goal a game without even hitting her peaks. There’s the sign of a great player for you. Really hoping for a huge season with Chicago next NWSL campaign now that she’s fully fit again.

Mate, we’ve got so many fullbacks. It’s funny because fullbacks and midfielders are the biggest problem with the All Whites but the Footy Ferns have no such dramas. Ali Riley is a known quantity of consistent excellence on the left and she even popped up at right back in one game here. Anna Green may have left the professional scene to return to Aotearoa but she’s not slowed down, she had some fantastic cameos (especially her performance against the Cooks). Then there were CJ Bott, Sarah Morton, Rebekah Stott and Katie Bowen who also had cracks at right back during the Nations Cup. Ria Percival has played a huge chunk of her caps there. Meikayla Moore is capable. Absolutely stacked for fullbacks (and the midfield stocks ain’t too shabby either).

The other thing that’s always amazing with the Ferns is how much extra-curricular talent there is. It felt like half the team was producing bloody top standard video content during the time (in particular Betsy Hassett, Rebekah Stott and Katie Bowen). Ali Riley cut a podcast with Rosie White while they were there (a superb listen, as with all the Girls With Balls pods), which also teased Rosie’s I Am You project. Hannah Wilkinson wasn’t in this squad but she’s working on a debut single. Heaps more that I shan’t bother listing. Katie Rood explained the global economic structure’s culpability in the modern environmental crisis on the plane back to England. It’s just so impressive, aye.

And now we wait for the FIFA Rankings in a few days and the World Cup draw that follows them. There’s a very good chance we end up in pot three of the seedings which would mean drawing a team ranked lower than us in our group – sounds like a potentially winnable game. The rankings, for the 13593rd time, are complete bollocks… but one win might be enough to progress with four of the six third place teams advancing to the R16. It could happen. This is a real chance to do something that’s never been done before.

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