Footy Ferns x Cup of Nations: Those Pesky Aussies

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Anytime the Football Ferns play the Matildas is a big deal, just as any time New Zealand and Australia meet in the sporting arena is a big deal. But for Tom Sermanni’s team this game had an even bigger context as the first game of a monumental 2019 which will culminate in the mid-year with the World Cup in France. It’s been 25 years since the Ferns last beat the Aussies. That’s a long time… yet the Ferns have never ever won a World Cup game and this year is their best chance yet.

The ping pong balls turned up Netherlands, Canada, and Cameroon. The squad is as strong as it’s ever been. There’s a smiling new coach with a great pedigree of success (relative for Aotearoa). Things are all lining up. But yeah, 2018 was a stinker for 90% of it and Sermanni doesn’t have a whole lot of time to get this team playing to its potential – something which they haven’t often done, in all honesty – so these Cup of Nations games, followed by friendlies against Norway (x2), USA, and England before the World Cup (plus whatever else turns up), are all part of a crucial process.

All of which is swinging back round to this game against the ‘tildas because a 2-0 defeat was probably about right, it might have been worse and there were one or two hints that something special might have happened instead, but that’s about a fair representation of the two teams and the difference between them. Which is fine. The Ferns are building towards something bigger and while this was Ante Milicic’s first game in charge of the Aussie side following their own coaching debacle you could sorta say that this was Tom Sermanni’s first proper game too. Like, Nations Cup, sweet as… but that was never going to be a pure depiction of how this team was gonna play under Sermanni. NZ footy teams have two forms: how they play against much weaker teams and how they play against much better teams.

So how did Tommy Tha Godfather set things up? With his best possible team. Erin Nayler, Ria Percival, Meikayla Moore, Rebekah Stott, Abby Erceg, Ali Riley, Katie Bowen, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo, Rosie White and Sarah Gregorius. Absolutely full strength. Obviously if Hannah Wilkinson or Amber Hearn were fit then it might be a different story but from the squad selected this was top shelf only.

Next guess was how they’d set up in formation and I’d assumed from the line-up that we were in for Percival in midfield, a 4-3-3 similar to how they shaped up at the Nations Cup. Nah mate, instead it was 5-3-2 with Percival and Riley as wingbacks and a back three of Moore/Stott/Erceg and, tell you what, it makes a lot of sense. How do you get your best team out there when half of them are defenders? Pick more defenders. Done. Although… like all formations this one had its negatives. Specifically that the two strikers, Grego and White, really have to work their arses off up front with clever and quick movements in order to capitalise on how isolated they are. And I can hardly remember the two of them completed more than a couple passes to each other.

In fact the whole timing was off on attack. The Ferns began with a selective high press, with Hassett and Longo pushing forwards to help out with that, and when it worked it was super effective. Turning the ball over in dangerous areas, forcing crap passes from some of those Aussie defenders. But then those Ferns attacks crumbled for one of two reasons: the offside flag and a general hesitation.

Two reasons which are often intertwined. You hesitate on the first pass and the striker’s already made the run, up goes the flag. Too late. There were a heap of offsides which should get better with more footy as a unit, although that hesitation was a constant issue. Sometimes you just have to gamble on the pass in behind the defence. Pull the trigger early and let Grego/White do their thing. Get at the defence before they’re set. What we got as the alternative were passes that were easily picked off, passes which drew offsides, and passes which were conservatively passed backwards instead. Sometimes that short pass backwards to consolidate possession is the right thing to do. But not every time. Especially for this team, who are going to be stuck on defence for a lot of these upcoming games and making the most of their rare forays into the opposition penalty area is a little bit essential.

Oh yeah and when the high press didn’t work, Aussie passed around it and players like Tameka Butt and Emily van Egmond were left with way too much space to drive at our defence. The Ferns are going to need to go hard on the bend-don’t-break idea in order to get it done. For a while they looked like they already had it down pat with Abby Erceg winning every header and charging up out of defence to win a few challenges… but the Matildas kept turning the heat up hotter and hotter. Despite the back three there were way too many occasions where Ria Percival was left alone on the right defending two attackers. Meikayla Moore got beaten a few times. Betsy Hassett gave up a free kick on the edge of the area which Elise Kellond-Knight hit the crossbar from and then Hassett somehow got away with a blatant handball in the box later on. Like, it wasn’t deliberate, sure, but you see those given all the time. Emily van Egmond missed a sitter. Then of course we had a few moments of mastery from Erin Nayler reminding everyone that she is numero un with the gloves.

But the goal still happened. Just before the break. A rare bit of miscommunication from Nayler and Erceg with Erceg heading a cross away (a cross from our right, of course) which Nayler was charging out for and could have punched clear, taking the keeper out of the game, and the ball fell for Emily Gielnik who struck a low curler which Ali Riley wasn’t able to close out and which Erceg seemed like she was in position to clear but it inexplicably snuck under her. Bit of a fluke getting minor mistakes from the three best players in the team all at once… but we also can’t ignore that the Ferns were under big pressure for about fifteen full minutes prior to that and that pressure adds up, leading to mistakes.

Curiously then we changed formation at the break with Percival going into the midfield with a back four in place. Not sure that it actually changed much in terms of the flow of the game but Percy did add a presence in the midfield that we hadn’t really had before that. Normally Katie Bowen is presence personified there but I guess that’s what happens when you haven’t played a proper game since last year. That’s a sneaky factor here - since there are basically two different club seasons (European vs USA/Scandinavian), a whole chunk of our players were well short on match fitness. One more thing to overcome. This was Abby Erceg’s first game since the NWSL championship game, while Rosie White and Katie Bowen didn’t get that far. CJ Bott’s Swedish season ended at a similar time. The kiwi NWL season ended in December for Sarah Gregorius and Annalie Longo. Even Erin Nayler and Meikayla Moore aren’t stacked for games lately with the way the French/German leagues operate (winter break, international windows, etc.). Australia have a heap of players in the NWSL but they basically all came back for the W-League, which has just concluded. Rebekah Stott was the only kiwi in that comp last season.

Hey and as for Emma Kete, she hasn’t played for the Ferns since 2012 and wasn’t even playing organised footy at any kind of proper level until she made her comeback recently. But when subs were required it was Paige Satchell who replaced a presumably exhausted Sarah Gregorius, CJ Bott who came on to play midfield in place of Rosie White, and Emma Kete who subbed in for Annalie Longo.

The starters might have been best-available, but the subs were very much in response to the game itself. The tactics of speed and counter attacking meant that Satchell (the fastest woman in the world) and Kete ended up as strikers in order to continue that trend (with the more technical Katie Rood and the more traditional striker Aimee Phillips both on the bench). And Bott who is ordinarily a fullback got to offer some physicality on the right side of midfield. Not necessarily the obvious picks, which is an insight into the new gaffer’s thinking.

The game chilled out after Australia made four subs at around the hour mark, including subbing off Sam Kerr who if I haven’t mentioned enough in this article, world’s number one striker and all that, it’s largely because of Rebekah Stott and Abby Erceg. Shout out to Rebekah Stott and Abby Erceg – Erceg who responded to her shocker for the first goal with a typically immense second half. But the second goal did eventually arrive as well. Same as the Ferns turned to a speedy, skilful forward in Paige Satchell, Ante Milicic had an even better version of the same player with Hayley Raso coming in and scoring a beauty to finish it off with quarter of an hour to go.

Eh, so it goes. Not often that you’ll see Ali Riley beaten like that. Like I said before, this may have had the impression of a monster game up against Australia in front of a decent looking crowd in Sydney but it’s only the start of the journey for the Ferns in 2019. Match fitness will come (the NWSL will be midseason when the World Cup rolls around, and end of season for the Euro players). Match tactics will evolve and grow. And a 2-0 defeat is an accurate representation of where this team is. It could have been more but for some quality defence, however we’re relying on that defence to do the same at the WC so fair enough. It could also have been less, had Sarah Gregorius been able to get that lobbed effort over Lydia Williams to bounce the right side of the post while it was still 1-0.

The important thing is that we’ve now set that baseline and from the next couple games we can begin to see the trends emerge that’ll define this team over the next six months. One thing that’s super promising was the performance of Erin Nayler. Several top saves in that first half, looking sharp as always. Erceg’s distribution was well off but she was her usual excellent self in defence, while Meikayla Moore improved heaps in the back four that second half following a subpar first half. Also got solid performances out of Ria Percival and Sarah Gregorius, though it was a quiet night for the likes of Katie Bowen, Rosie White, and Ali Riley.

Scoring goals is still looking like a big issue, yet I’m not sure they’re too far away from the formula that’ll work. Just gotta get the timing right up top and really get aggressive on those counter attacks. But the Matildas are led by the likes of Alanna Kennedy and Steph Catley so they were always going to be a massive handful. Keeper Lydia Williams is one of the world’s best too. Fact is, this Matildas team is looking at the World Cup and thinking: we can win this! Whereas we’re just hoping to get out of the group for once, maybe win a game or two. Not a bad opponent to test yourself against first up.

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