Footy Ferns x Cup of Nations: A Win! Against Argentina!

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You know what the best part about that game was? CJ Bott’s goal, obviously… but a close second and much more important in the long run is that the Fernies played a team that they were capable of beating and they beat them, even without playing anywhere near peak fluency. Not only did they score a couple goals against a fellow 2019 World Cup qualifier but they also kept their opponents out at the same time – the Ferns’ sixth clean-sheet victory in their last seven fixtures but the OFC Nations Cup doesn’t really count so make that just their second since the 2016 Olympics against non-OFC opposition (5-0 vs Thailand in Nov 2017).

This was exactly what we needed to see. The fluency of play is something that’ll take longer to develop, and we’re already up against a tight schedule with Tom Sermanni taking over the team less than a year out from the World Cup (and not exactly inheriting it in the ideal circumstance), but there’s a deeper grittiness that successful teams have which allows them to win when things aren’t all in their favour. The Ferns played a frustrating first 45 minutes. They then made a couple crucial adjustments and were able to get a goal as a direct result. A goal always opens any game up and when the second flew in, mate, that gave Aotearoa control of the match and they saw it home from there.

Tom Sermanni made five changes from the team that lost to Australia in a necessary bit of rotation. At the World Cup we’ll have to play three games on relatively similar timelines but at the World Cup the squad will be in peak fitness, not this current mix and match of preseason and midseason. So yeah, gotta rotate the troops. And very notably it was the back four of the second half vs Oz that was retained, not the back five of the first half. Suggests that was more a plan specific to targeting the Matildas (and perhaps similar standard teams they may meet along the way). More of a 4-3-3 though, as opposed to having that extra player in the midfield.

What that meant was Ria Percival sliding into midfield alongside Betsy Hassett and the unretired Katie Duncan. Sarah Morton and Anna Green started at the fullback positions with Rebekah Stott and Abby Erceg at CB. Erin Nayler in goal. Up front were Rosie White and Katie Rood with Paige Satchell as the central striker.

Very different attacking structure here. The wingers played quite deep, almost too deep, while Satchell hovered around the last defender looking for the ball in behind. Deep wingers meant deeper fullbacks and that might have been a plan to target the likes of Maria Bonsegundo and Mariana Larroquette but it didn’t do a whole lot for the Ferns going forwards. Because the structure was different but the plan was the same – quick transitions with early balls forward… and just like last time it was a bit of a mess.

The offside flag was again a regular feature and Satchell was never really able to unleash her pace. When she’s running over open pastures there’s nobody can catch here but caught in the grind of central forward play, it didn’t work. The midfield didn’t help either with the constant preference to hit it long rather than trying to build anything up. Rood was too deep to affect the game and there was no real width on offer other than the odd occasion when Anna Green was able to find her way forwards from left back. More patience and composure in possession would have gone a lot further than the long balls they kept pumping to nowhere in particular, and with such a cavernous gap between the midfield and attack it might have been a better option to chuck Rosie White in the middle as an inverted striker so the two wingers could play off her. Last game was pure pace and energy up front as the focus and it was a little hard to see how a hold-up expert like Hannah Wilkinson or a pure striker like Amber Hearn would fit in… but against Argentina we were begging for someone like that to play the focal point.

(Sidenote: sweet jeezus, who thought it was a good idea to have Steve McIvor hosting football coverage? Not gonna be a dick and dwell on it but between the geographic stereotypes (hard-working Koreans and cheating, diving South Americans), the strangely confident tactical assertions, the dilettante-ish line of questioning, the stupid player nicknames, the apparent novelty of football halves being forty-five minutes plus injury time, and the even more apparent lack of any socks on his feet… I dunno, it was like nails on a chalkboard. On the positive, the more I see of Hannah Wilkinson as a pundit the more I enjoy it. Great insight. Great chat. Great presence.)

Rightio, so that about takes us to half-time, where the Ferns had barely been tested at the back thanks largely to an outstanding performance from Rebekah Stott. If we’re going with a back four then there’s pressure on the CBs for positions. Erceg has to be there, so Stott is up against Meikayla Moore for the other gig and so far this tournament she’s thoroughly out in front. And you know me, one of Meikayla Moore’s biggest fans over here so I don’t say that lightly. Of course, Stotty is also a more than accomplished right back which could solve that dilemma… but more on fullbacks later. The Ferns only had a few clear chances in the opening half thanks to their inefficiency with the ball but they had the better chances, enough to think this was a game they ought to win if they’re going to do anything special at the World Cup.

A couple things happened in the half-time chats. One is that Rood and White swapped sides, White to the right and Rood to the left. Not sure exactly why that was the plan but it worked perfectly. With the more physical White on that side, she was able to suck in defenders and make more space for Satchell and within five minutes of the switch the entire front three had combined for a lovely goal. White running out to flick on a long throw, which she missed but the effort dragged a centreback out of the line which meant Satchell was one on one with Aldana Cometti. A quick shimmy and she glided past her, then stabbed a shot towards goal with the outside of her right boot. That shot was saved but Roodie showed some slick footwork to react swiftly enough to turn it into the empty net. GET IN!

The other things that happened at HT were a pair of subs, one each. Meikayla Moore replaced Abby Erceg, presumably for the sake of minutes management (wouldn’t be shocked to see Moore and Erceg start vs South Korea), while the Argies did the same by swapping goalies at the break. Given that veteran Vanina Correa had already made a couple useful saves (the best one in stopping a rocket from Ria Percival) and also given that her replacement Laurina Oliveros was a fair nudge shorter and without the same vocal leadership… hmm, I’d venture to say that one backfired.

Argentina got a tad more desperate after the goal but that mostly just meant they were even more willing to shoot on sight. Almost all of their chances were long-range efforts, the likes of which Erin Nayler probably eats for breakfast sprinkled on her cornflakes. New Zealand’s biggest dramas were coming as a result of either poor communication at the back or sloppy passing, though that improved measurably when we made four subs in about five minutes after the hour, with CJ Bott, Aimee Phillips, Daisy Cleverley, and Ali Riley coming on in place of Sarah Morton, Katie Rood, Katie Duncan, and Anna Green.

The first game we had Percival and Riley as the wide defenders, with Stott playing the second half at RB. Second we had Morton and Green. Percy and Riley are the two clear standouts but Percy might be more useful in midfield which leaves right back up for grabs and it was always odd that Morton, a local standout, got the nod ahead of Bott who is playing professionally in Europe. But Bott has been used off the bench in both games and you’d figure is a good bet to start the next one (Sermanni seems like a bloke who sorts out his lineups well in advance), particularly after doing this…

Nah, mate, don’t shoot from there. Too far out, you’re dreaming. Come on. Don’t… [jaw drops]

Haven’t seen many better than that. I believe Ria Percival acted for us all when she literally bowed to CJ at the end of the game. Some may be critical and say it went down the middle of the goal and that’s true, but only because of the swerve and dip that she got on it, completely fooling the keeper. My only thing is I wonder if Correa might have gotten a hand to it if she were still on the park. Oh well, not our problem. But as incredible as the strike was, don’t sleep on the first touch of perfection which made it possible.

There are a number of candidates for the starting right back spot at the World Cup. Percival is one. Katie Bowen another, although I’d prefer they both start in midfield along with either Longo or Hassett. Maybe both if Longo plays in the front three. Ali Riley started a game there at the Nations Cup. Rebekah Stott and Meikayla Moore can both play there. Sarah Morton, obviously. But while Morton had a strong Nations Cup, playing more minutes there than CJ Bott did, she doesn’t affect the game in the same way as Bott, who has twice come in as a sub this tourney and just unleashed fury with some scrappiness and energy. I’d be leaning towards Bott as the starting RB in France.

Steph Skilton also came off the bench and played about ten minutes in the midfield, though the game didn’t really do too much after the second goal. Nayler made a couple more solid saves from long-range shots and the Ferns kept things settled for the win.

Honestly, I think what changed things most was the two fullback substitutions. We’d already scored the first by then but were at risk of conceding an equaliser until we steadied things with the presence of the captain and the eventual second scorer. High energy players who are comfortable in their roles and with the alterations up front they were free to push forwards and offer some shape in the attacking third as well as steadying things at the back.

Best on the park was Rebekah Stott, though White and Nayler did their jobs as best they could and, while she faded as the game went on (subbed off after 60 mins), Katie Duncan didn’t look out of place despite not playing for the Ferns since the last Olympics. She was a starter there but I’d say that possibility is a bit beyond her at this point – Bowen and Percival are too good in that defensive mid position. Might just have played her way into the squad however.

South Korea are next and they’ll be closer to Aussie in their style and ability than Argentina, a game which we’ll do well to get anything out of. But that’s the challenge. No worries. Katie Bowen, Sarah Gregorius, and Annalie Longo were rested here so they should go straight back in to start, while Riley and Erceg each got spells. Rebekah Stott and Ria Percival have played 180 minutes and might be due a break. Curious to see if Anna Leat is rotated in at goalie too. Also Betsy Hassett and Rosie White have played a fair bit so far.

That’s all deep dive stuff though, mostly I’m just pumped about the big picture idea that the Ferns won the game. They weren’t great, but they made a few adjustments and they won. End of the day it’s the result which counts most and that’s been their main fault at major tournaments in the past. Aotearoa beat Argentina at a game of football. Sweet as.

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