Footy Ferns x Cup of Nations: Not Quite vs South Korea

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For seventy minutes that was a pretty excellent performance. The Ferns had a higher ranked opponent locked down at 0-0 and were arguably looking the more likely to score at that point. Rebekah Stott was having a blinder at the back. Betsy Hassett and Annalie Longo pulling strings in the midfield. Just a matter of finding a way through. Then on came Chelsea star Ji So-yun (teammates with Ali Riley, of course) and she puts Stotty on skates to make room for a belter strike for the opening goal and the Fernies just didn’t respond. Went on to lose 2-0, Moon Mi-ra with the second goal in the 87th min. A win and two defeats from the Cup of Nations.

The sweet thing about this tournament is that it kinda mirrors a World Cup group stage. Three quick games in succession and also the relative quality of those games. Australia as the first seed. South Korea as the second seed. New Zealand as the third seed. Argentina as the fourth seed. In real life South Korea were the highest ranked team in the pot of third seeds so it’s not quite a group that could have literally been drawn for the actual tournament… but close enough.

Say for a second then that this was an actual World Cup group… that’d mean the Ferns finished third with three points. A goal difference of -2. One major objective achieved with the victory, here’s the table as it finished…

Obviously a win over South Korea, which was a possibility for a little while there, and they’d have been second and through to the knockouts, second major objective achieved. But that’d be too easy. The World Cup is still a 24-team format which means something similar to the men’s European Championships a while back when Portugal came third in their group without winning a game, qualified anyway as one of the best third-placed finishers, and went on to win the whole damn thing. The four third-placed finishers with the best record (points > goal difference > goals scored > fair play record > drawing of lots) go through to the round of 16 at this World Cup and one win is likely to do the trick as long that GD isn’t completely out of whack.

For context, 3 points and -2 GD would have had the Ferns as the fifth best 3P at the last tournament (the first to expand to 24 teams). Not enough to qualify but only barely missing out. Goes to show that the margins are extremely slim and with the Ferns playing Cameroon last in Group E, they might not just have to win, they might have to win by multiple goals which could get sneaky. But the first four groups will have already concluded by then so we’ll know exactly what we need to do, give or take whatever funk goes on in the final group which kicks off straight after Aotearoa’s game.

Netherlands and Canada are the other two teams we play and coincidentally both were in our group in 2015 when we lost 1-0 to the Dutch and drew 0-0 with Canada. Those exact results again and we’re well placed supposing we can beat Cameroon. (Not taking them for granted here or anything, it’s just that we basically have to beat them to have any chance so it’s a necessary assumption – otherwise we’re going home early unless we do something special in those first two games).

For the final game of three at this Cup of Nations (great concept, great tournament btw) there were always going to be changes. Predictable changes like Sarah Gregorius and Katie Bowen coming back into the line-up and less predictable ones like Abby Erceg not even kitting up, presumably an injury involved there. It was an otherwise top strength back four with Ria Percival on the right and Ali Riley on the left, Rebekah Stott and Meikayla Moore in the middle. A central midfield of Katie Bowen in the defensive role and Betsy Hasset and Annalie Longo in front, while Rosie White and Emma Kete flanked Sarah Gregorius up top. Erin Nayler in goal.

Big deal for Kete, who was making her 50th cap. Incredible comeback even just to get this far… but based on this game there’s still work to be done. Kete was a bit too troubled in the early stages, as if the ball wasn’t quite doing what she wanted it to do. A few defensive mishaps and she was swapped into the central striker role with Grego coming wider to cover those responsibilities. Honestly, she just needs more football. Rosie White’s made the curious call of training in Aotearoa instead of returning to the NWSL with Chicago Red Stars and fair enough for her, but somebody like Kete who hasn’t really played properly for a couple years really needs to find a decent club and keep on working back to where she used to be. The raw talent is remains, no doubt. But she only lasted 45 minutes against South Korea and wasn’t the sharpest. But, jeez, with her pace and creative nature she’d be massively useful if she gets there.

There was further disruption up top when Sarah Gregorius pulled a hammy trying to whip in a cross after about half an hour. She pulled up immediately and although she tried to carry on, tough bugger that she is, Aimee Phillips was subbed on in the 34th min. Wasn’t gonna work on one leg against a team like this. Considering the race against time to be fit for attacking players like Hannah Wilkinson, Amber Hearn, and Olivia Chance, this was a bit of an open audition for both Kete and Phillips. Katie Rood had hers last game. All three of them showed flashes but remember we’ve got a while to go yet before that WC squad is named and a few more international games in the meantime too.

One thing that surprised me was CJ Bott being left on the bench again. She did get another solid cameo but she was a substitute in all three games. Having started four of the five games prior to Sermanni, she’s only started two of eight under the Scotsman but does seem to have a bit of a crucial role as an energy player off the bench. Better to have a late role than no role, I guess. Also Erin Nayler in goal for the third straight game, no need to rotate there. Nayler, Percival, Stott, Hassett, and White were the five players to start each game at the Cup of Nations, while Bott, Moore, Riley, and Satchell all played some role in each game including subs apps.

That added up to a slightly disjointed attacking display in the first half, for understandable reasons. The Ferns didn’t massively threaten the South Korea goal, however they did show up with some proper structure, the best shape we’ve seen from them all tourney. They pressed selectively but effectively from the midfield, with Betsy Hassett leading the way there, while restricting the space that the South Koreans had to play in. It took a while before they started to actually win tackles from the situations they created but once they did it was all looking solid. It helped that South Korea were always keen to try and pass the ball out of pressure, giving the Ferns time to commit players forwards and maintain that pressure. Worked out quite well, that. Chur to the Koreans.

Of course there were plenty of nervy moments coming back the other way, South Korea are too good of a team to get dominated and they had bucketloads of possession but the Ferns were defending really well. Limiting the mistakes after some tricky bits at the start and really looking… almost comfortable to be honest. Rebekah Stott hasn’t played too many better games, she wasn’t only running the show at the back but she was storming forwards with the ball as well and in the second half that was the source of some of our best stuff. And shout out to Meikayla Moore who hadn’t been at her best in the first two games but was close to flawless here.

Kete was replaced by Paige Satchell at half-time and that was about when the attacking phases began to click. Again, offsides were an issue. It looks like they always will be. But Satchell has never looked better in a white jersey than in the first half-hour of the second half here. She was aggressive and confident, making clever runs and being a general nuisance. Still a very young player with a long way to go but I’ve been a bit sceptical about her actual impact on games in the past beneath that natural pace of hers and this was the first time she really transcended that, which is bloody awesome.

That’s the pleasing thing about this tournament: the team has improved with every game. You’d expect that from Australia to Argentina but not so much from Argentina to South Korea. Each game they looked a little more comfortable on the ball. Here they finally showed some genuine patience and balance in the attacking third and as the second half went on we saw Annalie Longo and Betsy Hassett take more and more control while Rosie White was bringing the hustle. Always wanna see the hustle from Rosie White – she didn’t lead the NWSL in yellow cards two years ago by taking prisoners.

But then Ji So-yun came off the bench and fifteen minutes later she scored a quality goal. In some ways that’s what we’re missing most, just a genuinely world class attacking talent to turn pressure into goals. It’s the hardest thing to find and there’s no easy solution. Gotta do our best is all and the sooner we settle on our top choice forward line the easier it’ll be. Right now we’re working on ideas and strategies and auditioning players up front so we’re obviously not gonna be at max capacity. The plan has to be that at the World Cup, in those first twenty mins or so of the second half in a game like this, we’ll be able to snatch a goal and really throw the cat in amongst the pigeons.

More concerning in the immediate focus is that the Ferns did not respond at all well to conceding that goal. Like, they basically crumbled. The steam went out of their attacking moves and was replaced by unfiltered frustration and desperation. It was only a matter of time until Korea scored again. Erin Nayler made a decent save on the initial effort but nobody followed up to stop Moon Mi-ra from scoring on the rebound. Nayler herself didn’t get up quick enough and CJ Bott was closest and didn’t keep up with the runner.

In a way it started to slip when Katie Duncan replaced Katie Bowen. Not sure that was a sub that needed making, with Bowen doing nicely at the base of the midfield. Duncan’s great but she’s making an international comeback here and that’s probably why she got the minutes, there’s a bigger picture after all, but I do feel like that disrupted the flow at a time when the Ferns were playing their best footy of the tournament.

So that last twenty was a bit of a bummer. Not the best way to end the tournament and especially not when they were close to bagging a decent result there for a while – even a 0-0 draw would have been a positive outcome. And maybe by the time the World Cup rolls around we’ll be at the level where we can close out a game like that.

In the meantime at least we’ve seen enough to know that the damage done in 2018 was only temporary, and that this team should continue to improve under Tom Sermanni’s tutelage. And unlike their male counterparts there are plenty of games on the calendar to keep building through, with a couple games against Norway in Spain coming up in early April. This is only the beginning of the journey. Do not adjust that frequency.

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