It’s been two months since the Ferns polished up their Cup of Nations work in Australia. It’s two more months before they kick off their 2019 World Cup campaign. Things are seriously ramping up right now and Tom Sermanni has been working against the clock from day one so there’s honestly just no time left for stutters or setbacks.
Good thing then that every subsequent tour under Sermanni’s guidance has seen the Ferns making significant strides forward. After losing 1-0 to Norway in an unofficial behind-closed-doors match a few days ago, a game which Sermanni used to get every single outfield player some minutes in the legs, the Fernies faced the Norwegians in a proper friendly and, how about it, they came out of it with a 1-0 win. A victory against a European, World Cup-qualified team and a clean sheet in the process. Absolute tops.
Tom Sermanni said after the closed door game that it had been the “last chance for what I would call opportunities. We have simply run out of time. We need to move on to what we need to do now selection-wise, tactics-wise, and performance-wise to win games. We are not at we are still looking at players mode. Today’s game was probably the last game in being able to do that. We simply don’t have time.”
In other words, with only a few more games until the World Cup begins, now was the time to slip it into top gear. Full strength starting teams and combinations. We sort of know what that XI will look like anyway, which players are likely to be starting and where, but Tommy often seems to have a surprise or two in his bag and he threw down a big one as the Ferns shaped up with a back three out of seemingly nowhere. Meikayla Moore, Abby Erceg, and Anna Green going from right to left. CJ Bott as right wingback and Ali Riley on the left. With Erin Nayler in goal. That left Ria Percival, Annalie Longo, and Katie Bowen in the midfield with Betsy Hassett playing off Rosie White up front.
Dunno if that’ll be the exact team that starts game one of the World Cup but it’ll be bloody close. Probably gonna see Rebekah Stott in there for Anna Green at a guess, that sub was made at half-time of this one. Green’s left foot does give her a different element as LCB though. Either way, this close to the tournament and with Sermanni talking about going hundies from here on out it’s safe to say that a drastic change in formation was not on the list of expectations. However it ain’t a lie to say it looked like they’d been cramming in the hours during the previous week’s training camp because it sure didn’t look like the first time they’d played this way.
The Ferns have played with back threes before. At the Cyprus Cup in 2017 they gave it a crack under Tony Readings and of course A****** H**** set them up that way and then some in that game against Japan last June. The difference here was that it actually kinda worked. The Ferns were solid and organised at the back, with Abby Erceg a major factor in the middle (she only played one of those aforementioned games). The midfield was busy and the girls really looked to play in possession, rather than using the extra defender and midfielder to sit in with numbers behind the ball. Lots of one touch passes in those early stages.
Along with a fair bit of high pressing too from the tireless White and Hassett. Those front roles were the biggest issue at the Cup of Nations as the Ferns struggled to get the timing right with the quick-release passes in behind the defence. That was still a problem against Norway and the offside flag was a common theme. But it’s clearly getting better. Rosie White’s fourth minute goal had a shade of fortune about it with the under-hit header from Maria Thorisdottir (a teammate of Ali Riley’s at Chelsea), but it was White’s tenacious hassling that led to the mistake. Pretty much the perfect Rosie White goal, in other words. And the move itself was a pure example of that rapid-release Ferns attack strategy.
The first ten minutes were a very promising indication of what the Ferns can offer at the World Cup. They’re going to play with energy at a high tempo. Therefore they’re going to hit teams early in halves (and by contrast give us some heart attacks late in halves as they tire). They’re also, if things click, going to be a pretty entertaining team to watch, which tries to build into possession but also won’t hesitate to send that ball through if the pass is on.
But things broke a little after ten minutes as Ria Percival came off with injury, Katie Duncan taking her place. It was a break in the rhythm that they didn’t really need as Percy’s tenacity in the midfield has become one of the team’s major strengths. Duncan is an excellent replacement but she’s also been out of the game at this top level for a couple years so you can’t expect the same mobility. But as an experienced defensive midfielder who won’t get caught out, won’t make too many mistakes, who’ll step up when there’s an injury/suspension… yeah, this is exactly why she needs to be in that World Cup squad.
Abby Erceg made herself known from the very beginning with a number of key little interventions, from sliding blocks to leaping headers, making it impossibly obvious just what a difference she makes to the Ferns’ chances of advancing to the knockouts at the WC. Without her we had a bunch of very solid players. With her we have a supreme defensive unit that’ll be the backbone of our World Cup hopes. Erin Nayler’s top notch keeping included.
Which ain’t to say that they were perfect, far from it. Karina Saevik really should have equalised in the 25th minute when a long ball made it over Meikayla Moore’s head only for Saevik to have a slightly strong touch, taking the ball beyond optimum reach, which she then lifted over the crossbar. Massive let off for the Ferns. For the last twenty of that half it was Norway that produced the better footy with the kiwis not able to maintain the same tempo as they started with. Get used to that, because it’s only natural when you play this way. But the trick is to make the dominant passages count and withstand the tricky ones. Guess what? 1-0 up at the break, baby. That’s the way to do it.
Stott came on at HT and if this back three can include three persistent and enthusiastic midfielders like Percival/Bowen/Longo and also include Rebekah Stott’s devastating runs forward out of defence… then Tom Sermanni might genuinely be onto something here. An extra central mid means more numbers to help establish possession, while also giving the wingbacks more freedom to push forward. The aggressive balls in behind the defence on the counter also help mitigate the lack of numbers up front too (it’s often gonna be just the top two), although that’s a tactic we already saw heaps of at the Cup of Nations and that’ll be a factor regardless of how we shape up.
There were a few hints that playing the ball out from the back might catch us out. A few moments when the ball just needed to be cleared into the stands or maybe it didn’t but the support didn’t arrive in time. And while it’s natural that the game will ebb and flow, we really can’t afford to midfield to get stuck too deep or else there’s no way out of our own half. All things to keep working on.
The second half saw precious few chances for either team, to be fair. Norway had the better of it and there was a cracker of an opportunity late on for Norway which was smacked past the post. Think it was Isabell Herlovsen who hit it. Not a game of many chances but enough that this could have been a 2-1 defeat.
And yet it wasn’t. The Ferns hung on for the clean sheet and a massive victory in the context of their World Cup preparation. Victories outside of Oceania can be rare for NZ teams. The Ferns had two of them in 12 since the last Olympics, but with wins against Argentina and Norway they’ve matched that win total in their previous three. Any wins, especially against European teams, are a very big deal. But there’s also that World Cup preparation to worry about and when you combine how efficient they looked in a new defensive system, well, there’s a lot to be excited about right now.
A few other things. Livvy Chance completed her comeback from that ACL injury when she was introduced off the bench in stoppage time. Didn’t touch the ball but that’s a huge milestone all the same. She’s another one of those scrappy midfielders with a touch of skill that’ll fit so well in this formation. Which is a sign of the depth we’ve got too. Having Sarah Gregorius come on for the last half hour, you really don’t lose a lot up front and that means a refresher in that pace and press game against oppo defences. They’d better be ready for the onslaught is all I’m saying.
There’s also the element of Hannah Wilkinson to be considered as she continues to recover at a rate which keeps her in contention for the squad. The way the team’s trying to play at the moment, I really don’t see how Wilkie fits in with that, to be honest. There’s no target striker, hold-up stuff going on. It’s all movement and speed. But that might be for the best because even if Wilkinson is ready in time for the WC, it’s another thing to expect 70+ minutes from her. But for those last twenty, as an impact striker off the bench… yeah, that’ll do nicely. If you can have game-changing talent on the bench at a tournament like this then you’ll do okay.
The last thing is one which goes beyond the World Cup. Tom Sermanni’s contracted until the end of that tournament. Possibly just three more months. I realise that NZ Footy ain’t in the slickest form these days and there’s plenty on the to-do list… but with the way the Ferns have consistently improved and developed each camp under Tommy Sermanni, and the way he’s restored the good feeling around the camp without sacrificing performance levels or expectations, I mean, what are we waiting for? Give the man his contract extension already. Slap it down on the table in front of him and see what he says.
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