The funky squad announcement video is becoming a bit of a thing in the footy world and apparently New Zealand Football’s internet connection isn’t just for updating Wikipedia pages because here we are, take a peek at this thing…
Really cool little concept there, gets a little repetitive with some of the guests after a while but the personalised touches to each name are fantastic. Hold your horses though because we can’t get distracted by the heart-warming nature of the announcement when the squad itself… mate, there’s some very interesting stuff going on there. A couple surprises for sure.
The big headline has been Hannah Wilkinson’s selection having overcome an ACL injury (not the first in her career) within six months to recover in time to be picked. It’s a genuinely incredible comeback story. In fact if she didn’t have the experience of her first ACL tear then maybe it wouldn’t have been possible so quickly, understanding the process of recovery and knowing what works for her and all that. Don’t overlook Olivia Chance either, who busted an ACL a little earlier than Wilko did and has just made her return for Everton within the last two weeks, having also made a brief cameo off the bench for the Ferns against Norway before that.
However the timeline didn’t work for Amber Hearn, our all-time top scorer. She opted against surgery after picking up the same injury at roughly the same time as Wilkinson. The pair both started for the Ferns against Japan last June, the last time either played for NZ, and they started all three games at both the previous Olympics and World Cup together. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Amber Hearn for the Ferns.
There’s definitely a defensive feel to this squad, with a fair few fringe forwards left out of the picture. More than that it’s an extremely experienced squad. The only players with fewer than ten caps are two reserve keepers and a couple defensive alternatives. Both Katie Duncan and Emma Kete have been picked after making international comebacks recently. 14 of the 23 players have at least 50 caps and there are six centurions with a 99-capper in there too. So let’s take a look then.
Victoria Esson – Avaldsnes, Norway (3/0)
Erin Nayler – Girondins Bordeaux, France (61/0)
Nadia Olla – Western Springs, NZ (1/0)
Big storyline here is that there’s no Anna Leat. Nothing dramatic though, Leat withdrew herself from contention as she takes a step back from a busy couple years of international age-grade footy and focusses on her studies for a spell ahead of heading over to the States for uni. Makes sense. It’s easy to forget that she’s only seventeen years old. She’ll be a young keeper even at the next World Cup and was only going to be a backup to Erin Nayler at this one. Still, it’s a risk to turn down an opportunity like this because you never know what might happen in the future so huge respect to Anna Leat for the honest priorities.
And with Leat out of the question, there was no longer a debate as to whether Nadia Olla or Vic Esson would be the third-stringer. Get the feeling that Esson, now playing professionally in Norway (although she’s backup keeper at Avaldsnes at the moment), would have the jump if Nayler gets injured but yeah, Erin Nayler is going to play all 270 minutes plus whatever else we get in France if all goes to plan.
CJ Bott – Vittsjo GIK, Sweden (16/1)
Abby Erceg – North Carolina Courage, USA (135/6)
Anna Green – Miramar Rangers, NZ (72/7)
Meikayla Moore – MSV Duisburg, Germany (35/3)
Sarah Morton – Western Springs, NZ (6/1)
Ali Riley – Chelsea, England (123/1)
Stephanie Skilton – Papakura City, NZ (9/0)
Rebekah Stott – Avaldsnes, Norway (71/4)
The last game they played, Tom Sermanni sent his Ferns out with a back three for the first time since Andreas Heraf was in charge. A different kind of mentality behind it, granted, but the success of that formation against Norway, winning the game 1-0 and keeping a clean sheet, as well as the fact that it was used at all this close to the World Cup suggests that we’re about to see that in France. Which is cool, we’ve got a lot of great defensive players and if we’re going to get our best players out there all at once then this is how that happens. Abby Erceg, Meikayla Moore, and Rebekah Stott most likely. Three excellent players, one of them utterly world class.
Then you look at the wingbacks and it changes the picture a little. The extra centre-back means sacrificing a player further forward so you need those wide defenders to be a factor in attack. CJ Bott and Ali Riley started the last one, both are capable of bringing that. Captain Riley especially. Bott’s had a great start to her season in Sweden, scoring a goal the other day, while Riley hasn’t played as much as she’d have hoped for Chelsea this season but at least she’ll be fresh. Ria Percival and Katie Bowen are listed here as midfielders because that’s where they’ll probably play but both are predominantly right backs for club so they’re options there as well.
Sarah Morton is also a backup RB, who could play on the left if necessary. Anna Green is a backup CB or left back. Steph Skilton can play CB or as a striker late in games when we’re chasing a goal. She’s even played midfield under Sermanni but that was in the Nations Cup so don’t read too much into it. Skilton, to be honest, is one of the ones who is a little lucky to be there, having only appeared in one of the last four games under Sermanni and that was as the sixth and final sub against Argentina. Her versatility, as well as being a more physically imposing player than most in the squad, probably tipped the scales.
You could maybe say Morton’s a little lucky too given how many right back options we have but she’s one of fifteen players who has been in every squad under Sermanni. Anna Green would be the first alternative at centre-back if there’s an injury to the top three. Katie Duncan might even get a crack there if things get drastic. Honestly though the defence has been pretty stable under Tommy and the only other player who was really in the picture there was Liz Anton who hasn’t been in a squad since the Nations Cup.
Katie Bowen – Utah Royals, USA (59/3)
Olivia Chance – Everton, England (11/0)
Daisy Cleverley – Uni of California, USA (8/2)
Katie Duncan – Onehunga Sports, NZ (122/1)
Betsy Hassett – KR Rejkjavik, Iceland (111/13)
Annalie Longo – Unattached (113/15)
Ria Percival – West Ham United, England (139/14)
Ria Percival is about to start an FA Cup final and over the last six months she has been the best defensive midfielder out of New Zealand. A close second is Katie Bowen, although the funny (and inconvenient) thing there is that neither plays CM regularly for their club. We’re probably looking at a midfield three here, so those two would be complemented by a more attacking option and you can lock in either Betsy Hassett or Annalie Longo for that role. Whoever misses out might start up front instead, as Hassett did alongside Rosie White against Norway – although Hassett is also capable of playing in place of Bowen if that’s gonna offer some better balance to the side.
Which leaves three backup midfielders and maybe that’s one too many. Like, Katie Duncan has earned her way in here with a few strong cameos over the last few months – although she’ll have to ramp up the fitness to be more than an option off the bench considering how long she was out of footy at this level for. She was retired for like a year and a half. But for sure she’s deserving of a place in the squad.
The jury’s out over whether we need both Olivia Chance and Daisy Cleverley though. Two energetic players with good technique, Chance offering more of an attacking instinct. Just not sure there’s a lot of variety there… but credit to Chance for working all the way back in – she was poised as one of our most improved players before she was injured, on the brink of establishing herself as a first XI player after four straight starts in mid-2018. Cleverley too, who has been included in the last three squads and seems to be positioning herself as a useful option off the bench, giving the team a jolt late in games.
Cleverley’s return to the squad has coincided with Malia Steinmetz falling out of favour. Having previously been included in six straight squads she hasn’t featured since going off early with heat stroke in the second game of the Nations Cup last November. Bit rough, but the writing was on the wall. Similarly Grace Jale hasn’t been involved since the OFC NC either so no surprise there.
Sarah Gregorius – Miramar Rangers, NZ (91/33)
Emma Kete – Unattached (50/3)
Paige Satchell – Three Kings United, NZ (11/1)
Rosie White – Unattached (99/24)
Hannah Wilkinson – Unattached (87/25)
So relatively as expected up until this point but it’s with the forwards where Tom Sermanni’s been most ruthless. Rosie White was a lock from day one. She scored the winner against Norway and along with Nayler, Percival, and Hassett she’s one of the four players who have started each of the last four games for the Ferns. She’s joined by Sarah Gregorius whose tireless running up front has been a great fit for the way that Sermanni wants his team to play. We’re not gonna dominate the ball so we need to be able to strike on the counter attack and we need to be able to press high and win the ball in tricky places. That requires movement up front. White and Grego, as well as Hassett and Longo, suit that role excellently.
Hannah Wilkinson is one of our 23 best players and had to be picked so long as she was fit enough to go. But how fit is fit enough? That style of play described above doesn’t really describe a powerhouse central forward like Wilkinson and even if it did, ninety minutes of that for three games in a row would be excessive. But in the very least you want a player like that so you can chuck them on for the last fifteen minutes when you need a goal. On that same note, Paige Satchell is set to go pro with SC Sand in Germany after the World Cup and her intense speed could be another difference maker – it’s sweet to think the Ferns might actually have a bench which could alter games.
Which leaves us with Emma Kete, another one who has made a courageous comeback after a long stretch out of the game at the top level. It’s a bit of a concern how many players are listed as ‘unattached’ in this squad, although for Annalie Longo at least that’s a bit misleading. Rosie White’s been playing men’s footy in Wellington too. Not sure about Kete but one thing you don’t have to worry about is her fitness. Still, five forwards in the squad and none currently with a pro deal (Wilko’s ran out while she was injured, White opted out of hers to prep for this tournament). No wonder that the attacking balance is the biggest concern here.
Kete did not look sharp in the game she started against South Korea. Not even close to sharp. She also wasn’t one of the 16 players who took the field against Norway although she was in the squad. Sermanni has seen a lot more in training than we get to see in games, to be fair, but it was a little surprising to see Kete picked ahead of somebody like Katie Rood who was so good in the Nations Cup and has been plugging away professionally in Europe for the last two years. She started and scored in the win over Argentina. For sure the unluckiest person not to make it.
Aimee Phillips also got dropped for the World Cup after auditioning in the last couple squads. She likely would have lost that spot anyway with Wilkinson coming back in. Phillips hadn’t had a major influence on the field in those games, so not as much of a shock as Roodie missing out, but when you also add in Emma Rolston not being involved since the Nations Cup (another one who scored some goals there and looked impressive) you get the feeling that it was Kete’s experience that got her the nod – only six players here haven’t been to a World Cup before and two of them are reserve keepers (the others are Chance, Satchell, Morton, and Skilton).
So there you go. Are we going in a striker short? Do we have the players to fit the system? Has Sermanni got the right balance with this squad? Is there too much of a priority for experience over youth? Have we got enough variety on the bench? Dunno. Those are the questions that Tom Sermanni gets paid to answer. Now that we know who’ll be there, the focus shifts towards taking care of business at the World Cup itself and we’ve never had a better chance to win a game or make the next round.
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