The Matildas have lost their spark under interim coach Ante Milicic. Will they recover before long-term damage is done? (AAP: Daniel Pockett)
Interim Matildas coach Ante Milicic has copped a furore of frustration from the Australian public following the Matildas’ loss in the first round of the Women’s World Cup.
It is telling that even the most casual of armchair critics can identify that the change in strategy is what found the team fumbling, as opposed to any individual weak links.
It’s a tough situation to be in — to be thrust into such a crucial role right before an event as significant as the World Cup, but Milicic has not done himself any favours by pulling up the floors.
Italy celebrates beating Australia during the opening round of the Women’s World Cup (AP: Francisco Seco)
An Italian boot to the bum
First it was the 5-3 to USA wake-up call. Then the 3-0 to the Netherlands wake-up call. Now that the Italians have sounded the third alarm for the Matildas with a 2-1 victory, will Milicic finally recognise that his vision is somewhat flawed?
It has been a demoralising wait for a response to show through the Matildas’ gameplay. Time after time, the same strategies are laid bare on the pitch and thwarted.
A delay by the referee in blowing the offside whistle (a change introduced with VAR technology) meant energy was wasted chasing the Italian strikers on the off-chance the offside was not called, and the Australian defenders’ attempts to hold the ball safely within the back line to slow down the play were obstructed by the Italians’ quick intercepts.
Instead, the Australians were at the mercy of the Italians’ style of play: tactical fouling. The stop-start, quick-reset formula made the Italians look impressive, and the Matildas were left chasing their tails.
While fans desperately called for a change in tactics, Milicic was having none of it.
“We got caught out with a set piece that we’ve worked on — we didn’t execute [it] as well as we would have liked to,” Milicic said when asked about his notes on the game.
“We dominated possession, we had more shots than the opposition, we dominated field, territory … of course, as with every game, there are things we did well but there are also things we need to improve on and we look forward to correcting those things in the next two games.”
The women in the team have understandably swatted away any questions that threaten to delve into the flaws of the game, insisting their mindset is focused on the game ahead. But, perhaps it would be useful to have a quick peek over their shoulder.
Stajcic vs Milicic
We have now seen enough of Milicic’s vision to draw a comparison with his predecessor.
The Matildas were once known for their swift defensive switch — before the opposing team had the time to even register they had won possession, any Matildas nearby had already swarmed them and won the ball back.
It is a stark contrast to Milicic’s new all-out-attack direction. When possession has been lost in recent games, the team has seemingly been left without a plan. The disorganisation gives their opponents vital time to organise an assault which the Matildas have not sufficiently trained for.
Milicic has tried to achieve in six months what Alen Stajcic spent more than a decade building. It wasn’t Stajcic’s vision of the game that saw his removal, yet Milicic’s haste to implement his own brand of football would suggest otherwise.
Stajcic had this to say about the success of his team a year ago:
“The majority of the credit goes to each individual for the effort that they’ve put into preparing themselves on and off the field to become the players they are,” he told Fox Sports during the World Cup qualifiers.
“Because it doesn’t just happen overnight and it doesn’t happen from one coach or club, it happens from them over a long period of time and we’re starting to see the fruits from that reward now.”
It’s a far cry from Milicic’s approach:
“The way this team will play while I’m in charge will always be to attack and go for a win. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, home or away,” Milicic told AAP.
The two are poles apart. Stajcic’s adaptive, Milicic’s headstrong.
There are two key strategies that have been Australia’s undoing: holding possession deep in the defence, and maintaining a high back line.
To the relief of many, core midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight has been cleared to play after a foot injury ruled her out of the match against Italy. Her position is crucial — most Matildas’ possession will pass through her feet at some point, meaning she sets the pace of the game.
“My job is to simply be able to control the rhythm of the game – know when we’ve got to go forward but know when we need to slow the game down and keep it at our pace and keep possession,” she told the ABC.
It is fair to speculate that Kellond-Knight is the missing link in Milicic’s possession strategy.
Maintaining a high defence line is a predictable tactic at the best of times, however a crucial bit of information was missing ahead of its implementation during the Italy game.
Defender Alanna Kennedy revealed the team had not been made aware of the fact play would continue for some time before the offside whistle was blown.
“It wasn’t mentioned in our referee [briefing]. So, it was a little bit frustrating, but I guess, like anything, you sort of have to play the whistle and for us we just knew that we had to keep playing and make sure that we don’t cop a goal in that time in case it was reviewed.”
It remains to be seen whether the late flag will influence Milicic’s vision going forward against Brazil.
If the Australians find themselves caught out again, this time it may be too late to save their World Cup campaign.