Netherlands humbling a reminder of Matildas’ place in world pecking order

A month before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Australia played two pre-tournament friendlies. The first was against eventual champions, the United States, which they lost 5-3. The second was against eventual runners-up, the Netherlands, which they lost 3-0.

Interim head coach Ante Milicic had taken over the side just a few months earlier, tasked with preparing Australia for one of the biggest global competitions in which they would ever play. These were the first games against world-class opposition in almost six months.

The last time they did so, in October 2018, they drew 1-1 with an underwhelming England side and lost 2-0 to France; teams who would, alongside the US and the Netherlands, qualify for the 2019 quarter-finals.

And yet, despite this string of results – and knowing these were the teams which would likely go far at the World Cup – domestic expectations remained high as the Matildas flew to France. There was belief, naïve or otherwise, that they could win it all.

Those expectations partially explain the negative public reaction when the Matildas were bundled out at the round of 16. A crack, it seemed, had begun to appear in the nation’s idea of where this team truly belonged on the international stage. So focused had we been on our “golden generation” of players that we had lost sight, perhaps, of the golden generations emerging elsewhere.

The situation, almost two years on, is eerily similar. Tony Gustavsson has recently taken over as head coach. He has guided his new side through their first preparation friendlies against top five-ranked nations ahead of a major tournament. And they have come out the other side licking their wounds.

Wednesday morning’s 5-0 loss to the Netherlands, following the 5-2 loss to Germany on Sunday, served as another reminder of where Australia now sits in the new global pecking order.

That is not to say this makeshift Matildas side did not improve between the two games. True to his word, Gustavsson used the second friendly to give every available squad member an opportunity to impress. Four changes were made from the previous match, while the two remaining unused substitutes – Dylan Holmes and Ella Mastrantonio – were also given a decent number of minutes.

Despite the changes, the team looked more cohesive and more spirited than they did against Germany. They pressed the Netherlands high up the field to regularly win the ball back, connected more passes, created more effective counter-attacking moves and produced more realistic scoring opportunities.

But they faced a Dutch side heaving with big-game experience. Eight of the opposition players who started against the Matildas on Wednesday also started in the 2019 Women’s World Cup final. Two others, Jill Roord and Lineth Beerensteyn, made significant appearances in both as varying substitutes. That they won 5-0 without their greatest goal-scorer, Vivianne Miedema, contributing to the scoresheet speaks volumes of their attacking depth.

By contrast, Australia started with just five of the players who lost to Norway in 2019: Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, Sam Kerr, Hayley Raso and Caitlin Foord. By full-time, only four remained. Australia’s Miedema equivalent in Kerr was, once again, marked out of the game, registering just a single shot in the 80th minute, and none of Australia’s other attacking players were able to compensate for it.

This is the context in which the Matildas find themselves. While injuries and travel restrictions have affected their ability to field their strongest possible line-up, these adverse circumstances have also served as a reminder of the deeper, structural problems that extend further back than the pandemic: namely, that the nations which have invested heavily in domestic and national team programs over the past decade are now rising to the top, while those which have not kept pace have begun to fall away.

These two friendlies, then, are not just a wake-up call to Gustavsson and his squad as the next four-year cycle begins. They are also a wake-up call to Football Australia and the domestic structures – both at W-League and national team level – that must improve if Australia is to develop the kind of depth required to compete in this emerging international landscape.

Heading to Tokyo, Australia – both the team and the public – must therefore temper our expectations, not only because of the Matildas’ disrupted lead-up but also the way other national teams have evolved around them. Tokyo, however, is not the ultimate aim. As Gustavsson said upon his selection of this friendly series’ squad that, while he has one eye on the Olympics, he has another eye on the biggest prize of all: the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

That is, if anything, the one positive to be taken from these two friendlies: Australia does have talent available outside the golden generation such as Beattie Goad, Mary Fowler and Dylan Holmes who are capable of filling in at national team level. What matters now is that they are given the structures and opportunities to help them stay there.