Gustavsson should know exactly what it takes, having spent six years as an assistant for the United States women’s team, which won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal in 2012. Tobin Heath l was once described as “our tactician, our brains”. Hope Solo called him a ‘godsend’ that she would have preferred in charge of their defensive setup to head coach Jill Ellis – ironic, perhaps, given he’s been heavily criticized for defensive issues from Australia.
The moment Football Australia officials knew they had their man during the interview process for the Matildas job was when Gustavsson flipped the script and asked them what they wanted, then told them how to get it. Chief executive James Johnson told him the FA wanted the Matildas to be semi-finalists at the Tokyo Olympics, win the Asian Cup, reach the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup in 2023 and then the semi-finals. finals at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
“He said, ‘to get there, we have to play a tough schedule…because the Matildas don’t do well against European opposition, and that’s because you don’t play them enough,'” Johnson said. “Whenever you have a challenge and you identify it, he breaks it down and has a practical way to solve it. That’s why we changed the strategy to ‘Let’s go play against all the best teams in the world’ – and we’re going to lose some, we know that and we’ve done that. We lost a lot before Tokyo, but when he gets to Tokyo he changes his mind and he’s like, ‘OK, we’re here to go to the semi-finals’ – and we did it.”
Between 2011 and 2020, Australia have met the top 10 ranked teams in major tournaments 20 times and won only three times, losing 12 and drawing five. In 2021, 13 of the team’s 16 matches have been against top-10 opponents, according to Gustavsson’s design. They only won twice, and there were brutal losses against countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, but the idea was that this exposure would pay dividends on the entire line each time the switch is flipped from what Gustavsson calls “readiness mode”. when there is time to learn, in “tournament mode”, when you have to perform. It takes faith, which is often lacking in Aussie Rules football, and hard to commit for some when they don’t see results.
“I just believe it’s short-term pain for long-term gain,” Matildas assistant coach Mel Andreatta said. “For me, I believe 100% in this plan and the process because he’s been there and he’s done it. Because of these details, this experience, the research that indicates that there are things we need to do to close the gap between us and the best nations, and there are investments and plans in place to make it all possible – I have faith and hope Australians will Australians support us too and keep the faith, because I believe something special is building, and when it counts, we will be efficient.
This moment has arrived. Gustavsson went through more than 60 players to settle into his squad for the Asian Cup, a tournament the Matildas have only won once, in 2010. Drawn in Group B with Indonesia , Alen Stajcic’s Philippines and Thailand, anything short of reaching the final would be a disaster – for the team and for Gustavsson, who would be lucky to stay on. But Johnson says winning it would be an undeniable “proof of concept” in his approach.
Australia’s biggest rivals will be Japan, who beat them in the 2014 and 2018 Asian Cup finals, and whose Matildas Gustavsson noted have only toppled once in matches of competition in 11 years.
“We asked ourselves: ‘Why?’ We’ve identified some areas that could potentially be the reason we haven’t been successful before, and we hope we can do better now,” Gustavsson said.
“I’m not going to reveal all those details now, but we’ve done a lot of prep work to say, ‘Yeah, we couldn’t get it home, but it’s time to steal it. He’s been somewhere else since 2010, and it’s time to bring him back. It’s time to flip the switch.
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