Matildas’ Olympic squad tailor-made for unpredictable Tokyo Games

All football coaches are, in some way, visionaries. Not in a revolutionary sense, necessarily, but in an imaginative one. Often, the most successful coaches – players, too – are those who can imagine what might happen before anyone else does and plan for it accordingly.

Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson knows this. “My job as a coach, together with the coaching staff, is to go into a game and kind of see the future,” he said. “What kind of game do we think this can be? And what kind of tools do we need?”

This has been Gustavsson’s project for the past six months: to look into the Matildas’ future and lay out a path – a vision – for them to get there. This vision is embodied in the mantras he has repeated, almost ritually, since his appointment in January: to always get “one day better”, to ensure everybody is “seeing the same picture”.

That was the purpose of Australia’s recent series of friendly games against Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. The focus placed on individual scorelines – 5-2, 5-0, 3-2, 0-0 – created a kind of myopia that distracted many from Gustavsson’s larger vision; one which, as the performances across all four games showed, the players themselves are beginning to share.

This vision is manifested, too, in the 18-player squad Gustavsson has selected to go to Tokyo: a squad deliberately designed for an Olympic future that is more unpredictable than usual.

Less than a month out from its start, doubt still hangs over the Games like a fog. As the new Covid-19 variant re-traumatises the world, questions about crowd numbers, the integrity of athlete bubbles, and safe travel between cities grow louder. How, then, does a visionary plan for a future shrouded in uncertainty?

If you are Tony Gustavsson, you control the controllables: firstly, by choosing players who have been there before. Five years ago, the Matildas squad that travelled to the Rio Olympics had an average age of just 23 and a half. Nine players were under the age of 23, including 16-year old Ellie Carpenter. Just one squad member, Lisa De Vanna, had played at an Olympic tournament before. Australia were knocked out in the quarter-final after a penalty missed by 21-year old Alanna Kennedy.

This time, many of the Matildas who learned the hard lessons of Rio have returned (12, in fact) five years older and five years wiser. The squad’s average age is now 27 with just three players under the age of 23: Carpenter (21), Kyra Cooney-Cross (19) and Mary Fowler (18). Three have over 100 caps for their country. All of them went to the Women’s World Cup in 2019.

There is, then, a larger group of players who already know what tournament football is like – the quick turnaround of games, the exhausting travel, the rapidly-shifting tactics, the unfamiliar environments – and can therefore provide a kind of weathered dependability throughout a potentially precarious Olympic campaign.

Control also comes from Tokyo’s predictable climate. Anticipating Japan’s hot, humid days, the Matildas have been training in Sweden while wearing extra layers of clothes to keep their body temperatures high. When asked about their acclimatisation tactics, Sam Kerr said: “When I look at the squads that we’re playing, I think we’re probably best-fit for [the hot climate] in that group. We’re from Australia; we’re used to that.”

There is also, paradoxically, planning for the unexpected. Just outside the 18-player squad are four reserves in centre-back Laura Brock, full-backs Charlotte Grant and Courtney Nevin, and goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold. These players act as their own crystal ball; a glimpse into a potential injury-hit future – like the one that crippled Australia in France – but which Gustavsson has already made plans to remedy if they arise.

Dependability, then, is not the only key ingredient in this Olympic-bound team. In another Gustavssonism, “versatility and adaptability” are just as important in the vision he has for the Matildas. How well the players can manifest these qualities will likely determine how far they go – both in Tokyo and beyond.

“I like the versatility that a lot of these players have,” Gustavsson said. “I know from experience in an Olympic tournament, with a smaller-number roster, you need players to be able to play in multiple positions – especially when there’s very few days in between games.

“I’ve said from day one, we’re not going to make any excuses. We’re going to go there and play; we’re going to do the best we can. We’ve always focused on getting one day better.

“We’re focused on doing everything we can with minimum time to prepare ourselves as best we can come that opening game on the 21st [of July]. And once that’s here, [we will] make sure we leave every ounce of ourselves in every single game, every single minute. Then the results take care of themselves.”