Matildas' defence, midfield in spotlight against Brazil as Gustavsson works towards Women's World Cup

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It's hardly the homecoming that the Matildas -- or Football Australia -- would have envisioned.

When announced, the friendlies against Brazil on Saturday and Tuesday would have been envisioned as a moment of triumph: international football ending its 597-day absence from Australia and sitting at the glorious vanguard of a new phase of post-COVID sport in the country. Quarantine protocols negotiated with government and health authorities would have prevented the likes of Sam Kerr, Ellie Carpenter and Kyah Simon making personal appearances but they would have been splashed across as many media outlets as they could handle; beaming faces of hope, aspiration, inspiration and the promise of good things on the horizon.

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There's still significant media interest, of course, but it's very much not the type the federation will have anticipated. A maelstrom of controversy has descended upon Australian football in the wake of the interview with Lisa De Vanna and Rhali Dobson published by News Corp, in which the Matildas' icon and A-League Women stalwart recounted experiences of sexual harassment, bullying, exclusion and more across their careers.

The saga has, understandably, hegemonized the discourse in the lead into the fixtures, but it has also obscured the fact that games against Marta and her As Canarinhas team represent a significant on-pitch checkpoint for the Matildas. With fewer than 100 days to go before the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup kicks off, questions still hang over the trajectory of coach Tony Gustavsson's side; the most pressing of which is when (if?) will they begin metamorphosing into a team that can challenge for Women's World Cup glory in 2023?

Reaping the benefits of a long-term contract, backing from the federation, and a clear timeframe, the Swede is committed to the approach he believes will get Australia to that promised land: a fearless blend of up-tempo, possession-based, high-pressing, and attacking football. And in a footballing ecosystem that can sometimes feel like it's simply lurching from one crisis to another, that he is sticking to his guns and Football Australia is seemingly willing to back him has to be seen as a major positive.

But figuring out if the Swede is implementing his vision at a pace that will allow his side to challenge in 2023, when Australia will co-host the finals with New Zealand, or if his approach will allow them to be in contention at all, is a difficult proposition; how does one measure progress towards a long-term goal with no set template for how it's supposed to look, how long it will take, or how quickly it should happen. This isn't helped by the coach, in his own words, shifting back into "preparation mode" after briefly moving into "performance mode" to reach the bronze medal match at the Olympics, meaning the fixtures against Brazil must be viewed, again, through the prism of experimentation.

"What I did [after the Olympics] was close that chapter and then [start] a new chapter in September in Ireland," Gustavsson said on Friday. "To look at 'OK, in 2023, what do we want to look like?,' and using the September camp as a launching pad into a new journey.

"I'd say right now we're not where we need to be and where we want to be, but that doesn't mean we're in a bad place. When you grow, you go through some growing pains.

"We're in that process right now, where you might see a bit of a lack of an ability to perform when we overthink things, but we need to go through that growth process to come out the other side of that development journey to be ready to lift the trophy in 2023."

Since Gustavsson's ascension, the Matildas have let in 30 goals and scored 17 in 12 games -- 2.5 goals conceded per game -- and recorded just two wins and two draws against eight losses. Just one of those triumphs, a 2-1 win over New Zealand in Tokyo, was achieved inside 90 minutes. The other, a heart-stopping victory over Great Britain in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, was a triumph of grit and never saying die, but the subsequent defeat by Ireland laid bare the limits of consistently relying on emotion to paper over weaknesses in approach. Unfancied Ireland snapped a seven-game losing streak in defeating Australia, and Gustavsson slammed a lack of "desire" from his side in what was Kerr's 100th international.

The Swede has recognised the most glaring weakness that has arisen: Chopping and changing a backline that has looked increasingly shaky; and deploying players such as Carpenter, Steph Catley and even Hayley Raso in unfamiliar roles in a 3-4-3 formation that are not the optimal use of their skill sets but deemed necessary given the prevailing circumstances. Searching for depth and capable difference makers, either to allow his stalwarts to return to their natural positions or shore up the hole they have left, Gustavsson has selected 10 defenders and three goalkeepers for the two friendlies against Brazil.

Assuming he remains in Australia for the new A-League Women season, Gustavsson will get a chance to observe in person the likes of Matilda McNamara, Clare Hunt, Chelsea Blissett and Jessika Nash. American-born Melbourne Victory defender Kayla Morrison, a member of the PFA Team of the Season in her debut campaign, also looms as a highly intriguing proposition should she secure citizenship. Brazil and mooted November opponents United States also offer high-powered attacks to get reps in against.

"If I was a coach 15 years ago, I think maybe the answer would be 'hey, we need to park the bus ... we need to keep a clean sheet and maybe get a transition moment with Sam and win 1-0.'" Gustavsson said.

"That's not what this team is about. That's now what our fans want to see. The identity of the Matildas is that we always take a step forward. That we're aggressive in our pressing game, we want to have an attacking mindset, we attack with a lot of people, and score a lot of goals. We've also shown that we can score a lot of goals even against top opponents.

"Our challenge now is to ask if we can stay true to who we are and defend better. Can we defend with a lot of space around us -- whether that's individual defending or if that's the way we play? How and where do we get dispossessed, [make sure] we're not off balance, what's our positioning when we do lose it? Those are the nuances.

"We're experiencing growing pains here, going through development, and that's up to me as a coach to identify where we are, how far we've come, and what we need to do to take this team where it needs to be. You're definitely going to see at the start of the game tomorrow, we are going to be extremely aggressive as always, and there's going to be space. That means most likely Brazil will try to use the space behind.

"We've done some work on that, some of the sub-group meetings today was on that, how do we deny that and when it does happen, how do we defend it better."

The depth and performance of the Matildas midfield is also an area that bears watching. It's not helped by the injury-enforced absences of Chloe Logarzo and Elise Kellond-Knight, but by Football Australia's own count there are just four midfielders in the squad assembled in Sydney: Kyra Cooney-Cross, Emily van Egmond, Clare Wheeler, and Tameka Yallop. Alex Chidiac, Amy Harrison, and, in particular, Katrina Gorry all shape as reinforcements in the future, but the retirement of the ever-dependable Aivi Luik and the Matildas' recent willingness to bypass the midfield in times of stress -- lobbing balls over the top for an isolated and heavily marked Kerr to chase -- augur warnings.

An attack fielding the likes of Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Mary Fowler remains a strong point -- but that won't do the side much good if the midfield is unable to affect tempo, occupy areas of the pitch that force the defence to react, produce possession with purpose, or reliably deliver the ball forward in a manner beyond speculative diagonals looking for a knockdown or moments of transition.

Yet ultimately, despite the pressure beginning to build, Gustavsson has the luxury of time when it comes to solving these problems. As long as he delivers success at major tournaments, short-term pain, it appears, is acceptable, and he's not going to apologise for that.

"Here I want to be clear," Gustavsson said. "I want to protect the players a bit here. Yes, we conceded a lot of goals but if you should criticise someone for that it's me. Because I'm putting the players through a process where it's all about preparation.

"Yes, we want to win every game we play, but I'm not going to change my mindset in terms of putting this team through these preparations I think are very important to win the Asian Cup. And if we don't perform there, I'm the first to take that hit. I'll be OK with that."