Matildas show glimpses of progress amid calamity in Denmark

There is perhaps no clearer a measurement of the Matildas’ post-match mood than the press conferences of their captain, Sam Kerr. Following Australia’s 5-2 loss to Germany last month, Kerr was a tightly-packed tangle of frustration, having been kept largely silent while watching her team get picked apart. She answered questions in short, abrasive sentences, barely containing her fury.

On Friday, though, despite another loss – this time to Denmark – Kerr cut a more relaxed figure; her sentences rolling, her voice warmer. She said all the things you say as a captain after a loss, of course – “we’ve got to be better”, “it’s disappointing”, “not good enough”. But she also cut through to the point of this series of friendlies as Australia prepare for the Tokyo Olympics in just over a month’s time.

“This is part of a process for us; we’re building something here,” she said. “This is only our third game with Tony [Gustavsson]. This week has been really hard. It’s not just about this game. Obviously it’s disappointing, we want to win every game, but at the end of the day, it’s a process and we’re working towards something.”

That “something” will not be visible in the three-minute highlight videos that flash across screens over the next 24 hours, but if you watch Australia’s opening 10 minutes against Denmark, you can see it start to take shape.

The Matildas dominated the side ranked 16th in the world both on and off the ball. Their high, collective press was more energetic and choreographed; the return of starting full-backs Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter allowed for overloads as well as balls into higher, wider channels; passes were more accurate and more deliberate; and a more experienced midfield helped pull Danish defenders out of shape to create space for Kerr to exploit in behind.

Indeed, Kerr could have had two goals in two minutes were it not for an offside call that disallowed a tidy volley in the third minute, and the heroics of Denmark’s player of the match, goalkeeper Lene Christensen, who parried a Kerr strike before smothering the follow-up from Hayley Raso moments later.

Australia had 70% of the territory as the game ticked into the 10th minute; pressing Denmark so effectively that they had barely ventured into their attacking half. It was, as Gustavsson said after the match, “very close to [a] perfect 10 minutes, except that we didn’t put away those chances.”

But a game of football is 90 minutes long and, as the Matildas soon discovered, a lot can happen within them. While they dominated possession, territory, shots, passes and chances created, it was Denmark who opened the scoring and almost galloped away with the lead in their own 10-minute burst.

On Denmark’s first set piece of the afternoon in the 14th minute, a poor defensive clearance from Tameka Yallop saw the ball spin into her own top corner, putting the Danes ahead without them having a single shot. Five minutes later, it was 2-0 after a chaotic corner saw the ball fall to full-back Rikke Sevecke who rifled home, even though replays showed an offside teammate in the build-up.

By the end of their own period of domination, Denmark were three to the good – though, again, not through much of their own work after goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold misread the flight of a floated cross, palming it into her own net instead of making what appeared to be an easy catch.

Deflated from the first own goal, Australia’s press naturally weakened; their attacking momentum and confidence blunted. Passes became a little less certain, final decisions a little less clear. By half-time, Denmark had scored more goals than they had taken shots – a statistic that encapsulated the game overall.

However, as Kerr said, this game – as well as the one against Sweden next week – is part of a process. We saw another part of that process, too, in the substitutions Gustavsson made at half-time. Eighteen-year old striker Mary Fowler, who replaced the ineffective Caitlin Foord, scored her debut goal in the 86th minute while Emily Gielnik, who replaced Hayley Raso, delivered the corner headed home by Clare Polkinghorne in the 90th.

“I can’t look away from the fact that we won the second-half 2-0,” Gustavsson said. “And if I count the caps of the players on the park [including those of debutants Kyra Cooney-Cross and Courtney Nevin], it’s interesting.

“I know how this business works and it’s a lot of focus on starting XIs and such, but I know from experience that you need – especially in an Olympics – all the players. And therefore, if you might not start a game, it doesn’t mean you’re not important. You can be even more important finishing the game.”

But it was Kerr, as always, who summarised it best. “Today, we didn’t really prepare for Denmark. We prepared for the Olympics.” The process thus continues.