Matildas’ attacking versatility means goals will come despite injuries

For crestfallen Matildas fans worried about the absence of forward options for Thursday’s clash with Nigeria, Sam Kerr’s Instagram feed offers an alternative reality. The Australian captain has taken to posting photos of herself in the gym and walking in team kit during training. Seemingly there is nothing amiss, no hint that the nation is sweating over every non-update on Kerr’s calf muscle. The emojis and green and gold hearts she uses to caption the posts offer an optimistic take on the Matildas’ predicament.

But a predicament it is. The Australians enter their second group stage match missing Kerr, one of the best players in the world, who has on average scored a goal every second game in over 120 caps for the national team. They are also missing her natural replacement, Manchester City striker Mary Fowler. The 20-year-old started in Kerr’s absence in the nervy opening win over Ireland but suffered a concussion on Tuesday, and veteran striker Kyah Simon is still returning from an ACL injury.

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Three strikers down, it was not the opening week of the home Women’s World Cup that the team would have envisaged. Three strikers down, where will the goals come from on Thursday?

The Matildas are maintaining a brave face despite the adversity. Steph Catley, elevated to press conference duties as captain in Kerr’s absence, seemed unperturbed on the eve of the match. “Everyone is very focused, everyone knows we need to keep the morale high,” the wing-back said. “Injuries are a part of football, it’s something we’re very, very used to.” The team are adaptable, she said, and were focused on solutions, not problems. “We’re a unit, working together to find the best solutions to every situation.”

Those solutions could take a variety of forms. Coach Tony Gustavsson was coy at the pre-match press conference, only hinting fresh faces or a new formation might be the answer.

Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord is almost certain to start up front, with Hayley Raso and Cortnee Vine on the wings. But with Fowler missing and no like-for-like replacement, Gustavsson may instead shake up the midfield – opting for either youth in Alex Chidiac or experience in the form of Emily van Egmond. Tameka Yallop could also bring attacking potency, although is unlikely to play a full match as she returns from a thigh injury. If Gustavsson opts for a wider overhaul, Everton’s Clare Wheeler may be brought in to anchor the midfield.

Those changes may necessitate a shift to a 4-3-3 formation, from the 4-4-2 that has seen Kerr and Foord deployed up front together. But the last time the Matildas started with three in the midfield saw disappointment, losing to Scotland in April in the team’s only defeat this year.

There are reasons for optimism – even beyond Kerr’s Instagram. In the seven matches the team have played this year, they have been held scoreless only once (by Scotland). In those seven matches, 10 different Matildas have scored – with only three goals coming from the absent Kerr and Fowler. Katrina Gorry is in excellent form and has consistently supplied goals for club and country, while Clare Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy are both dangerous from set pieces. And Catley showed against Ireland she can calmly dispatch a penalty even in the most high-pressure moments.

In other words, the statistics suggest attacking versatility. But against a defensive Irish outfit last week, the Kerr-less Matildas struggled to find space and opportunities. Without Fowler, Foord and the midfield have work to do. Kerr does not just score and create opportunities for others; she also sucks up defensive attention and thereby facilitates space for teammates. On the pitch Kerr is a magnet, a black-hole; off the pitch, her absence is keenly felt.

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All of which makes the encounter with Nigeria feel like an inflection point for the Matildas’ campaign. A win guarantees progression to the round of 16, alleviating pressure on Kerr to return from injury for the final group stage match with Canada. Given a week separates the Canada clash and the Matildas’ possible first knockout game, that time could be critical to enable the striker to fully heal. Fowler is also expected to return against Canada, and every day brings closer the return of Kyah Simon.

If the Matildas see off Nigeria, the attacking calvary will arrive. Should the Matildas go deep in the tournament, fans might laugh off this injury fiasco as a minor bump along the way. Conversely, a loss to the Super Falcons will amplify the pressure on Gustavsson and Kerr-watch will reach hysterical heights.

On Wednesday, Catley said despite their best efforts to stay off social media and to distract themselves with Xbox and table tennis, the Matildas were feeling the pressure of a home World Cup. “It’s probably the most pressure I’ve felt as an athlete, in my career,” she said. “I think because we care so much – that builds pressure and obviously the public cares so much as well.”

Pressure, the cliche goes, makes diamonds. But at this level, it can also see teams turn to dust. If the goals come on Thursday, the Matildas will breathe a sigh of relief. If they don’t, their Women’s World Cup campaign could be on the line.

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