Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord partnership proves potent for Matildas

To some it is “unique”, to others it is “almost telepathic”. The Matildas players themselves describe it simply as “natural”. Whatever the adjective, on Monday the on-field relationship between Caitlin Foord and Steph Catley proved decisive as the Australia booked a spot in the round of 16 at the Women’s World Cup. And it may well be critical for them in the weeks ahead.

Forged as they came through the national team ranks together, Foord, 28, and Catley, 29, have more than a decade of experience overlapping on the Matildas’ left flank. That tight-knit playing relationship was only strengthened when they both joined Women’s Super League heavyweight Arsenal in 2020. Ever since, the pair have flourished together for club and country.

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“It’s almost telepathic, they know what they need from each other before it even happens,” Arsenal assistant coach Aaron D’Antino told KeepUp ahead of the tournament. Both players were signed by Arsenal under the reign of A-League championship-winning Australian coach Joe Montemurro, in a move that has proved fortuitous for both Arsenal and the Matildas.

In the opening match against Ireland, following the late withdrawal of Sam Kerr, Foord played a more central role in the Australian forward line, combining with Mary Fowler. While she drifted wide at times, her responsibilities leading the attack hampered her ability to link-up fluidly with Catley.

It was a similar story last Thursday, when Fowler’s concussion meant Foord was the sole striker on the pitch for the Matildas against Nigeria. While the Arsenal forward had some nice moments in combination with Emily van Egmond, too often Foord found herself isolated and outnumbered. There were glimpses of her dynamic relationship with Catley, but not enough to make a real impact on the game.

That changed on Monday, in the must-win clash with Canada. With Fowler back from concussion, and coach Tony Gustavasson wanting to retain van Egmond, Foord was given freedom to roam on the left wing. It would prove an inspired shift in such a critical encounter.

Caitlin Foord and Steph Catley hold the Conti cup trophy

Caitlin Foord and Steph Catley celebrate wining the Conti Cup with Arsenal in March. Photograph: John Walton/PA

“We got the best out of Steph and Caitlin tonight,” the Swedish coach said after the match. He was not wrong. The Arsenal duo were responsible for so many of the Matildas’ attacking opportunities. The first goal was textbook Foord-Catley brilliance – Foord dispatching Catley on the overlap, before the cross found Hayley Raso. It resulted in the goal that settled the Australians’ nerves and put them on the path towards a dominant victory.

“Caitlin and Steph have a unique relationship and understanding when they play together – so do Caitlin and Sam when they play up top,” Gustavsson said. “Caitlin has been really good as a forward, especially when they pair up with Sam with those combination plays. We felt we wanted to invest in the left-side combination today, but also because both Mary [Fowler] and EVE [Van Egmond] have been really good in, if we talk tactical terms, false nines. So we played a little bit different tonight.”

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Different – but good. Dangerous, dominant even. “It’s natural to both of us – we play a lot of football together,” Foord said after the win. “It’s a bit of a comfort zone, so it was natural – as soon as we got out there, we were just excited to share that connection that we have out there and make things happen.”

Among Foord’s important attributes for the Matildas is her ability to play in a range of forward positions. “Obviously with Sam out of the picture, Caitlin is versatile – it’s one of her strengths – she can play nine, she can play 10, she can play probably centre-back,” Catley joked. “I don’t know, she’s everywhere.”

But perhaps against Ireland and Nigeria, that versatility came at a cost – inhibiting the best of the Foord-Catley combination. On Monday, the team played to their strength on the left. “I personally love it when she’s on the left,” Catley said. “We know each other so well, we don’t even have to think.”

With Kerr expected to return for the round of 16 clash next Monday in Sydney, it is not clear how Foord may be deployed. On the evidence of Monday night, Gustavsson would be well advised to allow the on-field partnership between Foord and Catley to be maximised.

“Come the rest of the tournament I don’t know what’s going to happen, but when [Foord’s] on the left I absolutely love it – we have a fun time out there for sure,” Catley said.

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