The Matildas have a new coach and, in a nice change of pace, the mood in Australian football is of a positive variety. So quickly, before something happens to sour the ambience, it's the perfect time to get up to speed with ESPN's Australian and New Zealand Football Wrap!
Everything in Its Right Place
It's easy to make pessimistic cynicism the default when writing about football.
Biting observations and snappy insights demonstrating a mastery of prose come much easier when delivered from a position of scepticism, as do zingers that fit neatly into a tweet or Facebook post. Moroseness is better for clicks and shares as well, scientific studies demonstrating a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news from readers: people engage with content that makes them angry.
Yet, as the dust clears and the evidence is weighed, it's hard to conclude that the appointment of Tony Gustavsson as the new Head Coach of the Matildas represents anything less than a shrewd appointment by the FFA.
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Befitting of the successful candidate for one of the most desirable jobs in the women's game, Gustavsson arrives with not just a glittering resume -- the 47-year-old a two-time World Cup winner and an Olympic Gold Medallist as an assistant with the USWNT -- but with wide respect for his tactical acumen and knowledge of the game at a time when the Matildas face four major tournaments in four years -- including perhaps the best chance for an Australian side, men's or women's, to ever become World Champions in 2023.
The latter quality is vital, as Europe's rise, spurred onward by ever-increasing investment in the women's game by some of the biggest teams across the continent, isn't an obstacle that will disappear in the coming years. It's a challenge that was laid bare by Matildas' defeats against Italy and Norway at the 2019 Women's World Cup. Conversely, Gustavsson helped engineer an evolution in approach in France that empowered the Americans, who have traditionally drawn comparisons to Australian traditions of physicality and tenacity, to see off European foes in a manner that his new side couldn't.
"Looking at the trends of the game, everyone sees that it's just faster and faster and faster," Gustavsson told reporters following his appointment. "There's less time on the ball to make decisions, there's less time in defending to pressure the player on the ball - everything is more intense, and the tempo is rising and everything is faster.
"So, one of the key things is how fast can we play without losing control, and I mean both on the defensive side of the ball and the attacking side."
Crucially, the appointment also brings stability to the post, with Gustavsson inking a pact that will commence on the first day of 2021 and take him through to the conclusion of the 2024 Paris Olympics. It means that both he and the team he leads will be well placed to orchestrate plans that not only allow the squad to peak for the 2023 World Cup, but also the rescheduled Olympics, 2022 Asian Cup in India and 2024 Paris Olympics.
"I wouldn't be [in the role] if I didn't think that [a World Cup win] was possible," he said.
"But it's also important that we take one step at a time here and coming back to the one day better quote -- meaning if we work together in club environments and with the Matildas' environment to always get one day better, I think we can take this team to the next level. We're ranked number seven in the word now, at best we've been ranked fourth. I've always said that Australia has the potential to beat the best on any day and the belief that we can do that is important to instil in everyone in and around the team."
Indeed, the mood in Australian football following the announcement of Gustavsson appears to be one of relief and, dare to say it, cautious belief. It makes a nice change of pace from the doom and gloom of recent times and reminds us, once again, of how the Matildas have come to so frequently serve as a light in the darkness for the game in this country.
Nonetheless, though the appointment of Gustavsson appears to tick all the boxes, the task ahead remains daunting. While the Swede has been employed in a head coaching capacity in 16 of his 21 years as a mentor and took Tyreso to the final of the 2014 UEFA Women's Champions League, leading a Matildas group FFA CEO James Johnson has labelled as the 'platinum generation' into a home World Cup represents a pressure cooker environment hitherto unexperienced in his career.
Sam Kerr already having reached household name status in Australia, the hype that will surround the years ahead will almost certainly serve to propel several of her teammates into a similar stratosphere come 2023 and, even if results in 2021 and 2022 temper some level of expectation, the average Australian sports fan and media outlet will likely approach the 'As One' World Cup of 2023 with the expectancy that Australia will not only make at least the final four but win the whole damn thing.
It's under this crushing weight of expectation and scrutiny that Gustavsson will be forced to juggle moving from national assistant to national boss, shield and manage his players, and front up and help to set a direction. No small task.
"I've experienced a lot of pressure throughout my career in both the men's and women's side," said Gustavsson. "Being in that pressure cooker, and I know what it takes to deliver when it means the most.
"I thrive under pressure. I like it, it brings the best out of me, and I hope that I can get the people around me feeling the same thing. It's one of those where you play your best with the crest on your chest -- when it means the most. The 23 doing it with the fans together and the stakeholders, I get chills thinking about it because I want to be in that pressure environment."
Pressure, though, is not just on Gustavsson.
With reaction to his appointment seemingly universally positive, it's no surprise that the FFA is touting its selection panel and process that went into his recruitment alongside it -- FFA Chairman Chris Nikou's paragraphs in the statement announcing Gustavsson's hiring almost entirely devoted to spruiking those that made the decision.
But as the saying goes: success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.
Should the Matildas fail to fire in the years ahead, particularly in a manner that is traceable to coaching foibles, then the fickleness of Australian football's discourse will become rapidly apparent. The appointment will turn from coup into an anchor around the FFA's necks; accusations flying that the federation sabotaged Australia's chances of winning a World Cup on home soil with a dud appointment.
Jigsaw Falling into Place
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
With the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA) and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) unable to reach an agreement on the extent and method of reduction in player remuneration during collective bargaining agreement (CBA) talks, clubs have accelerated the process of negotiating salary reductions with their players on an individual basis -- with some having already completed the process and others well on the way.
It's meant that discussions over a new CBA between clubs and players have lulled in recent days but, although Perth Glory CEO Tony Pignata has previously told ESPN that clubs are willing to stage the next season without one if needed, ESPN has been told that both sides remain in contact and in talks over a variety of other on- and off-field, non-salary related matters to be encompassed by a new pact. For now, it's understood that Glory remains the only club that has moved to formally stand down its playing groups.
PFA co-Chief Executive Beau Busch struck a positive tone around the talks when reached by ESPN.
"For the players it has always been about charting a sensible, rational and fair path forward to ensure the professional game can rebuild and reboot," he said. "It's great to see the clubs working directly with the players on an outcome and the next step will be to finalise a CBA."
True Love Waits
Melbourne Victory has largely concluded their business of re-signing players for the upcoming season, highlighted on Tuesday by the announcement of new contracts for talented young trio Jay Barnett, Aaron Anderson and Birkan Kirdar - the latter of whom certainly won't be making any Instagram posts from the dressing room in the future. On the new arrival front, The World Game has reported that the four-time A-League champions, who recorded their lowest ever league finish of tenth in 2019/20, have also held talks with former Luton Town players Callum McManaman and Jacob Butterfield.
Further reports from The World Game have declared that former Blackburn Rovers' boss Steve Kean is set to join the coaching staff of Grant Brebner as an assistant, and ESPN understands that, in a positive step for Australian coaching development, 28-year-old Riccardo Marchioli, a former coach of Brunswick City and one of NPL Victoria's rising stars, is also likely to join the club's staff in some capacity in the coming weeks.
Victory is also continuing to monitor the status of Perth Glory striker Bruno Fornaroli but, as previously reported, the striker's wage demands and the uncertainty surrounding the start dates of the next season mean that even if he were to depart the West, watching from afar remains, at this stage, the extent of Victory's interest.
Looking across town towards Victory's sky blue rivals, sources have told ESPN that 20-year-old winger Ramy Najjarine is attracting significant interest around the league, and that City would not likely stand in the way of the talented Olyroo from making a move elsewhere.
Australia's development of the next-generation is a fraught topic amongst its zeitgeist; a dearth of Socceroos plying their trade in the top European leagues, perceived declines in creativity amongst players (even if trends in the game are towards automation) and absence of Australian junior national sides at World Cups increasingly bemoaned. Further adverse developments potentially lie on the horizon, with a number of stakeholders expressing doubt to ESPN on the viability of the next season of the Y-League.
Facing this down at a time of falling budgets, the uncoupling of the game's professional leagues from the national federation and amidst an unprecedented global pandemic would be enough to give even the most gung-ho of individuals pause but, speaking to ESPN, newly appointed interim-National Technical Director Trevor Morgan welcomes what he sees an opportunity to change the conversation around Australia's youth development.
"It's great, it's challenging as well -- it's just a huge opportunity," he told ESPN. "I think the mix between the current board, a CEO who is a football person, Arnie and his team, with the national team are great people. They help out all the time and they care about what happens with the junior national teams.
"And, to be honest, there's also what COVID presents. There are changes that we've wanted to make, a lot of people that love their football and love their country have wanted to make changes. I think right now, with the situation with COVID, for me, I keep explaining that the Lego blocks have been tipped on the floor and we can build what we want.
"Yeah, we know we're not going to have a massive budget for the next little while, but maybe the first thing is cooperation: maybe a few clubs talking to each other, or people agreeing that this is better for the game so I'm not going to make it hard for you."
Million Dollar Question
Supporting Morgan in his task of reinventing Australia's pathways on the girl's side of the game will be Rae Dower, who last week was appointed women's technical advisor alongside her responsibilities as Junior Matildas' coach. It's a role that Morgan hopes will empower her to have an even greater impact on the journey of young girls from the local park to the Matildas.
"What we've done with re-signing [Dower] is we've increased her capacity to have contact with the players," explained Morgan. "It's not only an advisory role, but we've made it possible to have more frequent contact. And that's vital.
"Anything I can do to make it more possible for Leah [Blayney, Head Coach of the Young Matildas and Future Matildas] and Rae to qualify for [tournaments with] those junior national teams, as well as support the programs that support all that and the links between is vital."
The footballing IP of the likes of Dower, Blayney and Matildas' assistant Mel Andreatta is also something that Gustavsson, in an impressive bit of preparation, touted as being vitally important to the strength of Australia's national teams at his introductory press conference.
"It's very important that I get the help from the expertise that is in place," he said. "I'm very happy that the federation has shown that they are willing to invest into looking at the elite pathways - there's a lot of different ways to reach the Matildas, there's not just one. I can't wait to meet Rae, Leah, and Mel and hear their experience. Because at this point, they are the experts in this, not me, and I need their help. I'm looking forward to being able to travel to Australia as soon as possible to meet all these people in person, sit down and hear what they have to share with me in terms of their expertise.
"Because those 23 [players] for 2023, to get a team of 23 you need a broader player pool, so we need to look at more than 23 players. It's an important message from me to all the players that everyone feels that this is a fresh start, a blank paper and that everyone will get a fair opportunity to get a look to represent the Matildas."
Both the AFC U16 and AFC U19 Championships have been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the confederation announcing earlier in September that the tournaments would now be shifted to 2021. The deferements have given Morgan, who retained his stewardship of Australia's U17 side when he assumed the mantle of interim-technical director, a bit of breathing space when it comes to the organisation of the Joeys -- whose ability to gather and train has been hampered by border closures between states.
This week, a select group of eligible players that reside in New South Wales are set to meet for a camp but, as Morgan explained to ESPN, the COVID-enforced exclusivity of the camp will not come at the detriment of players from outside the state. Instead, the data and footage collected as the NSW-based players are put through will subsequently be beamed right across Australia and the world as the federation seeks to adapt to the current landscape.
"What we're going to do is do some training for a few days, we're going to film it, and then we're going to share those sessions and the physical outputs of those sessions with all of our players on our lists around the world," Morgan said. "We're going to do [Zoom] workshops where we're going to show them a comparison between the best player in the Joeys at last year's World Cup and the best player at the World Cup -- it shows their physical performance, technical performance, and it shows video clips of those players.
"We're going to do that as a workshop and say that if you want to go to a World Cup this is the standard of the best Aussie last year, this is the standard of the best player last year, and we're sharing with you data and footage of what we're doing at training right now.
"We're doing those as open workshops over Zoom to try and connect: so the players that can't come to camp have an understanding of what will be required when they come in. I'd imagine we'll [also] be working with the states about them running the elite games programs, which is a good chance for kids to come together and pay best of the best games. And obviously, as soon as things start to free up and we get confirmation from the AFC when our tournaments are, we'll slot into good preparation leading into those. We have to be very innovative and clever in how we do that."
How I Made My Millions
A fortnight on from the Socceroos and Matildas launching their brand new threads for the year ahead, A-League and W-League clubs have also gotten into the action in recent weeks, no doubt hastened in their efforts by the knowledge that if they don't release them then the newly shipped FIFA 21 will.
Partnering with Chinese sportswear manufacturer UCAN in what they declared to be a "Club-record partnership," Adelaide United's new home design featuring a deep shade or red and embossed pattern on the front - modelled by representatives of both the men's and the women's side doing their best Blue Steel impression -- set an impressive early standard for the league. Melbourne City's third kit, Newcastle Jets' away kit and Brisbane's away kit also made impressive first impressions.
Melbourne Victory's away jerseys, though, has seemingly served to pip their Original Rivalry foes' efforts to the top of the pile. Featuring a clean, white finish that is a monumental improvement from the grey, pyjama-like look sported last season, the pièce de résistance arrives in the form of Melbourne's famous grid layout being watermarked throughout the shirt -- a rare piece of boutique design in a league that so often receives basic templates.
Not only is this personalised touch a nice touch from Adidas, but doubly so for fans from a city that has adopted somewhat of a siege mentality in recent months as rallies together to see off a second wave of COVID infections.