Mary Fowler wriggles clear in transition and releases Ellie Carpenter on the right flank. As Carpenter dribbles up at speed, Kyah Simon provides width and drags Brazilian left-back Tamires with her, opening both a passing lane for the approaching Sam Kerr and space for Tameka Yallop to run into.
Carpenter fires the ball in, and Kerr, not being the most comfortable of players with the ball at her feet in this scenario, tries to wrap a first-time pass around her body to Yallop. The pass inevitably carries too much weight, forcing Yallop into a situation where she must beat defenders off a step to penetrate. Yallop opts to pass back to Simon, who provides a timely outlet.
As Simon receives the ball, Carpenter makes an underlapping run and Kerr motions for a cross into the penalty area, but both options are covered and midfield options are also lacking -- forcing Simon backwards to Alanna Kennedy.
The next phase of this passage is important, as it effectively served as a precursor to Tuesday's second game at CommBank Stadium. With Kyra Cooney-Cross unsure what to do and where to go as Kennedy and Clare Polkinghorne passed between themselves -- while Fowler and Yallop were still around the penalty area -- Giovanna Crivelari and Ludmila were able to force Australia backwards from half-way in a two-on-three situation.
Playing through an overload should be a relatively routine task but, with a characteristically disjointed midfield, the Matildas repeatedly struggled in this scenario during Tuesday night's 2-2 draw. It was the game's defining characteristic, and Australia's dependence on favourable game phases once again reared its head.
Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson's post-match assessment highlighted as much, while also providing some insight into his own tactical plan for the Matildas.
"When we spoke about the first game, we were very impressed with the amount of times our attack led into the final third, but when we were in the final third, we weren't as composed as we wanted to be," he said.
"Today we actually struggled to get into the final third because Brazil was much more aggressive in their defending and I think we played too slow at times."
The main difference between the two matches was the press from Brazil's forwards. Whoever was closer out of Debinha and Marta was more inclined to press the ball-carrying centre-back -- within the framework of the Selecao's 4-4-2 defensive shape -- while the other could maintain position half-way between the other centre-back and Matildas fulcrum Cooney-Cross. Along with a more concerted effort to get in front of Kerr and Caitlin Foord to intercept the ball when they provided outlets further afield, it dramatically impacted Australia's ability to keep the ball and gain the territory their possession relies upon.
Speed arguably wasn't the issue; clarity in positioning and the understanding of space were the problems. To play it well, being a lone pivot in midfield is up there as one of the hardest positions in football today. A lack of familiarity for the 19-year-old Cooney-Cross is only exacerbated by a few aspects: like Kerr not being a particularly incorporative striker, a number of fellow midfielders who generally shirk from receiving the ball in tight spaces, and -- a particular one from Tuesday night -- Fowler shifting out to the right wing in place of Simon.
Despite early forays in the second half on Tuesday and her role in Australia's second goal, Clare Wheeler did not significantly alter this dynamic as the half progressed, while Fowler replaced Yallop in midfield. A characteristic of the Matildas that Cooney-Cross and Fowler have arguably fallen in line with since that exit to Norway in the 2019 World Cup remains: The makeup of Australia's midfield, and the attributes the players possess, significantly hampers the team's ability to create chances, whether it be on or off the ball.
Chance creation in relation to pass volumes for the Matildas between 2020-21. Numbers reaffirming the very singular nature of roles within possession structures. pic.twitter.com/rCWrgOgUuQ— Ante Jukić (@antejukicESPN) October 27, 2021
Smaller sample-size and level of opposition provides a contextual element to Katrina Gorry's xA tally per 90 minutes relative to pass volume since the last World Cup -- however much of a unicorn in Australian football she is. Yet, Emily van Egmond being one of the team's set piece takers over that period and the only divergent factor from midfield is arguably just as indicative.
In Gorry's absence, Australia's most collaborative player on and off the ball -- Foord -- doesn't see enough of the ball to begin with, having long since shifted to the left wing. That's secondary, however, much like one post-match comment from Gustavsson on Tuesday.
"But, and this is a big but, the second goal is exactly what we've been working on. Straight from the training ground and the quality of that goal ... that type of combination play is something we've been working on a lot," he said.
"We know we can be a really good crossing team, with Kerr in the goal zone and we still want to play crosses when it's on. But when it's not, we need to have more variation and more quality in the final third."
Using Australia's second goal as an indicator of improvement in possession can admittedly be interpreted in several ways. In isolation, though, Kerr's goal comes from a broken phase in play which invites Brazilian players forward -- creating a transition upon a transition.
Australia are often the active team as opposed to the reactive, but the only relatively tangible threat coming through transition and dead ball makes that reality prohibitive. During this year's Olympic Games, the Matildas were one of five teams that averaged more than 30 minutes of possession per game but they finished only 9% of attacks against set defences with a shot (per Instat).
The difference between Australia and high-performing teams in this respect can roughly equate to about five shots per game, but the consequent positional and territorial impact could prove the difference between a sustainable or unsustainable game plan, without even taking shot quality into account.
This is not exclusive to the Matildas in Australian football, but midfield dysfunction serves as a basis for a particularly profound aimlessness and inefficiency in possession against those set defences.
Meanwhile, Cooney-Cross and Fowler are becoming burgeoning microcosms of overall incompatibility and haziness, with respect to what that midfield is supposed to provide in Australia's possession -- outside of safe circulation and second-phase play for diagonal passes.
When that's put into context of volatile game complexions against Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, it raises the question with eyes inevitably turning to the upcoming Asian Cup and a home World Cup: What has Gustavsson actually learnt since those Olympics and since taking over as Australian coach?