Katrina Gorry transforms Matildas and their capacity to play in possession

"Sometimes, tactics are not about tactics, they're actually about personnel."

The rationale from Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson sounds more profound than it actually is, but it still applies for his team -- to a degree, at least.

In the face of how the Matildas have played their football over the past three years, in preparation and performance mode, it has been an obvious reality that similarity of profile has dictated how the team has played, which in turn has dictated the team's ceiling in relation to opposition.

From their exit in the 2019 Women's World Cup, to the Tokyo Olympics, to January's elimination in the quarterfinals at the Women's Asian Cup, and now to an incoming home World Cup next year, will we have finally learned from those experiences?

It's obviously too early to tell on that front; but it is certain after the friendlies against New Zealand in the past week that Katrina Gorry transforms the Matildas and their capacity to play in possession.

"I think the players have been phenomenal and have been patient with me as a coach because I've thrown a lot of curveballs at them with rotations in rosters," Gustavsson said after Tuesday's match in Canberra.

"I do think one of the reasons we see better combination play in this camp is because there's more continuity in what we're doing when we're further ahead in the process, but also the addition of a couple of players with different profiles, that also gives us a different dimension in how we're playing."

Gorry's ability to play with profound clarity with and without the ball, merging the elegant and the practical, allows the team to just play. The panic that could cripple the Matildas at times in the recent past momentarily subsided in this past international window. Football essentially became a simpler exercise for the players around her.

Gorry, as the deepest midfielder, impacted the game in profound ways without touching the ball, and gave the Matildas distinct tactical flexibility, even allowing for the varied defensive approaches from the Football Ferns between the first and second fixtures.

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In the first game, in Townsville, as New Zealand pressed, she could find gaps and get Australia up the pitch in possession by herself. The second match, in Canberra, saw the defence collapse onto Gorry, but those collapses opened the pitch up her teammates.

"She connects players more like a spider in the web, if that makes sense," Gustavsson told ESPN. "She can go through or around, she can go over and all of a sudden we're a little bit more unpredictable.

"The fact that she can play short combinations, she can open the game up with long passes, and she can play behind the back line as well. So, I think that gave us a new dimension within what we already had, if that makes sense."

While it's clear that Gorry -- or more broadly, a player of her profile -- does improve the team, the question that has to be asked is: By how much, in relation to the collective and how they all interact? In short, how does one maximise that added dimension described by the Matildas coach?

There was one moment in Townsville that encapsulated all these cumulative details, but the only thing that was really shocking about it was that it happened so early in the piece -- in the second minute.

Ellie Carpenter turns back towards Australia's goal and feeds the ball to the supporting Gorry. While evading pressure from Hannah Wilkinson, Gorry creeps up the pitch and holds just for fragment of a second -- that moment of 'pausa' where time seemingly stands still, as Gorry prompts Mary Fowler to move out from behind Betsy Hassett's shadow -- before firing the ball between the lines.

Emily van Egmond is static as Sam Kerr retreats half-heartedly between the lines to show for the ball, and Carpenter is streaming up the right flank. So, as Fowler turns with the ball between the lines -- a sight for sore eyes -- her only real option for the next pass is to Carpenter, but Kerr and Van Egmond have too much ground to cover to realistically create penalty-area threats.

The first layer in this discussion is Fowler, and just how connected she was to Gorry over these two games. Since debuting for the Matildas in 2018, Fowler has shown her talent but also her need for a reference point. Particularly in comparison to the Asian Cup, she looked freer off the ball against New Zealand and more inclined to move into certain spaces.

In both games, Fowler received the most passes from Gorry and, notably, in positions that can penetrate and collapse the New Zealand defence. There was a distinct interaction between the two as Australia's play predominantly filtered through their right hand-side.

There's a difference between retreating and advancing between the opposition's midfield and defensive line; the 19-year-old's role in a more advanced position at Montpellier dictates more of the former, while the Matildas need more of the latter -- and Gustavsson agrees that it's something a player such as Gorry facilitates.

"Mini helps, but I think there's two reasons for that one. Mary hasn't had the experience to play in a 4-3-3 a lot. Playing as a 10 in a 4-2-3-1 is different," he said.

"It's been new to her, and it's taken some time because she's used to come from the highest line and down, not from the midfield line and in.

"She's gotten better on that, but I also think the fact that we've played more centrally has activated her."

The next layer, and one that is arguably just as definitive as balance in midfield looking ahead to next year's World Cup, is Kerr. This is where it gets really tricky.

Kerr might be Australia's leading goal scorer at international level, but like the player she overtook, Tim Cahill, the reality is that she is palpably uncomfortable playing with her back to goal. The conviction of her movements in showing for the ball reflects the sense she doesn't trust her first touch in these scenarios.

In situations where the ball does come to her, Kerr is much more inclined to play first-time bounce passes or passes around the corner, regardless of the opposition. As a result, it creates certain requirements in Australia's build-up play. It's even more prevalent an issue when the Matildas do have a player who is comfortable in such scenarios, and feels like a square peg in a round hole out wide: Caitlin Foord.

A passage in the 23rd minute in Canberra on Tuesday was a window into this very contrast, when Kerr tried to flick Van Egmond's pass around the corner in transition, and Foord had to bring the ball under control at full stretch before playing Kerr through behind the defensive line.

Can they play together? Absolutely. Is this current utilisation optimal, in relation to Kerr and Foord as well as getting the most out of the midfield and Carpenter? Arguably not.

"Sam's best game is behind the defensive line," Gustavsson said. "I dissected Alex Morgan's last 100 goals when I was with the U.S. and I did the same thing with Sam when I come on board.

"I looked at every single type of goal she scored for the last five years or so, and looked at what type of goal does she score. When she was at her best in the U.S., they played a 4-2-3-1 with the linking No. 10 and 75% was in transition."

"That's one of the reasons why we changed shape in the Olympics. But I wanted to go back to the back four, because we have Steph Catley and Ellie who are world-class outside backs and then you can argue 'Why not play them as wingbacks?'. Then, you need to find three world-class centre backs. In order to do that, I need to be able to cover ground with two midfielders."

But why two midfielders? There's enough to suggest a 3-5-2 could extract the maximum out of Kerr and Foord as a strike partnership, while remaining flexible with Gorry in midfield as well as limiting ground coverage for a defensive pairing of Clare Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy that is diminishing in terms of recovery pace.

But for the Matildas coach, the logistical constraints of international football supersede the basis of compatibility.

"There's a lot of advantages with 3-5-2. The thing that we need to consider with international teams that have very limited time to train," Gustavsson said.

"I'd say with the 3-5-2, even if it was better tactical for some players, the key question for me would be: 'Do we have time to implement all the nuances? And have them feel comfortable in playing?'

"That would be like the No. 1 key and now we have, you know, to be really transparent here. Right now we've settled that we want to play 4-3-3."

Despite what that all represents, it's what made the second-half switch to play Gorry and Alex Chidiac together in midfield in Canberra so distinct. It immediately allowed Kerr to stay at home on the shoulders of the defensive line, because the requirement to receive the ball between the lines was no longer essential.

Chances and openings were created, Kerr looked more comfortable, and Australia still functioned despite the volatility that comes with needing to back up in the second game of an international window.

"Sam had more runs in behind the backline that we spoke about before," Gustavsson said post-game on Tuesday. "That's her No. 1 skill set, and when we have three quick footballers in there [the midfield] with brains and feet that can combine, it means you can stay a bit higher and time runs in behind.

"She had much more runs in behind the backline tonight than the first game."

There is a frustration that comes with the fact it has taken this long to act upon such obvious areas of improvement for the Matildas.

More evidence against stronger opposition will not only provide clarity as to what can or will happen on the pitch, but also about the decisions and thought processes that inform it.

The Asian Cup exit at the hands of South Korea laid bare a desperate need to adjust, and the reaction to that was evident against New Zealand; the question going forward will ultimately be by how much?