Matildas confirm progress with performances vs. New Zealand

If the Matildas' existence had a danger rating attached to it, with off periods at one end of the scale and full-blown chaos at the other, it feels as though the lever has been stuck in the chaos section for three years.

That scale has influenced the way in which the team is viewed and discussed, and with good reason; but Australia's latest 3-1 win against New Zealand, and the two victories within the series, seemingly didn't fit that narrative.

No game exists in isolation so when looking at these performances and the surrounding discussion of the two games, particularly in the lead-up, the rewind button needs to be hit to understand what exactly is going on.

There was concern, confusion and consternation heading into the friendlies, and not all of it was unwarranted. The Matildas' first matches since their AFC Asian Cup failure carried a certain need to prove a point. But it goes back further than the South Korea result.

It is not controversial to say Australia's Women's National Team has existed in chaotic times for three years, and the chaos has become so normalised that the wider Matildas community hasn't just set up camp in it; they've built houses and decorated the walls within the chaos. It has become the new normal.

And that's not to say it hasn't been justified.

Since Alen Stajcic's sacking in 2019, the Matildas haven't really known peace. The aftermath of that sacking was coupled with concerns over how the team would actually perform at the World Cup in 2019.

Following their Round-of-16 exit, players spoke of how difficult the going had been, trying to exist and play football under this cloud. And while that subsided, never fully, the next layer of uncertainty came.

Firstly through the speculation about Ante Milicic's coaching future, then the last-minute decision to move Olympic qualifying from China to Australia. The pandemic didn't create chaos just for the Matildas, but it added another layer to an already chaotic pile for them.

Securing Olympic qualification then turned into not playing for nearly 400 days. In that time a new coach was found and the bid to host the World Cup was won. These were positive announcements that placated certain questions, but they also brought with them their own uncertainties.

How were the Matildas going to go about winning a World Cup on home soil? Was Tony Gustavsson the right person for the job? What was his plan to take this team to the summit? Did he have enough time to do so after a year with no action?

The opening games in the Gustavsson era were brutal but necessary. Even with context, consistent losses created feelings of danger and uncertainty once again.

The Olympics were a high, but they also made the next lows feel even more dramatic. Continued dominant off-field stories couldn't and shouldn't be ignored. Further friendly losses followed by the Asian Cup quarterfinal exit ensured the Matildas still lived on Chaos Street.

The decision not to play in the February FIFA window immediately after the Asian Cup was made to give the national team set-up a break but, with hindsight, it feels like the community collectively needed a break.

That brings us to these New Zealand friendlies.

For the first time in what felt like forever, there was no immediate tournament to prepare for. There was no obvious chaos or precariousness. A response was needed following the Asian Cup, but enough time had passed that even that concern wasn't as all-consuming as it had been in January. And that felt confusing.

What was the point of these friendlies? What were we meant to learn? What was going to be solved by playing these games?

It turns out that peace, or some version of it, had come to feel like uncertainty.

Seeing what is arguably the strongest starting XIs trotted out over two friendly games for two eventual wins against New Zealand, and some of the best football played under Gustavsson, felt boring. The chaos lens had warped perceptions.

Half-an-hour for fringe players could have been more, but Gustavsson's now oft-stated aim is no longer about testing these players to the extent he did last year but rather cohesion, consistency and continuity.

In some ways, Matildas fans had forgotten that following international football isn't lurching from one period of unpredictability to the next. Sometimes it is just two games against opponents, as part of the boring, unsexy, long-term preparation for bigger goals.

The first game threatened to keep the chaos-mode lens in play, but those last-minute goals were worth something. They validated the performance's imperfections -- namely the plethora of missed opportunities.

The second game against the Football Ferns saw goals scored in a more timely fashion. Sam Kerr and Hayley Raso scored within two minutes of each other before Kerr netted again. There was disappointment at allowing New Zealand to peg one back, but, for the most part, the first half in Canberra saw the performance and scoreboard align.

The second half was a different story. Five substitutions in the one window in the 60th minute created a new-look team, and the performance reflected that.

"That's one of the reasons why I actually did the changes because I wanted some energy in there and wanted players to come in and have to prove a point and want to show the head coach 'I belong here, I want to play'," Gustavsson said.

"And I do think we got a little bit of an effect on that in the beginning. And then I do think we had a second wave of drop off so to speak. And it was a great opportunity for us to practice game management."

Just as the substitutions served a purpose, so, too, did trotting out essentially the same line-up for the games: A line-up that was arguably Australia's best.

"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 along with being 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 our playing," Gustavsson said.

Being further along the process, while becoming a bit of a sports cliche, has some credibility given the Matildas clearly played some of their very best football against New Zealand.

For Gustavsson, this wasn't the first sighting of this football.

"We internally have seen the progress in the journey for a while now even though the result might not have been the necessity; it started with the first game against Brazil, when we started to see bits and pieces of things that we wanted to do," he said. He also noted chunks of the loss to the United States, and the group stages of the Asian Cup, as being the best showings of what this team was trying to do.

The latest performances against New Zealand showed that same great football and had the results. But it wasn't just Gustavsson trying to convince the public of a good performance in a scrappy win either. These games felt like performance, scoreboard, and the community were all singing from the same hymn sheet.

There is still a World Cup on the horizon, and the team's time together is limited. More solid performances and wins against higher-ranked opponents would be ideal as 2023 draws closer.

But chaos no longer reigns supreme. The next seven FIFA windows don't need to be viewed through the lens of uncertainty and the anxiety that creates. The lever has been pulled down a notch or so. And the discourse should follow.