USWNT? Paris Olympics? What’s next for Matildas boss Gustavsson

After guiding Australia to their best Women’s World Cup finish, following from their best Olympics result in Tokyo in 2021, there’s little doubt that Tony Gustavsson sat in a position of strength as he declared his affection for the Matildas deep in the depths of Lang Park after defeat by Sweden in their World Cup third-place playoff.

“What I can say is I love working with this team,” he said. “It resonates with me as a coach; their identity and their why. I don’t see this as an end of a journey. I see it as the beginning of a journey. But I also want to be very clear that I want to see investment now. I really do. I want to see investment, and I mean real investment that we’re serious about what we do.”

It’s not complicated. The Matildas have reached the final four of both the World Cup and Olympic Games under Gustavsson. They’ve become public and commercial darlings, setting attendance and ratings records as the nation rallied around them on a scale that defied all rhyme and reason. Even if his technical reputation is in dispute among the footballing community, his success and affable nature mean he is a popular figure. Gustavsson legitimately scores highly on the Good Bloke Index™, which is increasingly preferred by decision-makers when it comes to the coaches they appoint.

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Add to this the calamitous circumstances that befell the likes of Brazil, Germany and the United States throughout the tournament, and the blessed stability Australian football has had since he arrived, compared with the disaster that was the handling of Alen Stajcic’s sacking and lack of planning associated with Ante Milicic’s stop-gap appointment and subsequent stand down during COVID, and Football Australia has even more reason to not rock the boat.

Admittedly, as is the case after every major tournament and international window, the federation will review the national team’s performance in the weeks ahead. But a precedent has been set on that front. Earlier this year, Football Australia gave out-of-contract Socceroos boss Graham Arnold a rich new deal that also provided significant sway over the future of Australia’s men’s programs. They did this without speaking to any other candidates, just a month on from the end of the Socceroos’ impressive run to the round of 16 in Qatar. It didn’t matter that the federation itself had previously leaked against Arnold, flagging that he was one the verge of losing his job less than a year prior. By whatever means, he had got results. He had won at the World Cup.

Besides, the Matildas’ success means the pool of potential candidates for the role should Gustavsson depart is small. After their explosion in popularity, and the failure of Vlatko Andonovski with the USWNT, it’s difficult to see how Football Australia could hire a domestic candidate with no international coaching experience for a team of this profile and ambition. The most likely scenario is that Gustavsson stays at least to the end of his contract after the 2024 Paris Olympics and that Football Australia looks to extend it if/when qualification for Paris arrives. Further investment and resources for the women’s program, senior and junior, will also likely come.

So if there is to be any realistic reason as to why Gustavsson might not be the one to lead the Matildas, it would be the Swede making the call himself.

A two-time World Cup-winning assistant with the USWNT, Gustavsson has been linked with the now-vacant head coaching position left by Andonovski’s resignation — the most prestigious, and one of the better-remunerated, jobs in women’s football. It is debatable if the USWNT would be well served by going back to the future at a time of ostensible renewal, but Gustavsson’s former boss, Jill Ellis, has praised him, as one would expect, declaring that he “should definitely be a strong candidate for the job.” Former USWNT mainstay Tobin Heath, meanwhile, identified the Swede as a potential candidate on the RE-CAP show, saying he was both a leader and a teacher.

Elsewhere, the money flooding into the women’s domestic game across the world is exploding — the latest Bay Area expansion franchise in the NWSL paid a reported $US53 million expansion fee — and there are likely a few clubs that wouldn’t mind appointing Gustavsson, who previously led Tyresö to a Champions League final.

On an even more base level, it’s difficult to figure how it can ever get better for Gustavsson than right now: The Matildas will never be more loved, more watched, or more inspirational, than at this moment. The coach may have increasingly begun to note the contrasting opinions surrounding his performances during press conferences, but he has always benefited from largely friendly coverage — especially when compared with someone like Arnold. He might realise it could legitimately be all downhill from here. Which, honestly, is fair enough.

Optimistically, his answer on returning being couched in qualifiers that things had to change, and more investment, especially in the long-term, was a heartfelt plea from someone invested in the long run. Cynically, it’s laying the foundation for an exit pinned on a lack of backing and support from the federation. It was a statement that did raise some eyebrows, open enough for speculation to occur.

Of course, if you’re a new follower of the Matildas, caught up in the excitement of the World Cup and eager for more, that this is even a conversation may seem incredulous. Of course he’s coming back. The Matildas came fourth! In the planet’s biggest sport!

But as a newly christened “football country,” debating the merits of everything post-tournament is important. In football, especially international football, inertia is death; teams must evolve and improve constantly to remain competitive. In the rapidly evolving women’s game, this is heightened. Players must be moved on, and others brought through, integrated and used most effectively. Tactics and approaches must not just be fit for purpose but reflect the talent and spirit of its country — national teams are supposed to be the idealised vision of an entire country’s footballing efforts.

And what was notable at the World Cup was that, from a football perspective, there was very little difference in the way the Matildas attempted to play, regardless of the prevailing state of the game. At a base level, the circumstances that allowed this team to thrive were the same as the ones that caused them to struggle, with far less of the adaptability or effective pragmatism displayed by the tournament’s best teams such as England and Spain. The team, particularly in defence, has grown under Gustavsson since he arrived (boosted by the late addition of assistant Jens Fjellström) but it remains a fast, physical, transition-based outfit that doesn’t function well as the ball-dominant side. The first instinct when the plan isn’t working appears simply to be: Do it better; and if that doesn’t work, it’s more often than not long balls forward in the direction of Sam Kerr, with an added dash of hope. There have been signs of more, but they were only fleeting, teasingly so, because the players are capable.

But this World Cup has shown that “underdog” nations, such as those increasingly found in Asia, are attaining the required level of coaching, physicality and organisation to frustrate opponents — for which several of football’s old guard were unprepared. The Matildas’ travails in breaking down embedded defences that denied them transition needs addressing. The Republic of Ireland and Nigeria games, in particular, bear that out. Further, the team scored just once in their final three games of the tournament, and that goal, Kerr’s screamer against England, is not easily replicable. Against the best teams in the world, with the best coaches and players, Australia struggled in competitive fixtures (as opposed to friendlies) to find an answer to these teams’ ability to take a punch and adapt.

Can Gustavsson evolve his approach to counter this? To find a way to beat Spain, England and Sweden? To respond to a resurgent Japan and what will probably be a resurgent USWNT? France, Germany, and Brazil will all likely rebound, too, while Colombia stand at the vanguard of a new wave of challengers. Can he do this while making the hard calls on bringing in fresh talent at the expense a swathe of beloved veterans in the Matildas squad? Can he be the bad guy?

That’s the next step of being a “football nation” and saying “I told you so” — finding a way to win the World Cup.

Gustavsson, in all likelihood, will be back. The nation will be behind him. But the bar has been set higher than ever before, and it needs to be met.

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