Matildas coach silences critics after 'embarrassing' furore at Women's World Cup

Fans were calling for Tony Gustavsson to be sacked after the Matildas suffered a shock loss to Nigeria.

Tony Gustavsson and Matildas players at the Women's World Cup.
Tony Gustavsson has led the Matildas to the World Cup semi-finals in a historic first for Australia. Image: Getty

What a difference two and a half weeks makes. Fans were calling for Tony Gustavsson to be sacked as Matildas coach after a shock 3-2 loss to Nigeria in the second game of the Women's World Cup.

Now he's led his side to a historic semi-final - the first time an Aussie football team (men's or women's) has made it this far at a World Cup. But not so long ago the knives were out, with commentators and fans questioning Gustavsson's coaching ability and tactics.

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After a 1-0 win over Ireland in their opening game, the Matildas slumped to a shock loss against Nigeria that left their World Cup hopes in serious jeopardy. Questions were being asked as to why Gustavsson waited so long to bring fresh legs onto the pitch in the second half, with Nigeria claiming a 3-1 lead after a number of Matildas mistakes.

The coach didn't make a substitution until the 82nd minute and even then it was a strange one, with central defender Clare Polkinghorne replacing winger Cortnee Vine. Forward Alex Chidiac was then introduced three minutes later, providing a huge attacking spark as Chidiac, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter all had shots saved or narrowly miss. Kennedy was also pushed up from the back to act as a striker, leaving fans and commentators gobsmacked.

Socceroos legend Mark Schwarzer was among the many to question Gustavsson's tactics, saying: “I think when he looks back at the substitutions he made and the type of substitutions he made, he will look back with a bit of regret. Bringing in Polkinghorne and moving Alanna Kennedy up front was way too early. It wasn’t effective until late in the game. I think when Chidiac came on she was a big difference. She should have probably scored, but I think if she had been on the field earlier it could have been a different result.

Tony Gustavsson and Sam Kerr.
Tony Gustavsson and Sam Kerr at the Women's World Cup. (Photo by Elsa - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“Nigeria are quick, they’re very energetic. They’ve got Asisat Oshoale who comes on. There’s 20 minutes to go and they’ve made four substitutions and we haven’t made one. What are our players thinking? They’ve made five substitutions and we haven’t made one.”

Former Matildas player Amy Chapman added: “Chidiac really made a difference, we really needed that 15 minutes earlier. He needed to go for it. There’s a 3-1 gap there. It’s too late. They’re getting frustrated. Nigeria are dropping further and further back. It was too late.”

Tony Gustavsson has silenced Matildas critics

To his credit, Gustavsson did concede that he may have switched things up too late. "Should I have done it earlier and we could have played longer with that positive effect?" he wondered. "The No.1 challenge is to find the right answer before you know whether it's right or wrong. We had momentum and sometimes when you want to sub you don't want to disrupt the momentum. I'm going to review whether I did it too late or not."

Fans labelled the performance 'embarrassing' and 'awful', and many even suggested Gustavsson should be sacked. But the coach's review has worked a trick and he's undoubtedly found the right combinations.

The Matildas responded with a 4-0 thrashing of Canada to top their group, before dusting Denmark 2-0 in the round of 16. Their penalty shootout win over France in the quarter-final has made him the most successful coach in Australian history given no Aussie team had ever made the semi-finals before.

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His next challenge will be how he handles superstar Sam Kerr in the semi against England. After missing the first three games with a calf injury, Kerr played 15 minutes against Denmark and 65 minutes against France - both off the bench. Kerr said her plan was always to be fully-fit by the semi-finals, and Gustavsson previously said she wouldn't start unless she could go the 90 minutes.

"It was a massive decision before the game to leave her on the bench. Then it was about the timing. You want the timing right," Gustavsson said on Saturday.

"I was informed that she had limited minutes today. Then we needed to put extra time into consideration. What is the risk that she pulls the calf and how many minutes does she actually have?

"That was a massive decision to get that right. I think that we got it right and we should have scored. We had them but then when Sam came on we really had them on the hook." The Matildas will lock horns with England at 8pm on Wednesday night at Stadium Australia in Sydney.

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