Matildas struggle against packed-in defence again but can take lessons from win vs. Philippines

It was the match people had circled in their diaries as soon as the AFC Asian Cup draw came out. When former Australian head coach Alen Stajcic took charge of the Philippines, it seemed inevitable that he would face his old side. That clash finally arrived on matchday two with the Matildas running out 4-0 victors over the Philippines.

For 50 minutes, Stajcic's Malditas kept the Matildas scoreless through a combination of defensive effort and wastefulness by the Australians. While it was frustrating for Australian fans, it wasn't necessarily surprising. Throughout the tenure of Matildas manager Tony Gustavsson, he has more than once brought up how the stats and the final scoreline haven't necessarily aligned.

It's a problem that injured Matildas midfielder Chloe Logarzo noted on the broadcast after the Indonesia game, a nugget that arguably slipped under the radar due to the focus on Gustavsson's substitution choices. Logarzo explained how the 18-0 win was important for the Matildas because they aren't always the most clinical side -- and that was again the case versus the Philippines, particularly in the first half of this game.

But before the lack of finishing, the Matildas first need to figure out how to best to work through a stout defence like the one they faced against the Philippines. The sight of two lines of four white shirts and another two hovering around the halfway line would have conjured up memories of the last Asian Cup and Australia's difficulty breaking down these kinds of defensive blocks.

It made sense that Stajcic would set up his team this way: his first-hand knowledge of how the Matildas players operate also includes their previous struggles with disciplined defences while he was at the helm. At times, block defence resulted in the backline passing the ball between themselves, with the static midfield offering no obvious course to chart a path forward.

Emily van Egmond was deployed as the deepest-lying midfielder and was consequently tasked with helping bring the ball into attack from the defence. It's a role she plays sufficently but not a role where she shines. Gustavsson defended the decision to play her as the No. 6 after the match.

"We knew that the Philippines was going to kick long a lot," he said. "They never play out from the back, they take minimum risks in the build-up, and they're going to go long a lot. So we wanted to have EVE's aerial presence, and I think she was dominating in the air in there today.

"And then also, the other thing is, we knew it was going to be very, very compact in the central areas. And we wanted to have EVE's long-range passing."

While the height consideration has merit, the consensus remains that Van Egmond is at her best closer to goal. Her long range passing and through-balls -- which she was able to show off against Indonesia -- are at their most effective and most impactful when they are assists or secondary assists, rather than as the first point of call playing out from the back.

Although it took longer than fans would have liked for the Matildas to figure out the Philippines defence, the team eventually started to make some headway a quarter of the way through the game. However, they did so without really testing Kiara Fontanilla, the debutant Philippines goalkeeper who got her chance due to injuries and positive COVID tests.

"We knew this was going to be a very different game from the opening, and I have to give a lot of credit to the Philippines -- I think they made it very difficult for us," Gustavsson said. "They've done really good preparation work going into this game. I think we were able to stay focused and not get frustrated.

"What can happen in a game like this is, when you create that many chances as we did in the first half and the stats say that we should be up three to four nil and you don't get those goals, you can tend to sometimes lose your head and get frustrated," he added. "We talked about that at halftime and said yes, stay focused on what we're doing. Keep doing it -- just doing it faster than in the first half. And the players came out with a conviction and confidence in the second half that they knew that when the first goal comes is probably going to come the second and the third and the fourth. And so it did."

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Doing it faster seemed to be the main difference after the break. Where the opening 50 minutes saw disjointed play, a lack of fluid movement, and missed chances, the Matildas finally started to move the ball quicker in the second half.

Aided by a loosening of the Philippines defensive solidity, the quicker ball movement in turn created the space which allowed them to use their pace. Throw in the one-on-one abilities and dribbling of the likes of Holly McNamara and Cortnee Vine, who made her debut, and the Matildas attack as a whole looked more threatening.

While the Matildas' reliance on wide play, crosses, and set pieces can be a source of frustration for fans, particularly when they aren't coming off, it was through these methods that they scored their four goals.

Sam Kerr's header to open the scoring was arguably the most difficult one she had attempted up until that point. Steph Catley's corner was terrific. A Van Egmond long ball into Kerr in the box eventually ended up in the back of the net off a Philippines player only minutes later.

Van Egmond would then turn scorer, needing two goes to finish off a short corner routine, which saw Kyah Simon and Catley exchange touches before the latter once again sent in a good delivery. Mary Fowler came to life in the second half and capped it off with the fourth and final goal. McNamara and Nevin combined on the left with Nevin putting in a cross that was cleared only so far as Fowler who struck sweetly from the top of the box.

The consensus post-match was that the Philippines had by no means disgraced themselves. Gustavsson did not expect the Philippines to be easy beats, noting their impressive performance against Thailand on the opening match day. Stajcic spoke of his pride at seeing his Philippines team remain disciplined and defensively resolute for as a long as they did.

"It was an outstanding performance," Stajcic said. "I couldn't be any prouder of the way that they fought and battled and the effort was outstanding against a really truly world-class team.

"For our players to step up to that level and be able to hold them out for the 50 minutes and really only concede off a corner, it just shows the resilience that the team showed, the fight, the effort, it makes us really proud that we could match that team for so long and keep them at bay."

Even with their loss to Australia, the Malditas have put themselves in the best possible position to progress through to the quarterfinals thanks to their first-up win against Thailand -- and qualification to the 2023 World Cup not outside the realm of possibility either.

As for the Matildas, two wins in their opening two games secures a spot in the quarterfinals with China and South Korea, who are through in the final eight, with one more group stage match against Thailand left to play.