One-dimensional, volatile and the Van Egmond conundrum: It's time to get real with the Matildas

It was the 32nd minute, and Australia had just won a throw-in against South Korea. With an absence of forward passing options, the ball goes from Ellie Carpenter on the Matildas' right out to Steph Catley on the other flank and back -- a total of eight passes across the defensive line.

For the ninth pass in the action, Clare Wheeler finally creates an angle to progress the ball into South Korea's half, and feeds the retreating Kyah Simon. But it's a slightly heavy ball, forcing Simon to play an inconsequential pass to a passive Sam Kerr, who then hot potatoes the ball to Mary Fowler.

Fowler then tries a diagonal pass over the defence to Emily van Egmond who, despite advancing into the penalty area from deep in midfield, has almost no chance of even getting to the ball, let alone forcing a save out of South Korean keeper Kim Jung-mi. The ball trickles out, and the Matildas concede a penalty in the next passage.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Tony Gustavsson's Australia -- at the AFC Women's Asian Cup, at the Tokyo Olympics, and almost certainly beyond if he stays on as the Matildas' coach. Everything else is just inconsequential noise.

After the initial burst of energy, the Matildas were almost completely lost in possession when the game suddenly settled, and the shots they generated in open play were borne of chaos. Twelve successful crosses out of a total 32 on Sunday is but one detail. There have been so many windows into how one-dimensional the Matildas have been in possession over the preceding three years, the squad is now living in a glasshouse.

With the game in the balance in Pune, South Korea should have put the game away, much like Norway in Nice three years ago.

It's a familiar story. Following home friendlies against Brazil, the question posed was what had Gustavsson actually learned during his time as Matildas coach? Let's not forget, the Matildas finished third in their group in Tokyo, with a negative goal difference and sub-par performances throughout, but a late equaliser and extra-time win against Great Britain made for a fourth-place finish. Consequently, those sub-par performances were papered over as a "successful tournament." The very same issues manifested in home friendlies against the United States.

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Australia's quarterfinal exit on Sunday should hardly come as shock, but to borrow a line from the series BoJack Horseman, it's hard to see the red flags when you're wearing rose-coloured glasses.

The tricky thing about the Asian Cup group stage -- though every game of football says at least something -- is that it is hard to extract substance and rationality out of games that border on the absurd. The Matildas waltzed through Group B with a goal difference of +23, with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand hardly able to lay a glove on them.

Going into Sunday's quarterfinal against South Korea, the main question was, how would Australia fare in transferring that dominance and those victories to the knockout stage? How much of what we had seen to that point in India had been a consequence of Australia's dominance individually, and how much had been borne of a territorial dominance, collectively? That, of course, is in relation to what had been an evident overall disparity in physical and technical quality between the Matildas and their group opponents.

Breaking down Australia's goals in the opening three games provides some kind of insight. With 24 total goals in three games, 17 of those 24 goals had come from shots outside the penalty area, transition and the dead ball, while averaging 69.7% possession in that period -- per Wyscout.

From there, we can start to break down Australia's possession, leading to their goal-scoring opportunities and understanding how they eventuated. Even with that noted disparity in team quality and the small sample size, we could at least understand how the Matildas differed in approach and realisation to the other group winners, Japan and China.

In comparison, both with regards to initial numbers and the eye test, the Matildas are much more robust than others under Gustavsson. As a kind of disclaimer, keep the volume of Australia's possession in mind as a basis. Of the teams that made the knockout stage, they held the longest average pass distance at 20.78 metres, and were only second in that category behind Iran with 21.01.

While the other group winners in China (5.09%) and Japan (6.33%) averaged 34.22 and 35.14 long passes respectively, the Matildas were looking long at an average of 45.63 times a match. However, Australia really differentiate from the other two when weighing that against the total of passes. For China, it only represented 5.09% of their average of 672.19 total passes, and 6.33% out of a total 554.79 for Japan. Meanwhile, long passes represented 9.22% of Australia's 495 passes per match in the group stage.

In essence, Gustavsson's Australia actively seek to create a more volatile and combative game, concentrating on ball recovery and second-phase play in attack, and pressing in the immediate defensive phase. Though still evident in the opening win over Indonesia, the relatively smaller gap in quality made the Philippines and Thailand games more distinct in this regard.

Thus, the question becomes why?

The subject of Van Egmond's deployment had been one of notable conjecture during the group stage, and leading into the tournament. The first half against the Philippines provided evidence -- once again -- of how she doesn't excel as Australia's deepest midfielder. A big early chance to Chandler McDaniel hinted to Australia's distinct susceptibilities in the event they lose the ball deeper on the pitch.

While Wheeler might be the optimal choice of the Matildas' midfield options in India, that's arguably only relative. The likes of Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross and Tameka Yallop represent an overt similarity in the middle of the pitch for Australia: High physical and aerobic capacity, but they won't really look for the ball and force a packed defence to collapse onto them.

That Carpenter is such a furious attacking force from right-back, allowing for Australia to progress the ball, obscured necessity from convenience. It's of little surprise the majority of Australia's attacks over the opening three group games (39%) came from that right side -- which also incorporates Fowler.

Though Cooney-Cross and Fowler exhibit a higher technical capacity than Yallop, none really prefer to receive the ball to feet in tight spaces. It's only when the game opens up and spaces get stretched that they feel secure between the lines; they flourish in situations of open space and trailing the ball from midfield.

Meanwhile Van Egmond is an extreme case, in relation to the other three. Like a female equivalent of Paul Pogba, she combines an exceptional passing range and long-range shooting threat with a languid dribbling style, while still being able to dominate physically. But it's almost all undone by passive movement off the ball that borders on the anaemic.

However unfortunate Wheeler's injury-forced substitution was against South Korea, it was some kind of cosmic symmetry that we were able to have deeply relevant evidence with respect to her and Van Egmond. Because, following Wheeler's exit, the 28-year-old was shifted to the No. 6 role and Australia completely lost control of the game.

Then, there's the question of Kerr and Caitlin Foord. Whether they are best-suited to their current roles remains as prevalent an issue as during the 2019 Women's World Cup. Kerr's rate of goal-scoring muddles the question of the team's net gain, much like Tim Cahill, the person she surpassed as Australia's all-time record goal-scorer.

As they are currently composed, Australia must play in such a robust manner, because they arguably can't play any other way. As a result, the team's ceiling against the world's strongest opposition -- with one eye on next year's Women's World Cup -- is clear. Passive possession interspersed by long diagonals, and hoping the benefit from the chaos that ensues, is not strategy that will work against well-drilled defences.

But questions too difficult to answer and the deeply fragile echo chamber that is Australian football go hand in hand. This especially applies in relation to the deeply pragmatic but affable Gustavsson, and the toxic positivity that is connected to his tenure as coach of the Matildas.

It's not hard to understand its genesis, given the very real issues that have troubled Australian women's football in recent past. But it's removed rationality from the discourse in relation to the actual football, and in the public sphere, goalposts shift only once results perceivably don't align with performances -- which are and have been lacklustre in reality. Any critical or dissident sentiment in this regard, irrespective of prudence, is invalidated.

For the benefit of the game as a whole, Australian football needs to be honest with itself. In relation to the Matildas specifically, especially with a home World Cup on the horizon, this is a fundamentally flawed team exacerbated by fundamentally flawed tactical approach.