Think of a defensive setup in football as a row of dominoes. Just as subtly as the flick of one's fingers, a singular pass or movement has the ability to make them all tumble. One desperate defensive action forces another action, then another and another -- everything growing increasingly frenzied with each response.
All the while, the team in attack can anticipate and exploit the space this defensive scrambling can create.
In a 2-1 loss to Italy to open their Women's World Cup campaign on Sunday, Australia did not just flick their own row of dominoes into collapse. They also scooped them all up with two hands and threw them in the air like confetti.
After the match, Australia's high defensive line was underlined publicly as the root cause. Matildas head coach Ante Milicic was asked whether it needs to be deployed more conservatively against Brazil on Thursday. In reality, it has very little to do with how his team defended -- primarily, at least. Rather, it pertains more to the relationship between defense and attack.
"We're not going to change our style because we conceded a goal," Milicic said after the defeat.
What exactly is that style, though? To understand the frightening ease with which Italy found ways to penetrate Australia's defensive lines, one must think about how the team is trying to attack under Milicic, along with assistant coaches Ivan Jolic and Gary van Egmond, from shape and direction to all-important selection.
Despite her rehabilitation from a long-term ankle injury, Katrina Gorry's meager allotment of minutes on Sunday -- and in pre-tournament friendlies against the Netherlands and the United States -- both did and didn't make sense.
The Matildas are looking to make the pitch as big as possible in both initial and advanced phases of possession. Along with wingers spreading from touchline to touchline, the space between the central defensive pairing, Claire Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy, and Sam Kerr in attack is stretched.
Such a ploy is intended to create more one-on-one situations with space that can be exploited by speed. Against a set defense that is compacted, though, it only denies the team from having numbers around the ball and limits attacking options.
This is exacerbated by the deep and square positioning of those Milicic described postmatch as his "two sixes," Emily van Egmond and Tameka Yallop. The former had a significant part to play in Barbara Bonansea's disallowed goal and 56th-minute equalizer.
In the ninth minute, Van Egmond forced a pass into a four-on-two situation. It was a pass that wasn't at all on, in terms of collective positioning and ability to keep the ball, going on from that pass. The weight of Italian numbers naturally wins possession, but because the central midfield is also stretched, it forces the defensive line to step up to stop the ball. There were two similar instances of stretched attacking shape that led to chances for Ilaria Mauro in the opening 10 minutes, and the Matildas were mere centimeters from a nightmare start.
Kerr's 22nd-minute penalty might have changed the scoreline, but with inert movement from midfield and players across the pitch effectively in isolation, it didn't change the complexion.
Although Polkinghorne's poor control critically led to Bonansea's equalizer, three decisions from Van Egmond on and off the ball forced the team backward, creating negative risk. The manner in which Australia continually lost possession, borne not solely of decisions but also of plan, put the defense in scenarios in which it had to effectively pick its poison. Italy consequently didn't need to manipulate its way through. The path to goal was laid with red carpet.
Delayed passing and movement contributed to eight Italian offsides, which denied legitimate goal-scoring opportunities. If anything, a high defensive line exploits that. Considering a second disallowed goal and multiple openings in transition -- all before Bonansea's eventual winner -- the Australian shot count in comparison to Italy's (17-5) becomes a red herring. Defenders ultimately live and die off the pressure their midfields apply and relieve.
That Lisa De Vanna was the first substitution -- coming on for Chloe Logarzo on the hour -- highlighted the Australian coaching staff's complete incomprehension of that reality. Because if Van Egmond suffocates a team with ill-advised distribution and conservative movement, Gorry gives a team oxygen.
Gorry is a unicorn in Australian football. When she was "herself," her combination of positional sense, technique and decision-making in midfield was entirely unique in Australian football. It's little wonder that the Matildas' middling form the past year correlated with her gradual move to the periphery under Alen Stajcic.
There has never been a player, male or female, like her in the Australian game -- never that refined in that position. Deeper in central midfield, Gorry has the ability to attract defenders and create separation from them in tight space, leading to better openings for the collective.
Her play is defined by short and explosive dribbles, assertive movement and an ability to progress the ball as well as keep it. That's everything a penetrative and effective midfielder needs in football today to create domino effects during phases of possession in the defensive and middle thirds. And that ultimately impacts what happens in the front third.
The ability to have opposition midfielders and attackers, who are defending in a block, turning directly toward their own goal also acts as a defensive mechanism. Despite her relatively short time on the pitch Sunday, the Matildas' ability to fluidly change ball speed was dramatically different. By then, however, momentum was with the Azzurre. Lines were stretched. It was too late.
A player with those kinds of attributes -- and explosiveness over the first five steps as opposed to longer distances -- requires numbers around the ball, though. That's ultimately incompatible to Milicic and his coaching staff's tactical implementation. In this setup, Gory is likely to receive minutes only as the most advanced midfielder.
That misinterpretation of what a midfield must do in attack and how it impacts the control of a match over 90 minutes is not exclusive to the Matildas. That's a problem with Australian football as a whole.