Australia find winning formula in Olympic opener vs. New Zealand

play
Teagan Micah on Matildas debut: Just get it over with (1:13)

Teagan Micah joins The Far Post podcast to share how it felt to finally get her Matildas debut in the bag. (1:13)

Australia opened their Tokyo Olympics campaign with a 2-1 win over trans-Tasman rivals and future Women's World Cup co-hosts, New Zealand.

Sam Kerr set up the opening goal for Tameka Yallop and scored at Tokyo Stadium to secure Australia's first win under coach Tony Gustavsson. Here are three main talking points from the match.

Formation, formation, formation

Back three? Back four? Wingbacks? Diamond midfield? Front three? False No. 9? Questions abound regarding the formation Matildas boss Tony Gustavsson would deploy against New Zealand; the game, he insisted, that his team have been planning for ever since their first pre-Games friendly in April. The five friendlies Australia have played in the build-up -- against Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan -- were all used to experiment, in various ways, just how the Matildas would deal with this stubborn (if under-prepared) New Zealand team.

Once Gustavsson had all his players available, that structural experimentation included the regular use of a back three -- primarily involving Clare Polkinghorne, Steph Catley, and Ellie Carpenter. The problem with this particular choice of players, though, was that the Matildas rely heavily on the latter two full-backs for their width and attacking overlaps on either wing. As a consequence, Australia struggled in the final third in their pre-Olympic friendlies, scoring just four goals. How, the question then ran, could Gustavsson continue with a back three while not compromising the attacking threats Catley and Carpenter posed?

The game against New Zealand showed us just how. The key, it turns out, came from another player entirely: Aivi Luik. By having Luik drop next to Polkinghorne in certain transition moments, it created opportunities for both Catley and Carpenter to drive up-field. Over the course of the game, attacking runs came down both sides -- Carpenter in a five-minute burst, Catley in another -- but rarely together at the same time; one tended to hang back to maintain the back three while the other galloped forward.

Functionally, then, Gustavsson's defensive formation was a fluid and flexible back three with the freedom afforded by a back four. Put even more simply: the Matildas played with both. And it worked. Both Catley and Carpenter were some of Australia's most dangerous attacking threats, repeatedly sending whipping crosses into the box. Catley, in particular, led the entire field in crosses and chances created.

For fans watching from home -- particularly those of us who had seen the experimentation of the previous five friendlies -- this was the most "Matildas-y" performance of the lot, in part because of the balance Gustavsson has found to unleash two of its most exciting attacking players. And we loved it.

- Women's Olympic soccer bracket and fixtures schedule
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

Is Yallop the midfielder Australia has been missing?

Tameka Yallop seems to pop up in just the right place at just the right time. She was Australia's historic goal-scorer in their first ever win over the United States at the 2017 Tournament of Nations -- a clever, deep, untracked run from midfield and a poke past Alyssa Naeher that made the rest of the world sit up and pay attention.

She did almost exactly the same thing to open the scoring against New Zealand. Related to the above point about formation, the benefit of this fluid back three/four is that Tameka Yallop was no longer forced to stay in the hyper-wide winger position as she did in some of the preparation friendlies. Instead, she was played more centrally -- given license to make the line-breaking runs from midfield that she has become known for. Her delightful one-two with Sam Kerr wouldn't have happened had Yallop not naturally been charging forward from a more central role, overlapping past Kerr and setting herself clear to absolutely thrash Australia's first goal home.

Goal aside, Yallop was clearly much more comfortable in that central box-to-box midfield role, with the engine and the spatial awareness to drop deeper when necessary but also wise enough to know when to move forward with the rest of Australia's attacking players.

While most of the focus leading up to the Games has been on Gustavsson's experiments defensively, there hasn't been as much attention paid to how Australia is going to do the thing that you need to do in these tournaments: score goals. With Sam Kerr largely marked out of existence (despite her alien ability to score goals anyway -- as we saw with her header for Australia's second here), the Matildas have struggled to connect their midfield with the front two/three over the course of the friendlies. But tonight showed what it looks like when other players step up and offer attacking threats; what happens when they get up and around Kerr to offer her support.

Kyah Simon offered that structural support, too, being brought into more central positions from her starting spot as a right winger and having some of Australia's best opportunities on goal. For all the doubt and anxiety Gustavsson's experimentations caused, it appears -- at least against an under-cooked New Zealand side -- to be working. The question now is whether he will, or should, stick with this system going forward.

Welcome to the Chaos Group

Australia, it seems, is cursed. Somehow, they always found themselves in a tough group. It's happened with the Matildas at this Olympics, as it did in the last one at Rio. It's also happening with the Olyroos -- the men's under-23s team -- who take on Argentina, Spain, and Egypt in the men's tournament later this week.

But a more appropriate term, at least where the Matildas are concerned, is surely the "Group of Chaos." At the 2019 Women's World Cup, despite being grouped in with Brazil, Italy, and Jamaica -- largely unassuming opponents, to say the least -- it became one of the most frantic, chaotic groups of the entire tournament. Remember the Miracle of Montpellier? That doesn't happen in a stable, predictable group where everything goes according to plan.

Neither, it seems, does the reigning World Champions USWNT losing their first group game of the Olympics 3-0. Their 44-match unbeaten streak was snapped by a staggeringly good Sweden side (who Australia drew 0-0 with just a few weeks ago) that barely gave them a moment to breathe, let alone construct the kinds of free-flowing, choreographed moves the U.S. were known for as they danced their way to the World Cup in France.

It was one of the most unexpected results of the entire first match-day (equalled, perhaps, by Japan's late equaliser against dark horses Canada) and has given Group G an entirely different complexion. Heading into match day two on Saturday, the U.S. -- the United States! -- are at the bottom of the group. Zero points. Zero goals scored. Three conceded. Their next opponent? New Zealand.

But the chaos didn't stop in the game between the two heavy hitters. In the closing moments of Australia's match, New Zealand managed to nick a goal through young starlet Gabbie Rennie, meaning the final score was 2-1. That conceded goal may come back to bite the Matildas when it gets to the squeaky-bum end of the group stage, where stats like goal difference can decide which of the best third-placed teams go through to the quarter-finals.

Australia, then, need to try and put a bunch of goals past their next opponent on Saturday in order to bump up those stats, just in case. Who's that again? Oh, right. Godspeed, Tillies.