Isuzu UTE Road to July: Fascinating 33-game table puts World Cup debate into focus

Another pair of friendly international fixtures. Another chance to glean an insight into the World Cup thinking of Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson. 

The Matildas are ready to take two significant steps en route to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup as they face Scotland and England – the European champions – in London.

Then comes a milestone that makes the impending event feel all the more real: Tuesday, April 11 marks 100 days until the World Cup begins, and with every squad selected by Gustavsson comes an even clearer template of the combination of players he plans to take into the seismic tournament on home soil.

But which players are in the box seat to earn a spot in the World Cup squad? And how big of a factor will club minutes prove to be when Gustavsson makes his final call? 

The Swede has overseen 33 games since taking control of the national side in April, 2021. His tenure looked as though it might unravel in mid-2022 before a dramatic uplift in form just before the turn of the new year. He’s overseen seven straight victories since October, highlighted by a 4-0 drubbing of European powerhouse Sweden.

Gustavsson has given minutes to 45 different players throughout his time in charge of the green and gold. But which players in his current squad of 24 are best placed to make the final cut for the World Cup? 

KEEPUP takes a look back through Gustavsson’s 33-game tenure to decipher which players are in the box seat to push on towards the World Cup, in the April edition of Isuzu UTE Road to July. 

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Matildas appearances, starts & minutes played since Gustavsson’s arrival

Sorted by minutes played (high to low) from April, 2021

PlayerGames PlayedGames StartedMinutes Played
Sam Kerr31292503
Clare Polkinghorne29272317
Steph Catley27272199
Emily van Egmond30242194
Caitlin Foord25231798
Mary Fowler30171666
Hayley Raso22201649
Ellie Carpenter17171559
Kyra Cooney-Cross25151482
Tameka Yallop23181457
Alanna Kennedy21151432
Teagan Micah14141200
Lydia Williams14121170
Kyah Simon19151167
Katrina Gorry13131117
Courtney Nevin20101089
Aivi Luik17111078
Charlotte Grant16111049
Cortnee Vine1410747
Emily Gielnik206734
Mackenzie Arnold87630
Clare Wheeler135571
Larissa Crummer103342
Chloe Logarzo74335
Clare Hunt32225
Alex Chidiac80189
Beattie Goad31168
Remy Siemsen62154
Emma Checker31149
Laura Brock (née Alleway)51132
Holly McNamara31100
Princess Ibini2090
Amy Sayer3061
Jessika Nash1145
Dylan Holmes1045
Jamilla Rankin1045
Angela Beard3038
Karly Roestbakken1115
Indiah-Paige Riley1014
Taylor Ray1014
Ella Mastrantonio1011
Bryleeh Henry209
Elise Kellond-Knight207
Alexandra Huynh102
Matilda McNamara101

Captain Kerr leading the way

Most games played. Most starts. Most minutes.

It will come as no surprise that Matildas captain, Chelsea FC superstar and repeat Ballon d’Or contender Sam Kerr has topped the charts in each of those departments since Gustavsson first took the reins in April, 2021, playing in 31 of 33 games Gustavsson has overseen, receiving more than 2,500 minutes of national team playing time.

Second on the list of total appearances come Mary Fowler and Emily van Egmond, tied on 30 games played under Gustavsson. The latter is fourth in total minutes throughout that time (2,194), but those minutes and starts have become increasingly difficult to accumulate in recent times due to the reintroduction of Katrina Gorry to the international fold, and the breakout form of Kyra Cooney-Cross. 

Van Egmond missed the Matildas’ October friendlies against South Africa and Denmark with a quad injury. Those two fixtures sparked the side’s run of seven games without defeat, and from those fixtures flourished a midfield pairing of Cooney-Cross and Gorry in a 4-4-2. It seems Van Egmond will need to seize every opportunity afforded to her in camps to come, whilst excelling at club level for National Women’s Soccer League club San Diego Wave in order to figure prominently in Gustavsson’s World Cup thinking. 

Key absentees in April squad

Five of the 13 players with the most appearances under Gustavsson in a Matildas shirt will not be adding to their respective tallies against either Scotland or England. Vice-captain Steph Catley (27 games, 2,199 minutes) and Caitlin Foord (25 games, 1,798 minutes) are the key absentees; the Arsenal duo were both injured in club fixtures leading into this month’s national team camp, and leave significant gaps to plug in the starting XI. 

Then, there’s Alanna Kennedy, Emily Gielnik and Kyah Simon. It’s almost uncanny that the three players’ accumulative minutes under Gustavsson add up to 3,333.

PlayerGames PlayedGames StartedMinutes Played
Alanna Kennedy21151,432
Emily Gielnik206734
Kyah Simon19151,167
Gielnik, Simon and Kennedy under Gustavsson

All three are injured ahead of April’s friendlies; Gielnik might have missed out regardless, after a lean spell for the national team and a limited role at Women’s Super League club Aston Villa in between calf and ankle injuries. The latter rules her out of this month’s camp.

Simon is in a race against the clock to return from an ACL tear suffered in October, whilst Kennedy’s frustrating season rolls on; the centre-back was initially named in the April squad, with just 180 minutes of club football to her name accrued at Manchester City this season. But a “late-acquired injury” saw her replaced in the Australia camp by budding centre-half Matilda McNamara. 

Kennedy is one of three Matildas who play for City in the WSL, with all three selected for national team duty off the back of a limited run in the team.

Kennedy and Hayley Raso (right, centre) with City teammate Alex Greenwood.

The curious case of Fowler and Raso

Mary Fowler is just 20 years of age – but besides Kerr, no player has featured in more Matildas fixtures since Gustavsson’s arrival than the exciting midfielder.

Fowler has amassed 30 appearances for the Matildas since her debut against Brazil in 2018 as a 15-year-old.

In June 2022, she joined Raso and Kennedy at City from Montpellier, and has since battled for regular minutes. Fowler has made nine WSL appearances in 2022-23, for just 122 minutes of game time. 

In contrast, Ellie Carpenter – who in February made her long-awaited return from an ACL injury – has already played more match minutes (185) this season in three appearances than Fowler has managed whilst at City. Holly McNamara, meanwhile, returned from her own ACL layoff at the start of March and has accumulated 378 minutes from five appearances for Liberty A-League club Melbourne City.

Fowler during Manchester City training.

Raso has experienced similar frustration in a City shirt. The winger has played 11 times for 216 minutes in the WSL this season. But the 68-cap Matilda has been brilliant on the international scene of late, highlighting her importance to the team’s success in a blistering Cup of Nations campaign through February which she punctuated with a brace against Czechia. 

In the lead-in to this month’s friendlies against Scotland and England, Raso was adamant that her performances for the national side would not be impacted by her current club climate.

“I feel like when the World Cup comes around, we’ll all be ready to go and firing,” Raso said. “I hope to be a big player for the team at the World Cup.

“I feel like I’m in a really high training environment (at Manchester City). I broke my hand recently, only missed a couple of games from that, but I’m training well, performing well when I’m on the pitch, definitely ready to go.

“So, frustrating as it is in club football, not getting as many playing minutes as I’d like, I feel that when I come over to my national team, I’m getting a lot of minutes and doing well.

“As soon as I put this shirt on to represent my country, I am in good form and ready to go.”

READ: City minutes no issue for Matildas game-changer Hayley Raso

But there is genuine reason for concern about the lack of minutes at club level for some of the Matildas’ biggest names heading toward the World Cup.

It was a topic heatedly debated on the weekend’s edition of Dub Zone, when former Matilda and retired Liberty A-League stalwart Rhali Dobson expressed her frustration at repeat opportunities being afforded to players who are underdone due to injury or sparse minutes at their respective clubs.

”All your best teams in the world, you get taken because you have earned the right with your current performance and your current form,” Dobson said.

There’s still plenty of time for each player’s individual circumstances to change between now and the World Cup – but Gustavsson’s selection criteria will come into sharp focus by the time the tournament rolls around. Will the likes of Gielnik, Chloe Logarzo, Elise Kellond-Knight, Simon and Kennedy all receive a place in the tournament squad should they simply prove themselves fit, and recovered from injury?

Hayley Raso in action for City.

Is it crunch time for the goalkeeper brigade?

Through Gustavsson’s Matildas tenure, Lydia Williams, Teagan Micah and Mackenzie Arnold have engaged in healthy competition for the No.1 jersey. But who will be donning the gloves on the opening matchday of the World Cup against the Republic of Ireland?

Micah and Williams have made 14 apperances apiece under Gustavsson – and although Micah has made more starts (14 v 12) their minutes of game time are almost the same (1,200 v 1,1700).

Then there’s Arnold, who has made only eight appearances for Gustavssson, playing 630 minutes But the important factor to consider is when those minutes have arrived.

PlayerGames PlayedGames StartedMinutes Played
Teagan Micah14141,200
Lydia Williams14121,170
Mackenzie Arnold87630
Micah, Williams and Arnold under Gustavsson

Arnold comes into camp this time around off the back of three-consecutive starts in the Cup of Nations, in which she kept clean sheets against Jamaica and Spain on the way to collecting Player of the Tournament honours.

Sydney FC’s Jada Whyman joins the group in Europe this week as the Matildas’ fourth member of the goalkeeping unit.

Of any of the starting positions in the Matildas XI, Gustavsson’s first-choice keeper for the World Cup could be the one that’s locked up in the April camp, should Arnold both start and excel against Scotland and England.

It was a topic discussed between Dobson and Catherine Cannuli on this week’s episode of The Official Liberty A-League Podcast.

“I think in goals, he’s going to probably stick with Mackenzie Arnold,” Cannuli said. “I think it would be a bit disappointing for her if she wasn’t to play some more minutes as well. I’m not sure what type of form Lydia Williams has been in, and I know there’s been a bit of a question mark under Teagan Micah as well, and he’s obviously got Jada Whyman in there as a number four keeper. I doubt we’ll be seeing much of Jada in these next couple of games.”

Dobson added: “For me, I question why Lydia Williams isn’t getting much time at this point given she really is our number one goalkeeper, but it’s good for Mackenzie Arnold’s confidence. She (was) Player of the Tournament at the Cup of Nations, so it would make sense for her to slot back in for this Scottish game to see how she goes in that.”

READ MORE OF KEEPUP’S MATILDAS COVERAGE

ULTIMATE GUIDE: Matildas vs Scotland & England: Times, TV channel, squads

CHANCE TO SHINE: At 17, Matilda McNamara hit pause on her career – now she has chance to fast forward into the World Cup

LATE CHANGES: Matildas forced into personnel shift after injury sidelines star duo

OPPOSITION REPORT: Australia to face world’s most expensive women’s footballer & best coach on the planet