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How Katrina Gorry’s midfield maestro role exposes Matildas’ current dilemma

“Tell me who your number six is and I’ll tell you your playing style.”

So said a friend of Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson early on in the Swede’s coaching career in a distilled philosophy that has informed his tactical decision-making ever since.

From Lisa Dahlkvist at Tyresö FF in Sweden in 2013/14 to Julie Ertz at the US women’s national team throughout two Women’s World Cups, Gustavsson has always embraced the number six in his teams.

In essence, it describes a deep-lying player who sits at the base of midfield, in front of the centre-backs, and whose individual qualities — be they a physical ball-winner, a cover-all-ground connector, a play-making regista, or a combination of all three — often indicates the overall footballing principles embedded within the rest of a team.

Julie Ertz (right) of the USA became one of the best number sixes in the world while Gustavsson was assistant coach of the women’s national team.(Getty Images: ISI Photos/Brad Smith)

It’s a comment Gustavsson recalled when asked about the position ahead of Australia’s first friendly against Canada on Saturday.

“If you look at the types of number six we’ve looked [at] over the last 12 months, we haven’t looked at a warrior or a ball-winner in there. We’ve looked at a quarterback,” he said.

“Kyra Cooney-Cross, for example. Emily van Egmond. Clare Wheeler, even though she’s a really good ball-winner as well.

“And [Gorry], who’s normally a 10 kind of player: attacking midfielder, but playing as a six. That’s because it’s how we want to play.

“We want to dominate the games with the ball, not having too much possession, but want to penetrate and break lines and attack. But you need a six that can be that quarterback and that engine and the heart of the team.”

Since her return from parental leave, veteran midfielder Katrina Gorry has arguably been the stand-out player in this quarterback-style six role.

Her performances against New Zealand in April, as well as against Spain and Portugal in June, showed that she not only has the vision but also the fitness and technique to suit Gustavsson’s idea of what the Matildas’ number six should be: a forward-thinking, attack-focused play-maker.

Such, according to his friend’s mantra, is the team’s desired style.

Her abilities in this role were clear in periods against Canada on Saturday, too. In the first half, she was the central connecting engine between the Matildas’ defenders and their more advanced midfielders and wingers, doing the deeper work in order to free others up to float between lines and nip into channels.

She also had moments of attacking brilliance herself such as in the 26th minute, where she sent a piercing pass through several Canadian players for Sam Kerr, who almost equalised but for a last-ditch kick save from stand-out goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

Two women soccer players, one wearing yellow and green and another wearing grey, battle for the ball
Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan (right) made four crucial saves against Sam Kerr on Saturday, including a one-on-one.(Getty Images: Albert Perez)

However, as Gustavsson said pre-game, a deep-lying regista position is not Gorry’s natural role, having played almost her entire career further up the field as a box-to-box or attacking midfielder who can unlock a defence with a pass and shoot from distance.

That she is still trying to find the right balance between the push of attack and the pull of defence is perhaps why there have been moments in the Matildas’ recent games where the entire team felt stretched thin.

This thinness was seen on Saturday in a few ways: the isolation of Kerr and her accompanying wingers, with Gorry and her fellow midfielders having stayed deeper to cover their defenders and work on build-up play; and conversely, the vulnerability of the (admittedly under-strength) back-line that occurred when she moved further up the field to be part of the attack, with neither van Egmond nor Fowler dropping in to cover.

At times, Gorry was ever-present, sharp and incisive like a knife. At others, she was nowhere; swallowed by the red sea of Canadian shirts.

Women soccer players, some dressed in red while another is in yellow and green, during a match
While Gorry has the physicality of a number six, deeper defensive responsibilities mean she doesn’t pose as much of an attacking threat.(Getty Images: Chris Hyde)

The balance for this type of six is a fine one, but it is crucial to strike. Too far up the field and the Matildas lose a defensive screener who can cut out potentially-damaging through-balls. Too far down the field and they lose one of the team’s most creative players who can pick apart a defence with a single pass and shoot from around the box.

The problem is that Gorry can do both, but she can only be in one place at any one time.

“For me, it’s about a balance,” Gorry reflected afterwards.

“Sometimes I get too eager to get a bit too far forward and not balance the team properly. But the more us midfielders can get on the ball, the more control we usually have of the game.

“I’m still learning and building, but coming up against a team like Canada, playing a bit of a different formation, I’ve got to find spaces on the field and I think that’s something I can definitely work on.

“Most of the play usually goes through the six and through our midfield because we do have such a strong attacking force, so I think if we can get the ball into the midfield, we usually create a lot of chances. That’s our role and I think that’s where we can do better.”

Indeed, the tug-of-war Gorry experienced positionally was something that Canada head coach Bev Priestman hinted at post-match as one of the Matildas’ weaknesses: that their desire to go too far one way or the other leaves them exposed at both ends.

Two women soccer players, one wearing red and the other wearing yellow and green, run during a match
Canada’s Nichelle Prince (left) was electric against Australia, often finding spaces that had been vacated by Gorry’s tug-of-war positioning.(Getty Images: Albert Perez)

“You probably got to see some of that on display in the game,” she said.

“You can’t hide from their ability to get forward, play forward, join the box. If you talk about what they can do to a team, they ask some great questions.

“But with the players we’ve got to get in behind the back line and ask questions the other way, I knew it would be a game that felt the way it did — particularly in the second half — because both teams have that ability at both ends.”

Gorry’s journey in trying to find the balance and identity of her role as a six appears to permeate across the Matildas, who have often been criticised for their unclear and inconsistent playing style under Gustavsson.

The game against Canada was the most recent demonstration of this oscillating identity, with the team displaying moments of confident, choreographed football alongside moments of madness and uncontrolled, reactive, or unimaginative play.

“It was a bit of a rollercoaster performance-wise,” Gustavsson said.

“When we’re on those highs and play the way we want to, we move the ball fast. We have a lot of interchanges, we break lines, we get into the final third, and when we lose it, we’re really aggressive in our regain.

“When it comes to goal-kicks for the opposition and in their build-up phase, we’re in their face and a very aggressive team: to win the ball high and transition from there. When we see those moments, I think you see who we try to be and where we want to be.

“[But] I think we got stretched in our defensive positions at times. When we want to be an aggressive team that presses, at times you’re going to be stretched and you’re gonna end up in a one-on-two situation. It looks chaotic because it gets reactive in our defensive actions.

“So it looks a little bit all over the place because we want to be that intense and pressing. So we have definitely some work to do to be more compact [but] still be aggressive, and we need to clean up the technical mistakes and be more clinical in terms of how fast we move the ball.”

As Gorry continues to find the right balance as the team’s number six, so too are the Matildas trying to figure out who they are amongst identities of extremes. Whether they’ll strike it in Tuesday’s re-match against Canada is anybody’s guess.

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