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Tony Gustavsson, the Australia women’s team manager, said he is “proud” to be a part of a team with an “‘it factor” he had admired from afar, in the leadup to his side’s Olympic semi-final against his home country Sweden.
Gustavsson, a former assistant coach to the USA women’s national team, took charge of the Matildas in September. “Sitting on the opposition bench coaching against Australia way back I felt like there was some kind of ‘it’ factor with that team that I wanted to know more about and now that I’m on the inside and part of that amazing Matilda team I’ve started to realise what that ‘it’ factor is, that ‘never-say-die’ attitude and the passion,” he said.
The 47-year-old has breathed life back into a squad packed with talent but hampered by off-field strife which led to the removal of former manager Alen Stajcic before the 2019 World Cup. In Gustavsson the team have stability and a manager that Arsenal player Steph Catley and PSV’s Kyah Simon “cannot speak of highly enough”.
Simon said: “It’s his energy, his charisma and his passion for his job, for our team. He hasn’t tried to force too much of his tactics and his style of play but he’s really formed his tactics and our style of play to suit the players that we have.”
Gustavsson was extremely impressed with the way his team “dug really deep” to overcome Team GB in their quarter-final, coming from behind in the 89th minute to force extra time before killing the game with two goals in three minutes moments after the goalkeeper Teagan Micah had saved a penalty to keep them level at 2-2.
“It was all about that belief, that ruthless winning mentality and that togetherness in the team that brought us there and I’m a very small part of that. Kyah and the players created that before I got there, I’m just happy to be a part of that to be honest,” he said.
What has he done since he arrived? “Everyone is starting to be on the same page and see the same picture,” said Gustavsson. “We try to build the team out of the player’s strengths and not just out of ‘Tony’s tactics’. It’s not just my tactics, it’s about building the tactics around the key players in the key positions and trying to get the most out of them. I think in the short time we’ve had we’ve started to get the players to see the same picture tactically but at the end of the day it’s not the tactics that have got us here, it’s the passion and the heart that the players have shown.”
In Sweden, Australia face the tournament’s in-form side – a team that beat them 4-2 in the “group of death”, Group G, comprising USA, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. “They’ve been very impressive,” said Gustavsson. “So far they’ve been the best team in the tournament. The first half against the US [a match Sweden won 3-0] might be one of the best halves I’ve ever seen a Swedish women’s national team play, of the ones I’ve seen anyway. I was mightily impressed. A lot of their attacking players are in the form of their lives, you can see that in their attacking game, they score goals.”
Sweden have stopping the Chelsea forward Sam Kerr, who scored both of the Matildas’ goals in their Group G game, in their sights. For Australia, it is the 25-year-old Swedish forward Stina Blackstenius that was a “name said a couple of times in the team meeting today,” said Gustavsson with a wry smile. “She’s in huge form. She’s been phenomenal and she’s been working hard defensively. Her runs in behind have been really good. Without giving away too much, it’s not just about defending her in that moment, it’s about what happens before she is in play and the moment before that.”
What’s it like to be a Swede managing against Sweden? “I’ve had some experience doing it before with the US team,” Gustavsson said. “It’s always unique to play against the country you were born in. It’s going to be a special game. It’s nice to say hi but once the game starts it’s game on. I’m representing the Matildas and we’re doing everything to get to the final.”