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Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

‘You need to deal with the cards you are handed’: How Australia have coped without Sam Kerr – scout report

For the second consecutive year, a major international competition in the women’s game has been robbed of its star attraction, with Barcelona Femení and Spain playmaker Alexia Putellas suffering an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury on the eve of Euro 2022 and Chelsea Women and Australia striker Sam Kerr so far unable to compete at the World Cup due to a calf injury sustained ahead of their opener.

With Kerr being such a crucial part of her nation’s setup, it was always going to be difficult to replace her, and patience has been required as Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson has tried to tweak their tactics to cover for her absence. However, whilst their opening two performances were nothing to write home about, their final group game against Canada demonstrated how dangerous they can be even when Kerr is not available.

With that in mind, this tactical analysis will highlight their changes and will show how they have developed their game plan to ensure that they can maintain their attacking threat. The scout report will show some of the rough patches that they went through against the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Nigeria. It will then indicate what went so well for them against the Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medallists.

What Sam Kerr offers

However, before getting into how they have changed things around, it is essential first to gain a picture of precisely what they have needed to replace. When watching Kerr in action, it is immediately apparent that there is a lot more to her game than some might have thought.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Sam Kerr moves forward and creates spaces for her teammates behind her.

It might seem obvious to mention how she leads Australia’s forward line and constantly gives them options to pass forwards and build momentum, but it needs pointing out because it has a massive impact on the rest of the team and how those around her play.

In this case, for example, her run up the field has allowed both Arsenal Women’s Caitlin Foord and Real Madrid Femenino’s Hayley Raso (who will move to the Spanish capital after the tournament) to push up and occupy the space behind her. By doing so, they have now given themselves time to control the ball when it comes in from the left and then pick the right pass to create an opportunity for Australia, with a greater chance of them finding their intended target.

It also impacts the opposition by manipulating them into leaving the gap open for the rest of the team to exploit. Here, France would have had a solid back line and would have been difficult for Australia to break down, as is a key demand of Hervé Renard’s tactics, but Kerr’s run has forced both PSG Féminine’s Élisa de Almeida and Lyon Féminin’s Wendie Renard to drop back in order to limit her individual threat, and that has given Foord and Raso the opportunity to move forward.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Sam Kerr can move into different channels and create a multitude of problems for opponents.

It would be too simplistic, though, to say that Kerr is simply someone who leads from the front because there are other elements to her game that make her such a clever operator and a difficult player to replace.

Here, she has drifted over to the nearside wing, showing her ability to switch between channels and find different ways to influence the game, and this is again about manipulating the opposing defensive line and creating spaces for her teammates to run forward and utilise.

In this case, against the Czech Republic, all four of Gabriela Šlajsová, Simona Necidová, Aneta Pochmanová and captain Petra Bertholdová have come across to close her down but have failed in that task, and all are now out of position and have left space open on the far side for Australia to exploit.

At this point, it becomes about how the Matildas use the ball and maximise the opportunity. Even though the pass from Raso to the onrushing Cortnee Vine goes astray here, there have been plenty of moments when Australia have profited from these offensive moves.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Sam Kerr can link play and then turn and be the main focal point during the same sequence of play.

Kerr doesn’t only look at what is happening inside the final third, though, and is just as capable of dropping back and linking play as she is at running into different areas to create gaps.

However, what is important to note here is her speed of thought and ability to switch from one mentality to the other, because whilst her initial thoughts are on receiving the pass from Katrina Gorry and then sending it towards Manchester City Women’s Mary Fowler, she instantly reverts to running behind and offering the central target, ensuring that there is a way for her team to send the ball into the middle at the right moment.

On this occasion, it didn’t lead to anything as the pass back to her lacked quality and was easily cut out by the Czech defenders. Still, the fact that she can perform both a connecting and a finishing role is the crucial point here, and it is not something that every attacker can do so ably.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Sam Kerr’s touch map for Australia during the pre-World Cup match against France.

Kerr’s ability to work with teammates all over the pitch was evidenced very clearly in the match with France, with this graphic indicating how many touches of the ball she had but also where they occurred. It is worth noting that she has only averaged 4.64 touches in the penalty area during Australia’s 10 friendlies in the 2022/23 season, and that is less than would be expected for someone with such a ruthless goalscoring habit.

However, it shows that she is much more than just a striker, and the fact that she has assisted four goals and scored four in those 10 games again shows how she offers many different qualities around the field.

Initial problems

Therefore, as mentioned, replacing her was never going to be an easy task, and it showed in their early games that they were struggling to adjust to the loss of their talisman and to find a way of playing without her.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. When paired, Caitlin Foord and Emily van Egmond didn’t offer the same threat.

When they lined up in their first game against the RoI, they looked very unsure of themselves and didn’t seem comfortable with what they were looking to do, and they were fortunate to come away with a win.

Their tactics in that game were not completely senseless, though, with Gustavsson giving the central roles to Foord and Fowler as Australia set up in a 4-4-2 system, and the aim was clearly to allow the team to drop back and move forward as they wished to provide clear transition routes for the ball to travel along. But for the tournament debutants’ organised low block, it might have worked for them and provided them with more goals than the one penalty that proved to be the difference.

However, the second game was where they faced significant challenges, with Fowler and centre-back Aivi Luik unavailable due to separate accidents in training that led to Football Australia’s concussion protocols being enacted. That left the Matildas with no recognised striker available, as Kyah Simon, who has spent the majority of the season at Tottenham Hotspur Women on the sidelines with her own ACL injury, was not yet fit enough to play.

Therefore, Gustavsson was forced to experiment a little more, and he opted to play Emily van Egmond alongside Foord in Fowler’s place, with the intention being to use the San Diego Wave midfielder’s physicality and height to give the team an aerial threat when pushing up the field. However, it failed to have the right impact as van Egmond didn’t make the same runs forward and constantly looked to pass whenever the ball came to her, meaning that opportunities like this to break through the Nigerian lines were often squandered.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. There were plenty of occasions when Caitlin Foord and Emily van Egmond dropped too deep.

It also gave Australia two players at the top of the field who prefer to drop back and get on the ball in deeper areas, meaning they often didn’t have anyone to move the ball to whenever they did turn to pass forwards.

That problem is indicated here, with both Foord and van Egmond far back and the red box indicating where one of them needed to be in order to allow Australia to test Nigeria’s resolve. However, because none of them were there, they rarely tested their opponents in open play, and this lack of balance around the squad was one of the main reasons that Australia ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. Australia lacked belief in their play as the game against Nigeria went on.

That is not to say that they didn’t try to address that issue as the game went on, though, because there were definite efforts made after the break to give themselves a stronger possibility of playing through the lines. In this case, Foord has again dropped back to receive the ball and has now turned to find Vine ahead of her, with the Sydney Women winger known for her pace and quick feet and in the perfect position to use those traits and to get Australia into the spaces behind Nigeria’s back line.

However, the problem then became players not trusting each other and lacking the same belief that they have shown on so many occasions before, with Foord needing to send the ball into Vine with her first or second touch here and instead holding onto the ball for too long and being closed down by Benfica Feminino midfielder Christy Ucheibe, and this was the story on so many occasions whenever it looked like the Matildas might be able to test their opponents at long last.

Overall, it just seemed like Australia’s setup was the right idea theoretically, given the profiles of those that Gustavsson deployed to act as emergency forwards, but the combination and similarities between them meant that there was not the same variation that they show when a striker is available, and they, therefore, lacked the balance that they needed to succeed.

Finding a balance

Given that they had won one of their opening two games, Australia’s place in the knockout rounds was far from secure going into their final group match, and they knew that getting something against Canada was necessary if they were to extend their tournament run on home soil.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. Australia named players in their preferred positions against Canada.

There had been some hope that Kerr would return for this game, with the initial reports stating that she would only miss the first two matches. However, she didn’t take part in the warm-up before the game, and so was still not ready to make her first appearance on the field, meaning that Australia needed to persevere with their new system and to improve what hadn’t gone well against Nigeria to give themselves a better chance of testing their opponents.

The key word surrounding their lineup against Canada was simplicity because Gustavsson opted to move players into areas of the pitch and roles that they are most comfortable in, to give them a greater chance of connecting and playing with the freedom that he and their fans know that they are capable of. The return of Fowler really helped in that sense because she could occupy the central spaces alongside van Egmond whilst Foord could move to a wing role, enabling her to get on the ball and run forward more often.

The decision to play Foord on the wing was what really stood out for the Matildas, with her and Arsenal teammate Steph Catley linking up really well on the left wing through underlaps and overlaps, and it says a lot that their first goal came from a Catley cross from inside the field, whilst Foord stayed wide, and that the second came with both in the opposite role. All in all, there was a better dynamic to their play, and it was immediately apparent to those watching that they had regained their confidence and belief in what they were doing.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. Australia were able to make delayed runs and test Canada in different ways.

Raso and Lyon right-back Ellie Carpenter didn’t link up with quite as much ease on the right, but there were times when both were in the final third, and Australia had numbers at the top of the pitch. As a result, Fowler was less dependent on staying as high up the field. Instead, she could look to make delayed runs into critical areas to arrive and connect with the ball with maximum impact, as she did here when she scored Australia’s third goal of the match.

She was not the only one who enjoyed this ability to hang back, with their first goal coming after Raso made another late arrival to meet Catley’s ball in, but it was an essential aspect of their play and one that constantly caught Canada out inside their own third.

The fact that Foord is the one setting the chance up here is also significant because it again highlights how she was in her favoured supporting role and was happy with what she had been tasked to do, and that showed with the quality of her passes and the ease with which she performed, compared to the previous game against Nigeria when she struggled to adapt to the demands of being the main attacker.

Australia 2023: Coping without Sam Kerr - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: BBC Sport. Australia are still developing how they want to play without Sam Kerr.

That is not to say that the Matildas didn’t have help from their opponents, with it clear to everyone watching that Canada had a day to forget. Overall, Bev Priestman’s side looked flat-footed and disjointed and were slow to react to everything, and that gave Australia a chance to keep fine-tuning their new system and to work on little bits here and there to ensure that it was usable should Kerr miss the remainder of the tournament.

To that end, Fowler’s role in this game was exciting to keep an eye on, with her offering the delayed runs as mentioned but also dropping back into the space between the Canadian lines, and this is significant because it shows how Gustavsson is almost moulding her to play like Kerr.

This was not something that the Manchester City player has needed to work on too much, with her operating in these areas for a while now as a way of balancing out Kerr’s advanced runs and at her previous club Montpellier Féminines. It has been common to see her as part of the second wave of Australia’s attacks when the Chelsea forward has been on the field.

However, with Kerr now out of action, it seems very much that Fowler is being given more tasks during games and is the player that the Matildas are looking to as they try to continue developing a way of playing in attack without their influential captain.


In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at Australia and how the World Cup’s joint-hosts have been finding a way of playing that allows them to cope without their talismanic striker Sam Kerr. It has not been an easy task, with the first section of the analysis indicating the many different things that Kerr gives the Matildas during games, but they now seem to have a system and shape that works and gives them what they are looking for.

It is not yet certain when the Chelsea forward will be back in action, so Australia may have to cope without her for a little while. After their opening two matches, that would have been a concern for many, given that they struggled for goals and general offensive quality. However, the performance against Canada will have given them a lot of belief and hope, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain those levels when they take on Denmark in the Round of 16.