Ex-USWNT coach Jill Ellis on why Australia’s a World Cup fave under Gustavsson

Sitting in her office in San Diego, Jill Ellis casts her mind back to more than a decade ago. Back before she masterminded two Women’s World Cup wins as the head coach of the U.S. women’s national team, before the likes of players Trinity Rodman and Ellie Carpenter were even teenagers. It was the months leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where the United States would be looking to make it back-to-back gold medals in women’s football.

After serving as an assistant to Pia Sundhage in Beijing in 2008, Ellis had since been named U.S. Soccer’s development director, and a Swede by the name of Tony Gustavsson was serving as part of the USWNT coaching team in the lead-in to London.

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“Passionate, tactical, and dogged,” Ellis tells ESPN with a smile. “Those are the three words that come to mind. Tony is very passionate. As coaches, you all are. You have emotions. I think that’s part of it.

“Many of us way back in the day, we didn’t get into women’s football to make a lot of money. We got in because we loved it and love the sport.

“He and I used to sit up late at night talking about the game, tactics, and players. He loves, eats, sleeps and breathes the game.”

Success would follow at that tournament: another gold for the U.S., with Sundhage subsequently stepping down to lead her native Sweden and Gustavsson heading home to take charge of Tyreso FF, guiding them the 2012 league title and the 2014 UEFA Women’s Champions League final. Gustavsson, a former schoolteacher, however, would return to the USWNT setup in 2014, lured back by Ellis to serve as her assistant as the Americans lifted both the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups in one of most prolonged periods of success that international football had ever seen.

“He used to say me: ‘Forward if we can, back if we need,'” Ellis recalls. “Neither one of us will want to batten down the hatches and play in our own half. [But] there are moments when you have to do that. And that was one of the things that, Tony and I, he helped me learn you have to manage moments of the game.”

When Ellis left her USWNT post back in 2020, reports originally linked her to the vacant role of head coach of Australia‘s national women’s team. The job instead ended up going to her assistant in Gustavsson, giving him the monumental task of leading a golden generation of Matildas into the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: hosting a World Cup.

Yet what becomes rapidly apparent when talking with her is just how much of Ellis’ work with the USWNT, especially in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, carries parallels to the tenure of Gustavsson ahead of the 2023 tournament. Be it overseeing a group that is increasingly finding its place at the forefront of their nation’s sporting consciousness, a stated desire to get on the front foot and play attacking football, or undertaking a deliberate period of depth-building in the squad years out from the tournament, Ellis’ detailing of some of the values, principles and strategies that characterized her and her then-assistant’s work prompts many comparisons to Gustavsson’s current cycle.

“It’s not about the XI,” Ellis says. “One of the things that you’ve got to remember it’s how you finish games. The media loves to put a high emphasis on the starting XI, but the reality is, who finishes the game?”

That’s a familiar refrain to those who have been following the Matildas week in and week out over the past few years, with Gustavsson attempting to build greater levels of depth and the honing of impact players off the bench one of the key drivers of his time in charge of Australia, a task he has (injury allowing) been trying to zero in on with increasing clarity in recent months.

“In 2017, we came off the back of the Olympics,” Ellis recalls. “We didn’t medal at the Olympics and knowing that there wasn’t another world event until 2019, I really wanted to look at one, how do we deepen the roster? So I opened up the roster and brought in a ton of new players. That was really important.

“When you coach a national team, it’s really about finding what best showcases and amplifies the talent you have. That was what we kind of went through in 2017. We lost a few games, and it wasn’t pretty at times, because we tried everything.

“One of the things that Tony actually did, we sat down and he shared this with me, he said: ‘Let’s put a grid on the pitch. Let’s put the players not in the position that they play but where they have the best influence on the game.’

“When you looked at that, and we put all the players and all the dots down, this was an exercise Tony sort of took me through it was like, it gave us kind of a picture of where we have depth. And that’s the process I think that Tony has probably gone through with the Matildas.”

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Of course, while Ellis can talk about her experiences in the past tense — she is now president of the NWSL’s San Diego Wave and an ambassador for the United States Soccer Federation — Gustavsson’s are very much an ongoing endeavour. The former’s work has been vindicated by history while the latter, alongside the rest of Australia and the world, will find out in the coming months if the work that he has done will be enough to bring everything together. How the Matildas perform in July and, they hope, August, will come to define the reputation that Gustavsson carries as a coach.

But while Ellis’ approach “wasn’t pretty” at times — with back-to-back losses to England and France at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup the most notable example — that doesn’t really come close to the challenges of Gustavsson. Though Australia’s automatic qualification for the World Cup enabled Football Australia to back him in a manner that most other national team coaches could only dream of, Gustavsson’s actual run of results — combined, more importantly, with the way the team was playing — presented significant problems.

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Matildas: The World At Our Feet – Trailer

Catch the trailer for the original series ‘Matildas: The World At Our Feet’ streaming on April 26 exclusively on Disney+.

A disastrous 2021 Asian Cup was the first major lowlight, Australia crashing out in a manner in which the near misses and efforts off the woodwork couldn’t obfuscate underlying concerns. With Gustavsson continuing to be backed by the federation, a series of defeats against Canada in September 2022 had even the coach’s most ardent supporters glancing at the exits.

Since then, however, things have begun to improve. And it’s certainly the case that this is a squad that is in a better place now than it was when Gustavsson’s tenure began with a 5-2 humiliation against Germany. Amongst others, Katrina Gorry‘s establishment in the midfield, Clare Hunt‘s emergence, Mackenzie Arnold‘s form and Caitlin Foord‘s shift to a more central position in a 4-4-2 shape (and the resulting move away from a “Sam Kerr and friends” style in attack) mean that this version of the Matildas is far better suited to delivering and taking a punch.

Now, they’re a team whose future is confoundingly hard to predict; a disappointing round-of-16 exit at the World Cup is almost as probable as a fairy-tale run to the semifinals (or more). If it does go pear-shaped, though, it’s likely that Gustavsson will be the first to take responsibility. Moving to protect his players and shift attention onto himself have been hallmarks of his tenure.

At the end of the first episode of “Matildas: The World at Our Feet” (available worldwide on Disney+ on April 26) Gustavsson does exactly that immediately following their defeat against South Korea, declaring: “I take complete and full ownership of this performance as a head coach.”

Ellis says: “I think good coaches do that. I really do. I think that is actually a trait of coaches that understand what it’s about.

“I always sort of say coaches are caretakers of dreams. Our job is to really help facilitate others achieve their ambitions. And I think we take great pride in that.”

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