A few minutes before the Matildas’ 18-player Olympic squad entered the conference room on Tuesday morning, a round of “Guess Who” was being played by some of the attending media, trying to identify the chosen players based on which of their family members were in attendance.

A group of women wearing “Micah” jerseys gave the first name away. Then there was little Harley, Tameka Yallop’s daughter, being entertained by her wife, Kirsty. A-Leagues fans spotted Gary Van Egmond milling about in a grey tracksuit. And was that Mary Fowler’s mum with the flower behind her ear?

But the guessing game was all for naught. By the time the players filed in, none of the 18 who walked across the carpet came as a surprise. The chosen squad had participated in the most recent friendly series against China, with all but two of the Paris-bound players getting minutes in the 2-0 win in Sydney on Monday night.

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There wasn’t much shock about the four alternate players chosen to accompany the side in case of injury, either. 

Lydia Williams, who received an emotional send-off the night before, had already indicated she wouldn’t be playing a major role in Paris. Brisbane Roar winger Sharn Frier was still too fresh, while full-backs Courtney Nevin and Charli Grant had fallen down the pecking-order in recent months.

All in all, the players who received their novelty-sized plane tickets to France were exactly who most of us expected. 

Which should be a good thing, right?

Well, there was one absence on the morning of the Olympic squad announcement. 

Katrina Gorry was named in the 18 despite missing the past two windows as she recovers from an ankle injury, reminding us that, beneath the predictability of this team, there are still a number of risks being balanced as the Matildas make what could be their last serious run at an Olympic medal.

The first risk, as mentioned, is Gorry. As we saw during the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the midfielder has become a key cog in the Matildas’ midfield, whose work-rate, vision, and connection with the players around her, especially Kyra Cooney-Cross, has made her practically irreplaceable.

Katrina Gorry

The Matildas will be sweating the fitness of Katrina Gorry who has just eight weeks to recover from an ankle injury.(Getty Images: Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images)

Having been sidelined since April after rupturing a joint in her lower leg, Gorry has not yet returned to full match play, let alone international fitness or form. 

As we also saw during last year’s tournament with Kyah Simon’s selection, even bringing the ghost of a recent injury into a tightly-packed competition can cause problems, triggering or flaring other issues in the body that may not have time to be addressed.

Doubts over Gorry’s fitness then begs another question: who slots into that central midfield role? Who could possibly replace her?

Clare Wheeler has been brought into the fold and looks the most likely option, with a similar physicality and doggedness characterising her play as Gorry’s. 

However, Wheeler hasn’t yet established the same chemistry with her midfield team-mates, and does not yet have the same creativity and lock-picking ability of a Gorry at this level, while other potential central options in Emily Van Egmond and Tameka Yallop are different profiles of midfielder altogether.

An injury cloud also lightly surrounds Caitlin Foord, who came off after 15 minutes in the first China friendly with what Football Australia said was “hamstring awareness.” 

While head coach Tony Gustavsson said on Tuesday that, had this been a tournament setting, they probably would have played Foord in the second game in Sydney, this preparation phase means they opted for caution and protection instead.

Footballer Caitlin Foord running in celebration, finger in the air, after socring for her country

Caitlin Foord has become Australia’s most important attacker in the absence of Sam Kerr.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

But the status of these two players points to a bigger question that the Matildas have been struggling with for years: squad depth. The small size of the Olympic team, at just 18 players, means that every player will likely be required more than a regular 23-player squad for a World Cup.

Rotation, flexibility, and adaptability are therefore key drivers for not just decision-making but also for success, which largely explains why Gustavsson has opted for the players he chose. 

Excluding goalkeepers, all but three of the Olympic team are capable of playing multiple positions, either in midfield or out wide. The only specialists, arguably, are the two centre-backs Clare Hunt and Clare Polkinghorne, and striker Michelle Heyman.

And yet versatility can have its down-sides, which Charli Grant and Courtney Nevin’s exclusions highlight. As specialised full-backs, neither has shown enough dimension in their play to warrant selection in a team where flexibility is crucial. 

Through that lens, it makes more sense why Kaitlyn Torpey, who only earned her first cap for Australia earlier this year, was chosen ahead of the pair: Torpey can play as both a full-back and winger, and has not struggled significantly when required in either position.

A blonde woman wearing a green top claps her hands with three other women standing behind her

Charli Grant was selected as an alternate Matildas player for the Paris Olympic Games.(Supplied)

“That’s the hard thing with the Olympic squads: they’re so small, and one of the things that’s most important is having flexibility,” Steph Catley said on Tuesday. 

“Sometimes that means that you’re not going to have double-ups in different positions, you’re going to have more players that can play different roles. I think that’s just where it’s maybe tipped Charli out of favour.”

But will the Matildas suffer by not having more specialised players in these positions? If, say, an Ellie Carptner goes down injured, will a Torpey, who has played mostly as a winger for the past year, or even ultimate utility player Yallop, be a suitable-enough replacement? What is lost in experience and understanding of a particular position when versatility is prioritised?

By the same token, questions can be asked of specialist selections, as well. Veteran defender Polkinghorne was selected ahead of young centre-back Winonah Heatley, despite playing very few minutes for the Matildas over the past six months. 

While her own Olympic experience will undoubtedly lend itself to the team off the field, her contribution on it may not be what it once was, with her lack of speed and more traditional defensive traits not necessarily complementing Australia’s attack-first style of play.

And then there is the biggest question of all: where will the goals come from? Striker Michelle Heyman, recalled to the side following Sam Kerr’s ACL injury earlier this year, has made the squad and will go to her first Games since Rio in 2016 as the A-League Women’s reigning Golden Boot winner.

While the 35-year-old has found the back of the net against lower-ranked opponents in Uzbekistan and China, her ability to score against some of the world’s best teams, containing some of the game’s greatest defenders, is still uncertain.

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How she leads the Matildas’ line off the ball is a curious question, too. One of Kerr’s most impressive abilities is her defensive press, coordinating the movement of her team-mates to overwhelm opponents and spark counter-attacks high up the field.

While Heyman said the next six weeks will be filled with “lots of running” as the Matildas aim to be “the fittest team at the Olympics,” her naturally slower speed and possible struggles to back up game after game means that the team’s off-ball approach, characterised by their high-intensity pressing style, could also suffer.

That, perhaps, is where Cortnee Vine comes in. Having worked her way back into contention following a withdrawal from camp earlier this year, the Sydney FC attacker showed on Monday night that she can not only act as a traditional winger, but also potentially as a centre-forward or deeper-lying play-making midfielder, as seen in her assist for Hayley Raso’s goal that took out two lines of Chinese defenders.

But Vine’s own admitted struggles to convert the few chances that come her way could be a problem, with her final shot, touch, or pass still lacking the sharpness and quality required at international level. Although she has the speed the Matildas want, she does not yet have the finishing that they need to go deep in a major tournament.

Could Mary Fowler be the solution there? Despite being one of Australia’s brightest talents, Gustavsson himself admitted that he hasn’t found the best position for the 21-year-old, having experimented with her on either wing as well as in central midfield and further forward over the past year.

Mary Fowler dribbles the ball against Uzbekistan.

Mary Fowler is a generational talent, but has struggled to find her best position in the Matildas.(Getty Images:  Tolib Kosimov)

But none of them have quite stuck. Fowler has tended to disappear in games in recent windows, floating in and out without making a sustained impact, which feels like a waste of her immense talents.

“It’s a question we ask ourselves, as well: how can we get more out of Mary, especially now with Sam Kerr out?” Gustavsson said after the second China game.

“It’s up to us now to figure out, with different opposition and different players available, where do we use Mary the best?

“I do credit Mary for being similar to [Yallop], meaning it doesn’t matter where she plays, she’s very comfortable. Some players say they need to have the same position every game to feel comfortable and play with the same players, but Mary’s very tactically sophisticated and doesn’t freak out when moved.

“I think that can give us some flexibility in the [Olympics]. But it’s finding that sweet-spot balance with continuity and flexibility there.

“That’s not Mary’s fault. It’s my job to get more out of her and put the players around her so we can use her more.”

So where, ultimately, is she best used? Does it depend on the team around her, the opponent, the system they want to play? All of the above? Or is her versatility becoming a bit more of a hindrance to her finding the best position and building the rest of the team around that?

And can all of these questions be answered in time for them to make what could be their last serious tilt for their first ever Olympic medal?

We’ve got eight weeks to find out.

The Matildas take on Germany in the opening group game on July 26, followed by Zambia on July 29 and the USA on August 1.

dan