So what did we learn from all that?
The Matildas ended their two-game Iberian tour with a 1-1 draw against Portugal on Tuesday, stemming the bleeding of their 7-0 shellacking at the hands of Spain earlier in the week, at least from a results perspective.
With another stiff test in the form of Canada awaiting in September, the temptation will be to stash the few bright sparks from the series that can potentially carryover to future windows, and put everything else in the rearview mirror as quickly as possible. Get Australia's stars back and forget about these games.
Certainly, there were concerning signs arising from the series even if one refrained from applying a microscope to the actual X's and O's of the Spanish thrashing. There was an inability to play through Portugal's press until A Seleccao eased off, the potentially shattered confidence of players, and the loss of a chance to measure the first-choice Matildas against one of the best yardsticks in world football.
The latter two points, in particular, are irksome. While the decision to rest several star players for the series in the name of load management is perfectly justifiable and was likely the correct course of action, the question of why a long-term view wasn't first taken when this series was first organised around 12 months ago to ensure first-choice players were available will linger. That is the letdown: A perceived lack of forward planning.
The absences, in effect, made the game against Spain less of a contest and more a ritual sacrifice on the altar of La Roja's European Championship preparations; something that had more in common with the Matildas' 18-0 win over Indonesia at the Asian Cup than a battle between two heavyweights. Gustavsson's declaration that it "surprised me that people are surprised" about the heavy margin of the Spanish defeat given the disparities in talent rang true, even if it carried all the subtlety of Homer Simpson yelling down the phone that that team he faced last night "just plain sucked."
Nonetheless, viewed in isolation, the coach's reasoning behind his side's struggles is reasonable -- joining a long line of justifications that have been produced throughout his tenure, all of which have been perfectly valid.
Be it a level of unfamiliarity with the squad, experimentation with different players in the name of building depth, "performance-" against "preparation mode", or, as was the case in the aftermath of the Spain game, load management forcing him to play a team that never stood a chance; there has seemingly always been a sound justification for why Gustavsson hasn't been able to produce improving performances against the high-quality opposition he has insisted upon playing.
The problem is that, when viewed as a collective, the various rationalisations do not paint a picture of a side that is trending in the direction of being able to mount a strong showing at a home World Cup. Whenever there have been high points -- such as making the bronze medal match at the Olympics, or the side's performances against New Zealand in April-- there has always been another problem that prevents them from being built upon.
Admittedly, a tempering of expectations to reflect the more nuanced state of women's football's global context is likely needed. Australia is but one fish in an ocean increasingly inhabited by sharks. And whales. And other things with very sharp teeth.
But at the same time, this flies in the face of the "Never Say Die" mentality that is supposed to define this team or the expectations -- such as their own mission statement of winning the Asian Cup -- that were allowed to build up around this group. In fact, the entire Australian sporting psyche has traditionally centred around punching above one's weight and, while expecting to win has become a meme in the local game, no Australian fan at a base emotional level could ever accept expecting to lose.
And what shouldn't be ignored in any argument around expectations is that, even if this team may not be inevitable as the runaway hype train painted them to be, they are -- when at full strength -- capable of being better than they have shown. That, in the end, should be the measuring stick, one that doesn't rely on comparisons to the past or to other teams around the world.
Are the Matildas, featuring a starting XI loaded with players employed by some of the biggest clubs in the world and entering their peak years, being put in a position to perform at their best? Is Gustavsson doing the best with what he has? So far, the answer is no.
Because regardless of where they sit in a global context, the players are better than what they have shown over the past year and a half.
Further, that the coach inherited a disturbing lack of depth and a women's football ecosystem system that's foundations required urgent reform isn't a matter of debate. It put him in a very difficult position and it should be both obvious and taken into account in any analysis of his tenure. But the question is not if these problems exist, but if his and his staff's attempts to address the areas of weaknesses under their purview have been effective. Many in Australian football are increasingly doubtful about what they are seeing.
None of this analysis requires personal attacks, appraisals of the 48-year-old's character, or unhelpful and frankly irrelevant comparisons with other coaches. It doesn't even need comparisons with other nations. It is simply an evaluation of the football being produced and the management of the squad -- the kind Gustavsson himself has spoken of the need for in any footballing ecosystem. And the pressure on the Swede is becoming increasingly suffocating. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Dominic Bossi, casting judgement in the aftermath of the draw to Portugal, wrote that "a lot needs to change. And with each game, it's becoming increasingly clear that might have to start with their coach" -- throwing an onus directly on Football Australia.
Gustavsson's hiring came at the end of a process that Football Australia said was a test of their IP. They identified the Swede as their signature appointment to deliver on their signature achievement of a home Women's World Cup. The success or failure of his tenure, therefore, reflects on far more than just his own abilities.
This is likely why the Matildas boss will see this side to the World Cup. Football Australia believed in and backed his vision when they appointed him and will be loath to backtrack on that just 12 months out from the tournament proper. Further, the risks associated with axing him and not being able to give any replacement time to implement their own vision arguably became too great following the early exit at the Asian Cup -- and that's even assuming Football Australia would be able to identify and secure someone better suited for the role.
From an ideological perspective, at least, this is the right call. Just in the same way that the Socceroos needed to see it out with Graham Arnold during men's World Cup qualification and must now take him to Qatar, Gustavsson should remain at the helm. For better or worse, this is his team and it is the job of the federation to back their man and give him the chance to prove the doubters wrong.
And for all the lows there have been bright sparks; Mary Fowler's integration into the side, the re-integration of Katrina Gorry, and the establishment of a core group of Matildas at some of the biggest women's football clubs in the world. There is always a chance, even if it's an increasingly faint one, that Gustavsson has always been the right coach for the job and that he's sat at home pulling his hair out as he confronts a perfect storm no coach could overcome.
But at the same time, the scrutiny surrounding the Matildas boss will only become more crushing in the event of more ostensibly perfectly valid justifications surface ahead of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a home Women's World Cup. As it should. Though a long-term legacy of professionalism, facilities, and participation are also absolutely critical, a home World Cup -- with this level of talent in the Matildas -- cannot be allowed to become all about the friends we made along the way. These are elite athletes.
And just 12 months out from that tournament, one doesn't need to beat Gustavsson's tenure over the head with poor results or comparisons to others. The football is more than sufficient.