Clare Wheeler could be the Matildas' missing piece of the puzzle

NEWCASTLE, Australia -- Clare Wheeler can remember being a 20-year-old spectator when Australia took on Chile in 2018 in Newcastle.

The proud Novocastrian had debuted for her hometown club, the Newcastle Jets, at age 15 and played seven seasons in the Hunter before moving to Sydney FC and then on to Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark.

On Tuesday night she returned to McDonald Jones Stadium, not as a spectator but as a fully fledged Matilda.

Her introduction into the game against the United States in the 86th minute was something people had been crying out for. Not just for the narrative of the local girl playing for her national team at home, but because this line-up was crying out for a proper, out-and-out defensive midfielder.

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Her cameo lasted only nine minutes and yet Wheeler delivered in spades.

She was energetic, she was brave, and she helped Australia find the equaliser that would see the game end 1-1 with an inch-perfect tackle.

"I'm so happy that you bring up that tackle and that you saw it as well because sometimes that isn't credited enough, you just see the goal-scorer," Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson beamed post-game.

"But the key to that goal was Clare Wheeler's tackle, and we said we need to be more physical, win our fight plan, our one-on-one duels, and Clare was the game-changer because she came in with that mindset and without that tackle we wouldn't have scored, so it's a huge credit to her."

Wheeler's efforts got the ball to Steph Catley who played a pass in to Sam Kerr. Australia's captain laid the ball off to Kyah Simon, whose strike took a deflection but ultimately found the back of the net.

For all the praise Gustavsson heaped upon the defensive midfielder, it did beg the question: Why did she only come on in the 86th minute?

Gustavsson's answer spoke to the specifics of the match, conceding he would need to watch the match back and -- with the benefit of hindsight -- decide if the timing were right.

"One of the reasons why I didn't change is that I felt we had the momentum going in that game," he said. "I felt that we were playing good, we had advantage and you need to kind of sense that moment ... when do we [make] that change?

"But I'm going to look at the game to see if I could have done it earlier or if it actually was perfect."

But the desire for Wheeler to be on the pitch is not something that exists in isolation, or solely in the context of Tuesday's game. Matildas fans calling for No. 6s to be used as No. 6s is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon.

For years, there has been frustration at seeing line-ups and personnel chopped and changed, of players being forced to move their arms and bend their legs to fit cardboard cutouts of positions that weren't strongly theirs.

When Catley was injured, or was called upon to play centre-back, Elise Kellond-Knight's switch to left-back left fans exasperated. How could there be no one else to plug the hole?

Similarly with Kellond-Knight's move back to midfield -- and more recently with her absence due to injury woes -- the same question went begging: Who could fill the gap without creating another hole?

These problems are older than Gustavsson's tenure. But as the man now in charge, he is scrutinised for the progress or lack thereof in solving the problem he inherited.

Ultimately he can only contribute so much to the solution. But this is not to excuse him from the things within his control. Like bringing on Wheeler sooner. She impressed in each of her four caps before Tuesday's match. None more so than her half in the Matildas' 2-2 draw with Brazil in October.

Her performance in Newcastle showed fans something they had seen before, but never enough of. And the excitement of a potential new defensive midfielder, someone who was up to the level and who allowed other players to play in their best positions, was one that had been built over years.

It can be said that all of Gustavsson's substitutions on Tuesday lived up their role as game-changers, predominantly by shifting the pieces of the puzzle back to the places they fit.

Alanna Kennedy's limited minutes as she recovers from an injury allowed Catley to move back out to the left. While she is a more than capable centre-back -- and was a much needed experienced head alongside Courtney Nevin in the heart of defence -- her move to full-back consequently returned Tameka Yallop to the midfield.

Wheeler's entrance allowed Emily van Egmond to bin the garb of the defensive midfielder and wear her more natural attacking midfielder threads.

Ultimately both the starting line-up choices and all of these changes and tweaks lead back to the same point: The Matildas lack depth and Gustavsson is trying to find answers.

For the Swede, ahead of the Matildas' Asian Cup opener on Jan. 21, against Indonesia, he insists that he got the answers he needed from these games.

"I'm extremely happy with all the answers that we got and I feel very, very confident moving into the Asian Cup, especially when we get the chance to download this game as well," he said.

"We get some individual answers from roster selection, getting some answers on where we are physically, tactically and all those kinds of things. So I'm very, very happy with these two games in terms of learning and getting one day better."

Gustavsson's hope is that all of this frustration now can be turned into something fruitful in the near future. Something like a fourth consecutive Asian Cup final, maybe even another trophy. Matildas fans won't have to wait long to see if it eventuates.