When Ria Percival made a big positional switch for the Football Ferns a few years ago, more than a few eyebrows were raised – but now it looks like a stroke of genius.
Percival had made her name as a marauding fullback, and had racked up almost 130 appearances for New Zealand on the right flank since her 2006 debut, as well as notable achievements for several European clubs.
But on the 2017 tour of Thailand, co-coaches Gareth Turnbull and Andreas Heraf opted to use Percival in midfield.
"It was like, 'okay, we're going to put you in front of the back four and see if you can help us out in that position'," recalled Percival. "And for me, it was a kind of change that I liked, just to probably get on the ball a bit more."
Tom Sermanni mostly continued with that approach during his tenure, though it was a steep learning curve for Percival. She had the engine, but needed to learn about positioning, the vastly different movements and becoming a ball player.
"Being in the middle of the pitch, you've got the whole picture whereas fullback you are kind of out by the sideline," said Percival. "For me it's been having a lot more awareness of what's going on around me.
"It's a bit of an adjustment but I'm enjoying playing there. I'm still learning about that position and trying to develop there."
It's an unusual shift in the professional game but has paid off, especially over the last six months.
Percival was one of the Fern's stronger performers at the Tokyo Olympics and has gone to a new level under Jitka Klimková, as the Czech native emphasises a more possession based game.
Percvial was the standout in the Canada series and had another impressive match in Saturday's 2-1 defeat to South Korea.
The combative 31-year-old has a fierce shot and arguably the best passing range in the team. She is also sharp, with keen anticipation, honed from time in the FA Super League with Tottenham Hotspur Women since 2018, and Klimková leaves no doubt as to her importance.
"I know Ria's quality and we talked about it actually even before the Canada game," said Klimková. "She's my right hand on the field. She's the one who I want to talk to - she's in the middle of the field."
Percival, who has accumulated 156 caps, has a natural attacking bent, sometimes employed in a more advanced midfield role for Spurs and is still finding the right balance for the Ferns.
"Sometimes I just want to go forward, attack and make runs," said Percival
"But for my role, I'm kind of the glue of the team. I'm the one that needs to control and lead and bring the team together and [that's] obviously what I'm [still] working on."
Percival's presence will be vital against Korea on Tuesday night (11pm), as the Ferns aim to bounce back from Saturday's disappointing defeat, when they led 1-0 midway through the second half before fading.
Klimková identified a 20-minute period when the Ferns changed their style of play – sitting deeper and unable to retain possession – and were punished.
"We will get used to it in the future and we will keep that lead - not just for 60 minutes," said Klimková. "We know what we need to do. And if we want to win those games, we just have to be consistent."
The result was the Ferns' eighth straight loss – going back to March 2020 – and they are determined to end the year with a positive result.
"We were so close [on Saturday] and we are waiting for it," said Klimková. "We feel it's coming - we will play for the win. We will leave everything on the field and we hope that this time we are not going to drop our ice cream."