International football is back this week, in the new form of the Nations League. If you are unaware of what the Nations League is, feel free to read this explanation article I posted last month. In one simple sentence – they are competitive games and not friendlies.
Wales fans will be delighted to know that Gareth Bale goes into the matches against Rep. of Ireland and Denmark in perfect form. For the seventh La Liga game in a row, Bale managed to hit the back of the net for Real Madrid with a superb strike.
It’s the start of a new era for Welsh football. This morning’s squad announcement for the upcoming games against Ireland and Denmark included uncapped players and talented youngsters, which will generate a healthy mix of experience and youth.
In another Real Madrid win, Gareth Bale scored his second of the season against Girona. A classic from the no.11, a burst of pace to run in behind onto a beautiful through pass from Isco, to be followed with a sidefoot finish into the bottom corner. Bale also managed an assist for the fourth goal, a low cross for Benzema to finish for Madrid to make it 4-1.
Aaron Ramsey was back in the starting line up for Arsenal on Saturday after rumours he was dropped to the bench because of ongoing contract issues. He played his first 90 minutes of the season in the no.10 position and scored a goal that was disallowed for offside. Ramsey will face his hometown club, Cardiff next Sunday in the last set of club fixtures before the international break.
Newcastle’s Paul Dummett looked good at the back for Newcastle, despite them losing 2-1 against Chelsea on Sunday. He also looks to have improved his quality on crosses from last season. With just two defenders playing regularly in the Premier League, it is likely that Dummett will be called up this week.
David Brooks was able to play out an hour in Bournemouth’s draw against Everton. Tom Bradshaw was introduced for Millwall in the second half after signing on loan from Barnsley in midweek and Ben Woodburn came on for the last 5 minutes to see out Sheffield United’s 3-0 win against Bolton. Louis Thompson managed 81 minutes for Norwich in a 3-0 defeat to Leeds, but Tyler Roberts continues to be omitted from the Leeds 18.
The two goalscorer’s for Derby in midweek, Tom Lawrence and Joe Ledley didn’t manage to find the net in Derby’s 2-0 win this weekend. Ledley was replaced after 49 minutes because of an injury. Harry Wilson remains sidelined and it is unknown whether he will be fit enough to be called up to the Wales squad this week.
James Chester put in a strong display against Reading for 90 minutes, at least that was until he mistimed a tackle in the penalty area in the dying minutes. Reading scored the penalty and the game finished 1-1; Neil Taylor made an appearance in injury time just before this mishap. Chris Gunter is still not back in the Reading squad, but he managed to play the first half for the U23 side on Saturday.
In League Two, Mark Harris continues to be very impressive for Newport. He had a strong claim for a penalty denied by the referee just before half time in their 1-0 win over Grimsby. Meanwhile, Newport born Christian Doidge and former Wales U21 international Michael Doughty got the goals in the 1-1 draw between Forest Green and Swindon.
Statistics are not everything in sport, but they give a good indication as to who performs at the highest levels. Gareth Bale is undoubtedly the best player Wales have available and the stats back that up on just about every occasion.
There are many players in football that don’t often have the “glory stats”; players like Joe Allen or James Chester – they do the small things that go unnoticed but are vital in the team.
I’m not going to get overly involved in stats in this article, but I have compiled some that I think are interesting to look at. The following tables include the players’ goals and assists from the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign, listed in order of the ‘average per game ratio’ (zoom for larger view):
Bale had a poor second half of the campaign for Wales by his standards and in fairness to him, it looked like he was carrying an injury in most games he played. However, he still managed to top the goalscoring charts with 3 goals, Ramsey and Allen coming second with 2 each.
We saw Tom Lawrence come alive and really step up to the mark when Gareth Bale was unavailable against Georgia. He hit a stunning strike from 20 yards to score his first goal for Wales and earn his country a vital 3 points in Tblisi.
The feature of the campaign was the introduction of the “Starman“, Ben Woodburn, who managed a 25% goal & assist ratio without even starting a game.
His goal against Austria, well what can you say? I don’t think I’ve seen a more perfect debut goal in football. The stunning rendition of “Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” ending at the exact moment where Woodburn can compose himself before unleashing a strike that won the game for Wales.
Incredibly, Woodburn only played 76 minutes of football for his country in the World Cup qualifiers and topped the assists per game ratio, above the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. He also scored the same amount of goals as Vokes, who played in every game (7 starts, 3 sub) and Robson-Kanu, who played in 9 (4 starts, 5 sub).
In the four games Wales won – Moldova home and away, Austria home & Georgia away, at least two of “the key three” Bale, Ramsey and Allen were on the pitch together:
4-0 v Moldova – Bale & Allen
1-0 v Austria – Bale & Ramsey
2-0 v Moldova – Bale, Ramsey & Allen
1-0 v Georgia – Ramsey & Allen
In the two games where only one of the three were available, Wales drew against Georgia and lost against Ireland (Joe Allen brought off injured after half hour).
Fans and pundits have said the 1-1 draw against Georgia at home was the missed opportunity, but I think a lot of people forget we were lucky to not lose that game. Georgia dominated periods of the second half after they equalised and Wales were rattled, especially defensively. Okriashvili was pulling the strings from midfield, they hit the woodwork, forced Hennessey into a couple of good saves and looked by far the likelier side to take all 3 points.
For me, it was the two games in the middle of the campaign that were costly – against Serbia in Cardiff and Ireland in Dublin. Bale, Ramsey and Allen were on the pitch together for 90 minutes in both games and we were only able to win 2 points out of a possible 6 (though the Serbia game was Ramsey’s first 90 minutes of the season in November). These two teams were our main qualification rivals in Group D; winning a total of 3/12 points from your closest competition is not going to get you to the World Cup.
What severely lacked throughout was the ruthless attacking edge in the final third. We only managed 5 goals in the last 6 games, which is simply not good enough to qualify for a major tournament. Here’s hoping the new influx of young talent we have coming through will add an exciting dimension to future teams.
World Cup 2018 stats for the 21 players that made an appearance for Wales:
A New Era
The squads for the Nations League and EURO 2020 games will be a contrast to what Chris Coleman’s were. James Collins, David Cotterill, Simon Church and Dave Edwards have been replaced with the likes of Chris Mepham, David Brooks, Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu. Not to mention many of the other new boys who will be fighting for a place in the coming seasons – Lee Evans, Declan John, Connor Roberts, Tom Lockyer, Matt Smith, Tyler Roberts, Joe Rodon and Gwion Edwards to name a few. We may see Danny Ward become a regular for Wales if he manages to stake a place in the current Leicester side.
The bonus that comes with a lot of the new players is their versatility; Ampadu can play in central midfield or central defence, Brooks, Woodburn, Lawrence and Wilson can play on either wing or as no.10’s.
What’s uncertain is whether we will see the natural no.9 phased out of the system. Players like Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu could be dropped in favour of more pace on the counter. Will we continue to see Ashley Williams as captain at the heart of defence as Chris Mepham continues to be highly impressive for Brentford? Joe Ledley and Andy King could find their future Welsh caps numbered as Lee Evans and Ethan Ampadu are certain to be knocking on the door for a place in the starting XI.
Whatever the case, this is an extremely exciting period of transition. We have stronger squad options now than I can ever remember in my lifetime. Let’s hope this is matched with some memorable results and regular qualification for major tournaments.
Assuming all of our players are passed fit by the beginning of September, including Chris Gunter and Aaron Ramsey who are both currently sidelined with minor injuries, Ryan Giggs will have a plethora of options available to him for his first competitive game as Wales manager. Certainly more options than most Wales managers have had for 15+ years.
The past 12 months has seen a number of players burst onto the scene for Wales. Ben Woodburn’s debut against Austria last September was arguably one of the biggest impacts a young player has had in recent times. His performance against Moldova a few days later was also something to treasure, a burst of pace down the left wing to whip in a cross for Hal Robson-Kanu to finish for a vital win 2-0 away from home. Hard to believe at the time he was only 17 years old, outshining his star-player counterparts Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey on both nights.
The trio of Woodburn, Brooks and Ampadu coming on against France in November 2017 was a very exciting moment for Welsh fans; a glimpse into what the future could hold following 3 very assuring performances against a country that would go on to win the World Cup just 8 months later.
Slipping slightly under the radar, a number of players made their debuts against Panama during the same month – Lee Evans, Tom Lockyer, Marley Watkins and Ryan Hedges. Whilst Ryan Giggs has given 5 players their first caps in his first 3 games including Chris Mepham, Connor Roberts, Billy Bodin, Matthew Smith and George Thomas. He has also re-introduced Harry Wilson and Declan John to the setup, both performing closer to the levels everyone has wished to see for some years during the China Cup in March.
However, Giggs hasn’t yet called up the following players (either to injury, being out of favour or “passport issues” in Ward’s case): Ethan Ampadu, Jonny Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu, Danny Ward, Neil Taylor and Emyr Huws.
He will have also been given headaches on whether to select Gwion Edwards, who has had the perfect start for Ipswich or Tyler Roberts, who has been given the no.11 shirt at Leeds and will no doubt feature before September.
As it stands, the following players have the best chance of being called up for the first set of Nations League matches:
Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey, Danny Ward, Chris Maxwell Defenders: Ben Davies, James Chester, Ashley Williams, Chris Mepham, Chris Gunter, Neil Taylor, Connor Roberts Midfielders: Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Andy King, Joe Ledley, Lee Evans, Ethan Ampadu, David Brooks, Harry Wilson, Gwion Edwards Forwards: Gareth Bale, Sam Vokes, Tom Lawrence, Ben Woodburn
Probable standby players: Declan John, Hal Robson-Kanu, Tom Bradshaw, Jazz Richards, Tom Lockyer, Marley Watkins, Adam Davies, Tyler Roberts (will likely be picked for the u21’s v Liechtenstein & Portugal).
Giggs has more attacking players available to him than Chris Coleman ever did when he was manager. Here are 3 formations that he could use to get the most out of the players at hand.
1. Most commonly used system over the past 4 years, 3-4-3
Players are comfortable and very familiar with the system.
Offers the target man option with Vokes so Bale and Ramsey can be brought into play together.
Able to get the most out of Ben Davies in a wing back role as he has done successfully for Spurs in recent times.
Experience all over the pitch, aside from Mepham who will be helped by a team that has compiled 614 caps between them, with an average age of 29.
2. More experimental with a high press, 4-1-2-3
Can be very difficult for the opposition to track interchanging wingers.
Has Bale playing as a no.9 so his energy can be saved for attacks on the counter. Will also make use of his height and heading ability on crosses from either side.
Bale can also be implemented as a false 9, as he has done for Madrid in pre-season.
Versatile system with a flexibility to defend in a 5-4-1, with Ampadu dropping into the centre of the defensive line and the wingers creating a flat four with Allen and Ramsey.
Extremely dangerous on the counter with Ramsey bursting from midfield to link with the front three. Ampadu and Allen’s ability to pick a pass from anywhere will cause havoc for the opposition.
3. Attack minded with pace, 4-2-3-1
Makes use of the speed we have available in the squad with Wilson, Lawrence and Brooks all in the same team. Woodburn or Edwards could also slot in comfortably on either wing.
Again, featuring Bale as a no.9 so his energy can be mostly used in attack.
Has Lawrence in a no.10 role, which he has excelled in for Wales previously.
This system is probably best used if we are needing a goal with 20-30 minutes remaining.
The main issue against the Republic of Ireland in both games last year was scoring goals. You don’t have to be a football expert to work that one out.
Defensively it looked pretty comfortable throughout, even when Taylor got sent off in Dublin, the backline still looked okay. A sloppy bit of play and a lack of concentration led to conceding in Cardiff, so for me, formation number 2 looks to be the strongest option v Ireland. Offering a set of very attack-minded players on the break with pace (4-1-2-3/4-2-1-3), as well as the ability to slip into a defensive shape (5-4-1) that can transition into a counter quickly and effectively.
With the game being at home and Ryan Giggs’ first competitive match, he would love to get off to a winning start. I don’t think we should overestimate what Ireland have at their disposal, I believe that was the mistake last time and ultimately led to two games of stalemate. This doesn’t take away the fact that they are a very competitive, street-wise team with an excellent manager in Martin O’Neill. Wales will see the majority of possession in Cardiff and hopefully with some youth in the side, we are able to score a goal or two.
Against Denmark, Giggs will presumably employ a less attacking formation. I’d imagine we’d revert to 5 at the back (being his first competitive away game, the fact they hammered 5 goals into the Irish last year, as well as reaching the last 16 of the World Cup in Russia). Denmark also have a world class player in Eriksen, which Ireland do not have. Give him a yard or two and he will, nine times out of ten, punish the opposition.
There will be a more in depth tactical post on the upcoming Republic of Ireland and Denmark games closer to September.