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Assessment of the last qualifying campaign and the dawn of a new era

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):

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 14.56.31

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:Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 17.42.52

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.

Ryan Giggs will be thinking long and hard about moulding a system that is best to fit some of these players in. With a surplus of attacking options available, you would predict that at some point he will opt for an out-and-out offensive front three. You can read more about potential formations in this previous article.

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.

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The UEFA Nations League explained

Many have been left with confusion as to what the Nations League offers and what happens if we win/lose our games. I will explain all in this article as clearly and as briefly as possible.

  1. There are 55 teams split into Leagues A & B (12 teams each), League C (15 teams) and League D (16 teams). Wales are currently in League B, Group 4.
  2. In League A, the four group winners qualify to play in the Nations League Finals (two semi-finals and one final) in June 2019. The winner is declared UEFA Nations League Champion. (We don’t need to worry too much about this for now).
  3. As well as this, there are play offs for the group winners of League’s A, B, C & D in the same format (two semi-finals and a final). The winner of each qualifies for EURO 2020.
  4. These games will take place in March 2020, after Euro 2020 qualifying is completed in November 2019. The host of the final will be chosen between two of the semi-final pairings for each League.
  5. If the group winner has already qualified for EURO 2020 by means of regular qualification as we know it (starting in March 2019), they will be replaced by the following means (working from League D to A):
  • If the league has a group winner selected for the play-offs, the next best team in the overall ranking from a lower league will be selected.
  • If the league has no group winner available, the best team in the overall ranking in the same group will be selected.

Each group winner of League’s B, C & D get promoted to the league above, whilst finishing bottom of a group in League’s A, B & C results in relegation to the league below. This will only take action for the next “season” of Nations League matches, beginning in September 2020.

So to sum up, even if we fail to qualify for EURO 2020 by regular means of qualifying (March-November 2019), we still have a chance to qualify via the Nations League play-offs, by finishing top of the group ahead of Ireland and Denmark.
Or even finishing second with a high points total would see us compete for the play-offs in League A instead of League B (the likelihood being the vast majority of teams in Group A would have already qualified for EURO 2020). There are no play off matches through the normal means of qualification anymore, only via the Nations League. 

There will be 10 groups of 5 or 6 teams in EURO 2020 qualifying, with the top 2 teams of each group automatically progressing to the tournament finals, taking 20/24 places. The 4 remaining places will be awarded to the winners of the Nations League play offs for League’s A, B, C & D.

To finish with a few examples:

Example 1:

Let’s imagine we won our Nations League group by winning all games in September, October and November, ending with 12 points.

But then we end up finishing 3rd in EURO 2020 qualifying, missing out on standard qualification.

We would then enter the Nations League play offs (March 2020) to play one and/or two of the following teams from League B in the semi-final & final to qualify for EURO 2020 –
Austria, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Russia, Rep. of Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden, Turkey or Ukraine.

There is a small possibility that if 8 of the above teams have already qualified, we would be in contention of playing the next best ranked team from League C (that did not win their group and did not qualify for EURO 2020) – Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Montenegro, Norway, Romania, Serbia, Scotland or Slovenia.

Example 2:

This time we finish 2nd in our Nations League group with 9 points, and Denmark/Ireland finish top by goals scored. (9 points is more than likely enough to be the next best ranked team in League B).

Again, we end up missing out on EURO 2020 qualifying, so fingers crossed lots of teams in League A have already qualified, therefore giving us a chance of the play offs for League A instead of League B.

Let’s say Belgium won their Nations League A group and already qualified for EURO 2020, leaving the next best ranked team from League B to replace them. We would enter the Nations League play offs (March 2020) to play 2 out of 3 teams from League A that have not already qualified –
(Belgium), Croatia, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain or Switzerland.

Prize Money

League participation fee Group winners
League A €1.5m €1.5m
League B €1m €1m
League C €750k €750k
League D €500k €500k
Nations League Finals (League A only)
Winner €4.5m
Runners-up €3.5m
Third place €2.5m
Fourth place €1.5m