Wales & Tottenham Hotspur defender, Ben Davies spoke with me ahead of the first set of competitive international matches this month, against Rep. of Ireland & Denmark.
He gives a brief insight into Danish domestic football, following the news that Denmark will not field a full strength side. He also talks about Paul Dummett’s return and the new crop of youngsters fighting for places.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.