Wales, led by the superstar Gareth Bale, made history in October 2015 by qualifying for the upcoming European Championships. It was the first time a Welsh side had qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup; the side led by John Charles lost in the Quarter Final to eventual winners Brazil.
When you consider some of the great players that have pulled on the Welsh shirt since 1958, it’s almost criminal that they haven’t qualified for more competitions. Great names such as Charles to Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall. Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed and Craig Bellamy, amongst others, have played for Wales in that time.
So why haven’t the men in red qualified for a major tournament or over 60 years?
Has it been a lack of commitment? Maybe, as players such as Giggs had their commitment to the cause questioned throughout their career. But for every Giggs there’s been a Bellamy and a Speed; players undoubtedly committed to the Welsh cause.
Alternatively, has a lack of tactical nouse been at fault for Welsh failure?
If we take a look back through various Welsh sides, it’s fair to say that there has been a lack of tactical consistency or vision from managers.
Mark Hughes, who was Wales manager from 1999 to 2004, was often accused of a lack of tactical flexibility. His successor, John Toshack, was not much better.
Fielding a flat 4-5-1 formation, Toshack failed to ignite his side to get the balance right between being solid defensively and being able to penetrate sides. Despite having the likes of Bellamy and Giggs, Toshack’s Wales side often failed to break down sides and regularly conceded cheap goals.
It was only under the late Gary Speed, who tragically ended his own life in 2011 whilst still in charge of the national side, that Wales started to show some tactical flexibility. Speed managed to mould a young, talented side into a team who could adapt into various formations and systems.
Under the former Premier League midfielder, though, Wales still struggled to be at their best. Looking back at the 2-0 home defeat to England, it’s clear to see the problems Wales possessed.
Despite a solid defensive base; a flat back four with Joe Ledley and Andrew Croft sitting, Wales failed to to offer anything going forward. As Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox explained at the time “Wales’ problems in getting the ball forward weren’t helped by Morison’s poor game. His first touch was terrible, meaning he rarely (if ever) held the ball up, so Wales never got up the pitch.”
For too long, the problem for the Welsh side have missed a leading man to create and finish clear cut chances.
Recognising a lack of top quality striker to lead his Welsh side, Coleman showed his tactical flexibility by utilising Hal Robson-Kanu as the side’s spearhead.
The Reading winger was somewhat unfamiliar with the role, but his willing running and work rate meant he was perfect for Coleman’s counter attacking system. His pace allowed an outlet for his team mates to stick a ball into the channels to push them up the pitch.
It really is hard to put into words how important Hal Robson-Kanu is to the Welsh system. When the more lethargic Sam Vokes is utilised in Robson-Kanu’s forward role, it changes the way Wales plays.
His lack of pace means that the outlet down the channels isn’t available for Wales and the players resort to a longer ball direct to the head of Vokes. This option deprives Wales of a quality outlet when under pressure.
Chris Coleman quickly realised that for Wales to succeed, they would need to set up in a way that played to both the team and their star players’ strengths.
For the European Championship Qualifying campaign, Coleman regularly lined his side up in a 5-3-2 formation; providing both a solid base and a counter attacking outlet.
In a five man defence, Coleman provided his side with a solid base, able to absorb pressure. With captain Ashley Williams at the centre, the Welsh defence maintained a solid and compact back line throughout qualification, with the Swansea man’s leadership and organisational skills key.
Flanking the three central defenders were two fullbacks, usually Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor, who were equally adept at defending as they were breaking forward. They provide the side with much needed width in an otherwise narrow formation. Ahead of them, a defensive midfielder marshalled the backline which provided cover when the full backs did move forward. Joe Ledley usually operated in this position.
In central midfield alongside Ledley were Joe Allen and former captain Aaron Ramsey, whose athleticism were key in getting up the pitch on a quick counter attack. The creativity of the Premier League was vital in playing quick, transitional passes that pushed Wales up the pitch.
We’ve already touched upon Hal Robson-Kanu’s role in leading the line for Wales, but playing just off him was Gareth Bale – the world’s most expensive player. Coleman’s stroke of genius was utilising Bale in a free role where he could be decisive on the counter attack.
Sure, Bale is the hero, scoring 7 goals in qualifying, but his teammates played to his strengths and did much of the dirty work, allowing Bale to stay free and play in between the lines.Throughout qualification, Wales were able to absorb pressure effectively through their solid base and as a result hit sides on the counter attack.
Where Wales have found problems is against the lesser sides, such as Andorra, who would sit back themselves. This stifles the Welsh side’s main tactical plan and puts the emphasis on Wales to break down the opposition.
In qualifying, Wales struggled to do so. Against Andorra, a 2-0 win, Wales struggled to create chances and often resorted to long range efforts or snapshots from poor positions.
How does Coleman counter this? Well, there’s simply no need for three central defenders and a defensive midfielder against a team who are simply looking to contain. By moving one central defender to an attacking position and pushing the full backs further up, Coleman will enable his side overload the opposition side.
With a defensive midfielder and two centre backs marshalling the defensive side, the worries of a counter attack would be minimal.
Personnel will also be important in these situations. Robson-Kanu is a runner, and a brilliant one at it, but technically he is not up there with the likes of Bale. By replacing him with someone like Jonny Williams or Tom Lawrence, Wales gain creativity.
Looking forward to Euro 2016
How do I expect Wales to line up at Euro 2016? The same as in qualifying, for sure. Against England and Russia, the emphasis will be on the opposition to control the game. That will suit Coleman’s Wales.
Against Slovakia, it will be interesting to see how Coleman will line up. I can see Slovakia sitting back more and looking to Wales to control the game. This is where Coleman will need to evaluate and calculate the positives of looking to do so. By looking to control the game, Coleman may leave his side open to a dangerous counter attack.
With Slovakia first up for Wales, I can see Coleman fielding his usually, compact system and playing for a draw if necessary. With just three games in the group stage, it’s important to get off to a good start and avoid defeat.