It’s a sign of Wales’s ambition that a draw placing them in a group with England was met with groans. After 58 years watching from the sidelines (40 if you count the final round of Euro 76 qualifying as a de facto quarter-final), in which the team had been brought low by everything from crossbars and floodlights to doping Russians and a cheating Scot, this is their time – and England are getting in the way.
The pseudo-derby in tiny Lens is an unwelcome distraction, but it could decide Wales’s Euro 2016 fate. Fortunately, they revel in being underdogs. In short: bring it on.
Is the team strong enough to support Bale?
The perception outside Wales is that their starting XI consists of Gareth Bale and 10 competition winners. It’s nonsense. Their success comes from a stingy defence led by Ashley Williams, while any three of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Premier League champion Andy King make for a fine midfield.
However, there’s no forgetting that Bale contributed to 10 of Wales’s 11 goals in qualifying; nor that they’ve won just one of the nine games he’s missed in the Chris Coleman era. Tidy but toothless performances have shown how much they need the Real Madrid forward.
Could Wales make it out of Group B without Bale? Probably not – unless it was with three 0-0 draws. But they can succeed with him, as supporting actors to the A-list star.
Wales’s tactics don’t revolve around Bale. They’re strong on the counter, of course, because their best player is tailor-made for it, but generally play a passing game. At the same time, Coleman knows Bale is most dangerous in a free role – and that’s why the unit’s organisation and discipline is crucial. Fortunately, keeping things tight at one end with a match-winner at the other is a perfect setup for tournament football.
What they’ve learned
One: love your subs. Coleman has taught his players the tactical flexibility to change formation mid-match, but – even allowing for Wales’s lack of game-changers in reserve – he’ll hold off on making a substitution that’d give a labouring team impetus.
Two: don’t panic. Wales have always had an innate ability to self-destruct, but they’ve learned of late to overcome adversity, either from tragic events off the pitch or simple setbacks on it. Six minutes into the campaign they trailed to Andorra on a shocking pitch, and only narrowly avoided humiliation. But they stuck at it, just as they won with 10 men against Cyprus and stood firm against Belgium home and away.
All about organisation
Well, Bale’s pretty useful. But Wales as a team are organised with and without the ball. They’re neat in possession, and adaptable: a fluid 5-3-2 with four full-backs, two pushed high up the pitch, morphs easily into a 3-4-2-1 with Aaron Ramsey more advanced, and the players are also comfortable playing in a 4-3-3.
The key to qualification was a hardy defence. Captain Williams was an ever-present rock, and others stepped up: Jazz Richards probably won’t even start in France but was sensational in silencing Eden Hazard as Wales beat Belgium last June, and later crossed perfectly for Bale’s headed winner in Cyprus. Wales let in four goals in 10 matches, playing nine-and-a-half hours of competitive football without conceding, and keeping two clean sheets against a Belgium team that scored 24 goals in their eight other ties. Only Spain, England and Romania managed more shutouts than Wales’s seven.
Goals win games
A recent tendency to switch off when defending set-pieces is concerning, and while there’s more depth than before, the squad’s still thin in attack and central defence.
However, the main problem is goals – or a lack of them. The qualifying campaign brought a meagre haul of 11; nobody at Euro 2016 averaged fewer per game. Wales don’t create many chances – they posed alarmingly little threat in Bale-less friendlies against Northern Ireland and Ukraine – and there’s no real poacher to convert them anyway.
Cult hero Hal Robson-Kanu has improved immeasurably, bringing industry and heart to his adopted No.9 role, but 30 caps have yielded just two goals. Sam Vokes (six goals in 39 appearances) hasn’t brought his club form to the international scene. Simon Church (three in 35) is a nuisance but not a threat.
Walsall’s Tom Bradshaw was trumpeted for inclusion as the squad’s wildcard following consecutive 20-goal domestic seasons, but was duly ruled out of contention before the final squad was announced with a torn ankle ligament.
Bale has, at 26, already done more for Welsh football than perhaps any other player in its history. Helping his nation into at least the last eight in France – not to mention the World Cup finals in Russia – would only confirm that.
Yet he’s not under pressure to do so, thanks to a convivial dressing room full of established squad members who’ve played alongside him for years. Compare that relaxed atmosphere to the one surrounding (or created by) Bale’s Real Madrid club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, who said of Portugal before the 2014 World Cup: “If we had two or three Cristiano Ronaldos in the team, I’d feel more comfortable – but we don’t.”
Bale’s a creator and a finisher, a leader and a follower, but most importantly to Wales, he isn’t a one-dimensional threat. While his ability to develop something out of nothing terrifies defenders, he also scores towering headers, slots home through balls and nets sumptuous free-kicks – handy, as Wales have several tricky dribblers who are good at winning them. In fact, four of Bale’s 19 international goals have been direct free-kicks, with another three also coming from outside the box. On form, he isn’t easy to stop.
Four years ago Coleman arrived from the Greek second division and lost five of his first six games. It seems hard to believe now, with a new contract (finally) signed, that he was once clinging to his job. The jacket he wears for every game isn’t just a talisman – he’s superstitiously worn it whatever the heat since watching Wales’s 6-1 defeat to Serbia in his shirtsleeves – but a reminder of those dark times.
That’s all changed. Player standoffs have been replaced by phenomenal team spirit, bluster by composed confidence. Coleman is also helped enormously by assistants Osian Roberts, Welsh football’s true driving force, and Paul Trollope, Cardiff’s new manager.