Reasons for Wales’ Improvement #28

Much has been made of Wales’ recent rise up the FIFA world rankings and the reasons behind it. One irrefutable factor is the remarkable turnaround in defensive resilience, organisation and, as Russell Todd points out, continuity in selection from the last qualifying campaign.

 

There was much sneering at the position in which Wales found itself in the recent Fifa rankings. Wales are the tenth best team in the world, itself an improvement by 12 places on the previous all-time high position in the preceding rankings.

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Whether our current position in tenth in Fifa’s rankings is flattering or merited is largely irrelevant; it’s where we are and we’re going to fucking well make hay while the rankings sun shines. The rankings are complex in calculation and points can be lost as easily as gained due to the reducing importance of previous competitive games. Perversely, should…no, when Wales qualifies for Euro 2016 any ranking points they gain will likely maintain a high ranking initially, only for their reduced importance two to fours later result in a Wales drop. Unless, of course, we continue achieving results like that against Belgium. Whatever the rankings’ machinations, from 117th to 10th in four years is astonishing. There is no single reason behind it, not even having The World’s Most Expensive Player.

The factors are numerously cited as Osian Roberts: Tactical Genius™; the squad’s obvious special bond; the #TogetherStronger campaign that has fostered a wonderfully heady relationship between the fans, players and coaches; the mathematically-obscure advantage in the rankings of not playing friendlies; the grieving for Gary Speed has ended (for it did cast a long, dark shadow over our young squad for quite some time); fewer disruptive personalities in the squad; the hitherto-seldom consistent availability of Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale;

Hell, it may even have something to do with Chris Coleman (see Podcast contributor Hywel Picken‘s blog criticising the, at best, begrudging praise for Coleman).

Defensively is where Wales has been most-improved though. We have been resolute and organised, astonishingly so in comparison to the World Cup 2014 qualification campaign where we finished with the worst goal difference and goals conceded tally in our group (20, -11). Only seven other UEFA countries conceded more than Wales in the entire qualification campaign (Faeroe Islands, San Marino, Kazakhstan, Malta, Andorra, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein). To date in the current campaign Wales have conceded only twice, and not at all from open play; only Romania have conceded fewer across all the groups.

The other marked difference is the continuity in defensive personnel. Wales’ defensive resilience and organisation, that is rightly cited as a factor in Wales’s improvement, does not come about solely because of good preparation at international get-togethers. A comparison between the defensive and goalkeeping selections in this campaign and that for the 2014 World Cup is illuminating.

*denotes substitute appearance

Goalkeepers

In the Brazil 2014 campaign we used 3 different goalkeepers: Boaz Myhill, Lewis Price and Wayne Hennessey. Myhill started the campaign but was dropped two games in, after the 6-1 defeat in Serbia (away), for Lewis Price who played the next two games. Myhill returned for the next fixtures but another Serbian horror-show saw him be replaced by Wayne Hennessey upon his return to fitness after 16 months injured, and despite a lack of club action. Indeed Hennessey has played every minute of the eleven internationals since and Myhill made himself unavailable for international selection in May 2014.

The current campaign has seen Hennessey play every minute to date and is unequivocally first choice with a merry-go-round of untried and untested deputies.

Full backs/wing backs

In the Brazil 2014 campaign Coleman, who resolutely stuck with a flat back four after the opening fixture, was forced to select seven different full backs in the ten games: Chris Gunter, Adam Matthews, Neil Taylor, Declan John, Sam Ricketts*, Ben Davies, Jazz Richards. The emergence of Ben Davies and to a lesser extent Declan John has been useful for the development of the squad and have added depth to the talent available in the left back position but John’s appearance (Macedonia, home) was forced on Coleman, as was Richards’ (Belgium, a). Matthews, interestingly, has dropped way down the pecking order and not played in almost two years since Serbia (h).

In the current campaign the increased flexibility of Coleman’s formations, both from game to game and during games, has seen Wales alternate between a wing back formation, flat back four and five at the back. But despite these variations the personnel has seldom changed. Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter had been ever present as wing backs until a shortage of central defenders against Belgium (h) saw Gunter step inside. Richards ably deputised at right back that night.

Centre backs

If full back was a headache for Coleman, centre back was a full-blown migraine. His central defensive line-ups were:

Belgium (h) – Darcy Blake, James Collins, Ashley Williams

Serbia (a) – Blake, Williams

Scotland (h) – Blake, Williams

Croatia (a) – Blake, Williams

Scotland (a) – Sam Ricketts, Williams

Croatia (h) – Collins, Williams

Macedonia (a) – Ricketts, Williams

Serbia (h) – Ben Davies, Danny Gabbidon

Macedonia (h) – Collins, Chris Gunter

Belgium (a) – Collins, Gunter, James Wilson*

A total of eight centre backs. As he has been over the course of his remarkably consistent 51 caps, Ashley Williams was a defensive rock and it is scary to think how even more defensively fragile Wales might have been without his availability in the first seven games. Darcy Blake’s loss of form has been remarkable and the defensive cupboard was very bare going into the Serbia (h) and Belgium (a) games. The public spat between James Collins and Chris Coleman compounded availability problems. James Wilson was on loan at Cheltenham Town when he won what could probably end up being his only cap in Brussels. Even a coasting, in-second gear, celebratory Belgium should have been able to score more against a centre back pairing of Wilson and Chris Gunter. To be fair, Gunter was exceptional that night (as he was in the recent Belgium match) but had also been horribly exposed at centre back by quick movement and interplay in the 2013 friendly defeat to Mexico. Such inconsistency is going to undermine defensive cohesion and organisation. Enter James Chester….

Roll-on two years and in contrast Wales have used only five centre backs in the current campaign – Williams, Collins, Ben Davies, Gunter and James Chester – and this has largely been necessitated by fielding three centre backs in many games. Williams again is an ever-present rock, but Chester has been a revelation (notwithstanding his ‘blip’ against Andorra) since his debut against The Netherlands last year. That was alongside Danny Gabbidon, who put in a vintage performance that night, but who has since found himself surplus to requirements (and stranded a cap short of his golden cap), as has Sam Ricketts. Is it a sign of the confidence in the pattern and structure of play that Coleman isn’t drafting in ‘old heads’ when first choices are unavailable, but asking his full-backs to fill-in? Availability is key here. There has been no need to draft in League One loanees.

Of course, defending is the repsonsibility of the entire team not just Ashley Williams, James Chester et al; indeed, as Welsh supporters we used to witness textbook defending-from-the-front by Ian Rush. The midfield ‘Joe axis’ has been a crucial factor in Wales’ shape and tempo-setting and Hal Robson-Kanu’s selfless running and hold-up play has gained crucial seconds allowing for defensive re-positioning when we have been stretched, as we were against Bosnia frequently, and against Cyprus mid way in the second half after going down to ten men.

But the continuity in selection has been key. 18 different personnel in the Brazil 2014 campaign compared with only 9 to date in the Euro 2016 campaign tells its own story.


 

For some terrific tactical analysis take a look at these Apostle message board postings

 

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