As this is the first blog of this series, I will briefly explain how these blogs will work. UEFA do not have a history of taking kindly to footage from their matches being used by third parties. Those living in the UK are able to make use of BBC iPlayer, on which S4C’s coverage can be found. I will provide the in-game time of useful examples of the aspects that I analyse, so that readers can easily find a visual representation themselves if they so wish by making use of the footage on iPlayer.
So, to the game itself. It was a huge game for both Wales and Ryan Giggs after a mixed 2018 and a lacklustre victory over Trinidad & Tobago to kick-start 2019. Wales secured a vitally important win over qualification rivals Slovakia thanks to Daniel James’ early goal and Giggs can feel satisfied that his big decisions proved to be correct.
In terms of formation, Wales started as expected in a 1-4-4-1-1 shape (Hennessey; C. Roberts, Mepham, J. Lawrence, Davies; Wilson, Allen, Smith, James; Brooks; Bale). There were, however, some surprises in terms of personnel with Chris Mepham and James Lawrence starting at centre back and Gareth Bale captaining the side in place of the benched Ashley Williams.
When in their midblock, Wales were happy to let Slovakia’s centre-backs have the ball. By having a midfield four with Brooks just in front Wales were able to match Slovakia’s midfield numerically. David Brooks and Gareth Bale would “double-up” on Slovakia’s deep-lying central midfielder, Lobotka, by having one in front of him and one behind him, in order to prevent a centre back from passing into him (examples, 00:53, 01:12). Due to Lobotka being shut off and Wales having a 2v2 centrally behind Lobotka (Allen & Smith v Hamsik & Kucka), Hamsik had to drop deeper in order to try and receive the ball from his centre backs. Hamsik prefers to receive the ball between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines, but less than two minutes in and he had already been made to realise that Wales would not let him do this easily (remember that early drive through in Bordeaux?). When Hamsik dropped deeper and more towards the side of Matt Smith, Allen was able to press Lobotka from behind as well (example, 03:00 – Allen and Brooks outnumber Lobotka as he receives with his back to goal, he is forced to pass sideways which brings Connor Roberts forward and forces Slovakia backwards).
The actions of Wales’ centre backs, in my opinion, proved why Giggs went with the right pairing in Mepham and Lawrence. If a Slovakian received the ball between Wales’ midfield and defensive lines with his back to goal, the nearest Wales centre back would press them from behind. This requires pace and agility to both get out to press and drop back in effectively. Ashley Williams will be vital in this campaign (he was an important sub later in this match) but this would not have suited him.
The goal, much like a lot of Wales’ play first half, proved two things. Firstly, the Trinidad and Tobago game was a worthwhile exercise. Secondly, Ryan Giggs’ squad are in a better place than many would have given him credit for before this international period.
To begin with, Wales won the ball back in their own half and via a combination of short passes played the ball back to Wayne Hennessey in goal. This encouraged the Slovakian front line to push higher. I suggest that the rest of the goal analysis is read alongside replays of the goal in order to assist the reader.
Mepham receives the ball off of Hennessey. Connor Roberts provides him with a wide, but short and diagonal option wide right. This attracts the nearest Slovakian to move forward in case Roberts is passed the ball. Joe Allen provides a diagonal option centrally, attracting a Slovakian defender. Gareth Bale is a long way from the ball, stood in the centre cirlcle in line with the space between Slovakia’s right back and right centre back. Harry Wilson starts high and wide on the right, which attracts Slovakia’s left back towards him. This all facilitates the first key moment in the build-up to the goal – Brooks’ ability to receive the ball with his back to goal in the space left by Allen and stretched by Roberts and Wilson.
Brooks is pressed from behind but not effectively enough, meaning he is able to turn and pass to Wilson. Wilson has moved closer to the ball and slightly inside – bringing the left back with him. Wilson plays back to Brooks, whose excellent first touch takes him away and into the space just vacated by the Slovakia left back. The rest of Slovakia’s back four have not been able to shift across and shut off the space because of Gareth Bale’s aforementioned position and because Daniel James is touchline wide on the left side.
Unsure on Ryan Giggs? 5 minutes into an enormous Euro 2020 qualifier, David Brooks is in his element – driving in with the ball from the right. Gareth Bale is running into the channel no team wants him to run into – between the right back and right centre back, ready to enter the box and take an early strike on his left foot. Daniel James is flying on the outside of a right back who is so scared of Bale inside of him that he forgets that James is there. If Ryan Giggs dreamed of any scenario on Saturday night, it was this.
The space for Bale closes up due to the narrowness of Slovakia’s right back and it puts Brooks off his pass. But fortunately, the lack of awareness regarding James that I just spoke of means that the intercepting right back does not anticipate a press from behind. James steals the ball and scores.
What does this have to do with the Trinidad & Tobago game? The exact same patterns used by Wales in the first half against Slovakia were attempted in the Wednesday friendly, they were just not executed as effectively. I will talk more about this in a later post, which will discuss some of Wales’ patterns in further detail. The planning behind the goal is clear and Giggs and his staff must take credit for this.
For the second half, Brooks and Wilson swapped over so that Brooks was on the right and Wilson was behind Bale.
Slovakia caused Wales a problem by pushing their left back higher up the pitch, forcing Brooks to track him back. This meant that Wilson had to drop deeper in order to cover the space left by Brooks (example – 57:25). Slovakia were pulling Wales over to the latter’s right before switching diagonally to their left, where Slovakia’s right back would arrive late.
Substitution 1:- Brooks off, T. Roberts on. I sympathise with Giggs’ thinking when it comes to putting Tyler Roberts on the right and will discuss this in a later blog. This like-for-like change did not do much to deter the Slovakian left back from advancing forward. Roberts, like Brooks had before him, was spending some periods defending like a makeshift right wingback. His being so deep was giving Joe Allen more ground to cover, meaning play was bypassing him more (example 66:06).
Substitution 2:- James off, A. Williams on. The issue with Slovakia’s advancing left back was exactly why it was a good decision to go to five at the back and bring Ashley Williams on. Connor Roberts could now defend the area that Brooks and Tyler Roberts had struggled to and Mepham could move wider to cover him knowing that he now had Ashley Williams inside of him as extra cover. Having three centre backs also helped defend crosses into the box, even if a superb save from Hennessey was needed in one instance.
Substitution 3:- Wilson off, Vaulks on. This substitution had two benefits. Firstly, Vaulks provided extra height and energy as Slovakia went more direct. Secondly, it allowed Matt Smith to push on and press Lobotka to prevent Slovakia from committing too many numbers forward centrally.
Even though Giggs would not say it himself when interviewed before the game, this was a must-win game for Wales. Playing “catch-up” away to Croatia and Hungary would have been a nightmare. Bigger tests will come, but last week was an enormous step forward for Ryan Giggs and his staff. My next blog will discuss the role of Tyler Roberts in the games played in this window and going forward, as well as taking a look at where this could all leave a certain Aaron Ramsey.
Thank you very much for reading.
Diolch yn fawr.