Welcome to part two of my second blog, the first part of which was dedicated to Tyler Roberts and took a look at how he fitted into the system used by Ryan Giggs in the previous international break. If you have not read the first part, please be aware that the idea of the five lanes on a football pitch will also be used in this blog (as a reminder: Lane 1 – Wide right, Lane 2 – Right half-space, Lane 3 – Central Zone, Lane 4 – Left half-space, Lane 5 – Wide left). I spoke about how Tyler Roberts’ took up starting positions in lanes 1 and 2 for much of the Trinidad & Tobago game instead of in lane 3 like he would have done had he been played as a striker. Aaron Ramsey, as an attacking midfielder, is effective anywhere. He can impact a game from any starting position, from left to right and everywhere in between. He can score every type of goal – he can run beyond a striker, he can arrive late into the box, he scores scruffy goals and he scores “worldies” that you remember for a long time afterwards (I maintain that his goal scored for Arsenal away against Galatasaray is one of the best scored in my lifetime). Wales played really well without him against Slovakia but there is no question over the fact that Ramsey remains indispensable when fit. The sticking point here being “when fit” – unfortunately this blog had been drafted before Ramsey suffered an injury against Napoli and became a doubt for the qualifiers in June. I have still gone forward with this blog because whether he is fit or not for those games, this is a good chance to take a further look at how Wales played against Trinidad & Tobago and Slovakia and to see how Ramsey could fit into or enhance these ideas.
It is likely that in June Wales will stick to the 1-4-4-1-1 defensive shape employed against Slovakia, at least in Croatia. This would make sense as Croatia’s favoured formation is a 1-4-1-4-1 – the same as Slovakia. Wales would again be able to match their opponent’s midfield man-for-man – avoiding getting overloaded centrally is vital due to the obvious quality of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as well as the likes of Milan Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. Giggs has made it clear that his experimentation with Ramsey is over and that he will be Wales’ “number 10” and this is something that I completely agree with. For all of the attacking talent that we now get to watch in this current Welsh side, the chances of going away to Croatia and Hungary in the same week and dominating possession are small. Playing Ramsey in a central midfield pairing that isn’t dominating possession is ineffective as he has too much defensive responsibility to be able to regularly look to hurt the opposition going the other way. He has to track runs and occasionally find himself deep to appropriately cover space, and if he does get to make a penetrating run forward he is leaving a significant gap in a key area of the pitch. In EURO 2016 Qualifying and at the tournament itself Chris Coleman played a system which ensured that Ramsey and Gareth Bale were often close enough either to each other or to the areas that Wales wanted to exploit in key transitional moments. Ryan Giggs could achieve similar things with Ramsey playing behind Bale when Wales are defending. In my analysis of the Slovakia game I spoke about how Bale and David Brooks “double-marked” Slovakia’s deepest lying centre midfielder, Lobotka, which restricted Slovakian play through the midfield to Marek Hamsik. If Ramsey and Bale do the same thing on Croatia’s deepest lying midfielder then they can potentially force Modric and Rakitic deeper in their attempts to get on the ball, but also if Wales do win the ball back then their superstars are close to each other ready to counter attack.
The rest of this piece will discuss:
- The concept of “overload and isolate” – why it suits Wales and how it could be used to benefit Ramsey (or somebody else if he is still injured).
- Croatia’s defensive tendencies and how to try and exploit them.
Overload and Isolate.
A feature of Wales’ play in the Slovakia and Trinidad & Tobago games was to overload their right hand side in order to isolate players and open up space on their left. This theory is simple – you “overload” the side of the pitch where you have the ball and its nearby areas in order to attract opponents. This creates space on the opposite side, where you leave a player or players – isolating them in a 1v1, 1v0 or 2v1 situation with an opponent. The team is structured so that transferring the ball from the overloaded side to the isolated player(s) can take place when possible in a safe and coordinated manner that does not risk losing possession in dangerous areas before playing directly into the isolated part of the pitch (known as switch and slice – switch the play and slice through the gap created). The use of this concept makes me think that Daniel James would have started against Slovakia even if Ramsey had been fit because he is an ideal player to leave isolated on the far side of the pitch when Wales have the ball due to his pace and direct running.
I made the two drawings shown below to illustrate how Wales used the “overload and isolate” idea against Trinidad & Tobago. The first shows the positioning of the players on both sides for a throw-in taken by Chris Gunter on Wales’ right. As you can see, Wales overload the right-hand side of the pitch (Gunter, Roberts and Williams in lane 1; Thomas, Vaulks and Dummett in lane 2; then Ward, Evans and Woodburn in lane 3). Tyler Roberts drops diagonally behind Gunter’s position to receive in a safe position to transfer the ball backwards to Paul Dummett.
The second image shows the following:
- Paul Dummett passes to Neil Taylor, which encourages Trinidad & Tobago’s (T&T’s) nearest opponent to press towards Taylor.
- Because the ball has moved to his side, T&T’s right back must move across. He decides to get tighter to Ryan Hedges – Wales’ purposefully isolated player – and Hedges drops backwards slightly to encourage this.
- This opens up space behind T&T’s right back and between the right back and the right centre back (highlighted) which Taylor can play directly into for Hedges to beat the right back in a chase for.
- Tyler Roberts is highlighted so that anybody who read the piece on him can see how the switch to the left benefits him also. All T&T players near him are occupied by either other players or other potential problems. He is free to advance forward and if a ball comes across from the left to him in the box it may come to his favoured right foot. This did not happen unfortunately, but the possibility was there.
Of course, if I can spot this pattern of play then the Croatia manager Zlatko Dalić definitely can, but I would still like to see Wales try and use it again in Osijek. A feature of Croatia in possession is that their right full back pushes up high and wide in support of attacks. Playing direct to James could force them to rethink this and prevent them from overloading Wales’ left hand side. Also, Croatia are susceptible to balls played in between their fullbacks and centre backs and there were several examples of this in their game against Azerbaijan.
The below drawing is a hypothetical situation that I drew up, with Aaron Ramsey highlighted. The ball starts with Wales wide right in lane 1 with only the left back in line with lane 4 and the left winger wide left in lane 5. I have put Aaron Ramsey on the line between the central space and the right half-space so that he is able to move into either space if needed.
In this next image, Wales have switched the ball and played directly into the left half-space for James to exploit (switch and slice again). The ballside centre back may move out to deal with James and a near-post run from the central striker, most likely Gareth Bale, would take the other centre back away from the middle of the Croatian penalty box. This could create space for Ramsey to run in and onto a cross from James. Croatia conceded to Spain as a consequence of not tracking a midfield runner into space in the middle of the box so it is definitely something they could concede from again. Alternatively, James may cut in onto his right foot and it could suit Ramsey to arrive later at the edge of the box for a shorter pass – which is also shown on the image. Either potential scenario suits Ramsey and is one he could score from. Overloading Wales’ right to isolate James on the left could create opportunities for Ramsey (or another player if he isn’t fit) to move into dangerous goal-scoring positions in the central space, because moving an opponent is what creates gaps.
Something else that I have noticed having watched some highlights of their recent games is that if Croatia lose the ball in one wide channel or half-space when in their own half of the pitch, their back four do not always deal well with a runner coming between members of their defence either in the opposite half-space or through the central zone. One reason for this is because their defenders are sometimes guilty of having closed body shapes and, seemingly, not communicating effectively – consequently not being aware of a runner behind or between them until it is too late. This is most likely to happen coming from Croatia’s left across to their right, so it would require quality and adventurous passing from Wales’ right over to their left. Aaron Ramsey is perfect for this and Gareth Bale, Daniel James, Harry Wilson and David Brooks could all meet a hypothetical pass on their stronger foots in ideal circumstances. I have sketched up a couple of hypothetical examples of the image below.
Croatia’s other defensive weakness is defending set-pieces – a reoccurring theme with them over their past few matches. This is something Wales are also capable of exploiting with effective planning – but I’ll leave that to the coaching staff!
Thank you for reading this two-part blog. Fingers crossed that Ramsey is available again soon – but I hope that you found this blog interesting regardless. His potential role within patterns of Welsh play are still relevant and interesting to discuss. Please provide any feedback that you wish to, either as a comment on the blog or on social media.
See you in June.
The animations used in this piece were created by Luke Williams onhttps://www.sportsessionplanner.com/.