Wales hosted Azerbaijan to complete the first half of their qualifying campaign for EURO 2020. After the disappointment of the June double-header that saw away defeats to both Croatia and Hungary, it was vital that Wales bounced back with a win, which they did thanks to an own goal and a late header from Gareth Bale.
Wales’ Positional Play.
Wales lined up in their usual 1-4-4-1-1/1-4-2-3-1 shape (Hennessey; C. Roberts, Mepham, Rodon, N. Taylor; Allen, Ampadu; Bale, Wilson, James; T. Lawrence). The below image shows Wales pressing Azerbaijan in their usual 4-2-3-1. Wales pressed high and aggressively, seeking to start fast and assert themselves on the game before their visitors could settle. However, this failed to result in an early Welsh goal, or indeed many clear-cut Welsh chances.
In the aftermath of the game, a lot of people accused Wales and manager Ryan Giggs of lacking a clear tactical plan. In reality, Wales’ positional play when in possession of the ball has remained largely similar throughout 2019. People are perfectly entitled to their opinion on the tactics used by Giggs, but to suggest that there isn’t any structure to how Wales play is inaccurate. This piece will aim to provide an overview of some of Wales’ positional play – fans are free to decide their own opinions on whether or not they think it works.
Wales often play out from their centre backs as shown below, with the ballside centre midfielder (often Joe Allen) becoming a short, diagonal option for the right centre back (Joe Mepham in this game) upon the centre back’s receiving of the ball. This allows for the right back, Connor Roberts to push on higher and wider beyond the opponent’s midfield line. Meanwhile, the other centre midfielder remains central and the left back stays deep in Wales’ left halfspace. I have spoken in previous blogs about this set-up.
As Allen receives the ball and moves forward, we can see the Welsh set-up in front of him – this is an extreme example because it is early in the game and Azerbaijan had evidently not settled down into their shape by this point. Allen is passing to Tom Lawrence who has come short from his striker role, meanwhile Gareth Bale, as the right winger, is in the right halfspace and Harry Wilson, as the “10” of the team, is in the left halfspace. Connor Roberts is off-screen touchline right and Daniel James is off-screen touchline left. Wales have all five horizontal lanes of the pitch occupied. As Allen passes into Lawrence, Bale makes a run in-behind the latter, however the flick-on from Lawrence does not reach him. This move served as an early example of one aspect of Wales’ positional play.
The following is another combination that Wales try to perform when a centre midfielder has collected the ball within this framework. Wales have vacated the central space, with Bale dropping in line with Allen and Lawrence moving deeper into the right halfspace to form a triangle with Allen and Roberts. The red arrow shows Allen’s run, while the green arrows show the path of the ball. The problem with this, though, is that there is a lack of Wales players in threatening central areas beyond Joe Allen once he gets the ball back.
I drew the below diagram to illustrate aspects of Wales’ positional play in the friendly against Trinidad & Tobago back in March. The black arrows show the ball being passed to Neil Taylor (playing left back but deep in the left halfspace, as previously mentioned) who then looks for a direct pass in-behind Trinidad & Tobago’s right back for Ryan Hedges. Notice how Hedges, playing left wing, makes a slight movement backwards before darting in-behind for the pass. Wales used this exact same idea against Slovakia, with Ben Davies staying short and narrow to send direct balls over or through for Daniel James to chase. Since then, all of Wales’ opponents are very clear on two things. Firstly, that Wales try and do this move. Secondly, that Daniel James is a serious threat when given space. Teams have therefore reacted accordingly and stopped offering space in-behind their respective defences.
Azerbaijan defended this aspect of Wales’ positional play very effectively. The Azeri right winger, Emreli, would stay high as Wales moved the ball across to the left, ensuring that he was on hand to put immediate pressure on Taylor when he received the ball. Azerbaijan played two right backs on the right side and two left backs on the left. On their right, this meant that one right back – Garayev (who was playing as right centre midfielder in possession) could follow Harry Wilson in the halfspace, leaving the other, more conventionally-positioned right back free to engage with James (who is highlighted with a blue underline).
This next image comes from the same move, with Taylor having returned the ball to Joe Rodon at left centre back. Taylor and Ampadu are visibly pointing at the halfspace, seemingly telling Rodon to either run or pass into it. The problem with Harry Wilson receiving the ball in that space is that as a left-footer he is naturally inclined to move in a straight line from that position, or go out left one more to James. Azerbaijan could defend this due to them “doubling-up” defensively in that area with the two right backs.
The introduction of Jonny Williams for Wilson was a good move because Williams, as a right-footer would naturally take the ball the other way to Wilson. Garayev was leaving the space that a right centre midfielder would normally defend in order to block the halfspace. Williams would naturally move into the space Garayev was leaving – causing Azerbaijan a different problem.
Joe Rodon was also effective on one or two occasions at the dribbling forward with the ball, because he would provoke an Azeri midfielder into engaging him and sacrificing space somewhere else. I would like to see more of this in future matches – it needs working into the framework so that players make intelligent movements off of Rodon when he brings the ball forward.
Something else to note was that when Wales brought Sam Vokes on, Gareth Bale moved to the left side and made a noticeable effort to deliver several crosses into the box for target-man Vokes – something rarely seen by Wales so far under Ryan Giggs. It will be interesting to see how this affects Welsh plans in the next few games.
There are so many analytical points that I have taken from this game, but I have decided to just use this blog to try and shed a light on what Wales’ plan tends to feature under Ryan Giggs, seeing as he is being criticised by many for lacking one. Wales had to be patient against a well-drilled side who went on to draw against Croatia in their next match, but it was still a lacklustre display in Cardiff from the men in red and there needs to be improvement in the upcoming fixtures. I wrote a blog in the spring about how this system could really suit Aaron Ramsey, but he has missed every minute of this campaign so far due to injury. He would give Wales a dimension that they are currently missing, and would exploit the left halfspace effectively within Wales’ current framework. The next match, Slovakia away, is obviously enormous given the context of the qualifying group but it is also a chance for Giggs to get a positive away result, something he has not done since beating Ireland in October 2018. Results elsewhere mean Wales still have a chance of reaching EURO 2020, it is now up to them to take it.
Diolch am ddarllen/thanks for reading.