Matchdays 5 & 6: Slovakia 1-1 Wales & Wales 1-1 Croatia.

Introduction.

Firstly, thank you to everybody that read and supported my analysis of the Azerbaijan game – I couldn’t believe the number of people interacting with it from all over Wales and indeed the world, so a big diolch from me. That blog provided an overview of some features of Wales’ positional play under Ryan Giggs so it may be useful for new readers. You can find it here.

This was a “make-or-break” week for Ryan Giggs in the eyes of many Wales fans and two draws keeps hopes of automatic qualification for EURO 2020 alive. I have combined the analysis for both games together in the one blog due to time restraints – I hope you enjoy reading it and find it useful. If you want to compare these two games to when we last played Slovakia and Croatia, you can find the Slovakia (h) blog here and the Croatia (a) blog here.

Matchday 5: Slovakia 1-1 Wales.

Ryan Giggs sprung some surprises with his team selection, while playing in the usual 1-4-4-1-1/1-4-2-3-1 shape (Hennessey; C. Roberts, Lockyer, Rodon, B. Davies; Bale, Allen, Ampadu, James; J. Williams; Moore). The below photo shows Wales defending in a compact midblock, with Jonny Williams shutting off the passing lane to Lobotka, Slovakia’s deepest-lying central midfielder.

The surprise inclusion of Kieffer Moore up front gave Wales an outlet that they have lacked for much of the qualifying campaign – he won several headers and held the ball up well to allow Wales to get bodies around him. You can see in this next photo how Gareth Bale and Daniel James were able to make narrow runs beyond him when the ball was played long, while the midfielders and full backs have also pushed up in anticipation. This ability to go from back to front quickly gave Wales a new dimension and was used well for much of the match.

Wales employed the same in-possession framework that I summarised after the Azerbaijan game – an example of which can be see below, with Ben Davies deep and Daniel James wide to stretch the left halfspace for Jonny Williams to occupy.

This framework was evident in the lead up to Wales’ goal. As this first photo shows, Joe Allen has pulled out into the right halfspace between Lockyer at RCB and Roberts at RB, like I spoke about after Azerbaijan. This movement from Allen attracts Kucka to press him, leaving space for Gareth Bale to receive off Allen centrally.

In the next two photos, we see Bale’s switch of play out to Daniel James. Notice again how much space Jonny Williams has in the left halfspace both before and after the switch.

It must be said that the defending for the goal is absolutely terrible from Slovakia. The right back fails to deal with the aerial switch to James, and the centre backs fail to deal with Moore in the box. But from a Welsh perspective, it was a good cross from James and an excellent header back across goal from Moore. Credit must go to Giggs for the framework that facilitated the goal, and for selecting Kieffer Moore – the gamble definitely paid off.

Slovakia gave Wales a problem with the structure of their midfield when in possession. Slovakia would often build-up with two central midfielders in line with each other, and then one advanced beyond the Welsh midfield line in the opposite halfspace. An example of this can be seen below.

This allowed Slovakia’s farside winger to stay wide and stretch the play (you can see a switch being performed in the previous image). It also allowed Mak, the left winger, to move dangerously into Slovakia’s left halspace when he was the ballside winger.

After the game, many people were wondering why Gareth Bale was noticeably quieter in the second half than he was in the first. In the second half, right back Connor Roberts often stayed deep in build-up, possibly due to the heavy defensive workload that he endured throughout the match. With Roberts no longer occupying the wide right channel, Gareth Bale did instead. This helped Wales defensively, but it did isolate Bale for periods of the second half.

Overall, a draw was a fair result – it was undoubtedly Wales’ best away performance of the campaign so far.

Matchday 6: Wales 1-1 Croatia.

Wales named an unchanged team for the visit of Croatia on Matchday 6, with Aaron Ramsey losing his battle to be fit. It cannot be understated just how much of a loss his absence for the entire campaign so far has been. I wrote in April about his potential importance, and he would suit the framework used by Giggs when in possession.

While Wales’ set-up began as a 1-4-4-1-1, Jonny Williams was tasked with man-marking Luka Modric in the first half, so the Welsh shape looked more like a 1-4-1-4-1 at times, with Ampadu dropping deeper to cover the passing lane into Nikola Vlasic (Croatia’s attacking midfielder). Meanwhile, Joe Allen would press Mateo Kovacic from behind should he receive the ball. Kieffer Moore would zonally defend the central space.

This next photo is an example of Wales’ positional play that I also spoke about post-Azerbaijan. With Ben Davies receiving deep in the left halfspace, Daniel James checks back to attract the right back (Jedvaj) forward before sprinting for a direct pass in-behind into the halfspace. This resulted in Dejan Lovren coming across to deal with the ball and appeals for a penalty from sections of the Welsh support. This was one of the rare occasions where the Croatian fullbacks left too much space behind them – they expertly protected themselves in Osijek in June by staying deep in build-up.

In some instances, James checking back created space for the ball to played direct in the left halfspace for Kieffer Moore to chase, with Jonny Williams drifting centrally. Moore’s strength and mobility meant that this was a viable option for Wales and was another factor in justifying his inclusion.

The Croatian goal, while well-taken, was very avoidable from a Welsh perspective. Firstly, Jonny Williams uncharacteristically tried to receive the ball with an incorrect body shape in relation to the player pressing him and he lost the ball, as shown here. Notice how it is a 3v3 in the area where Williams loses the ball. Unfortunately, Croatia are excellent at playing out of tight spaces like this. It is also troubling to see Tom Lockyer standing so deep.

From there, Lockyer gets sucked in before tracking the technically brilliant Brekalo out towards the right. He delays Brekalo long enough for Connor Roberts to retreat and cover inside of him, but Brekalo is still able to cut inside.

The next photo shows both Ethan Ampadu and Joe Allen getting attracted to the ball and as a consequence the Croatians have two spare men arriving in the box – one provides the assist for the other. I have my own opinions regarding a) Lockyer’s defending here and b) the actions of Allen and Ampadu and why they actually did what they did. But I do these blogs to provide tactical overviews from which people can decide their own opinions – I’m not going to tell people what to think. It must be said, though, that it is a bad goal to concede, despite it being an excellent finish.

As we know by now, Wales’ positional play opens up the left halfspace and the equaliser came as a result of an excellent dribble into this space from Ben Davies. If Davies does this more often, while risky, it could add another facet to Wales’ play in-possession.

I have spoken before about Bale’s ability to receive the ball on his left foot on the left-hand side of the box – he was never missing that chance. There appeared to be a conscious effort to give him the ball in that exact area at home to Slovakia in March, but on that occasion the ball fell to Daniel James who scored himself. This is the area in which he is being the most productive for Wales going forward and this should be taken into future consideration.

Croatia brought on Ivan Rakitic at half time, replacing Kovacic. For the second half, Joe Allen and Jonny Williams swapped over so that Allen was man-marking Modric and Williams was marking Rakitic. This meant that Williams was occasionally in the opposite halfspace or on the opposite side of the pitch to normal when Wales won back the ball. Bringing Harry Wilson on, while adding fresh legs and impetus, also provided Wales with somebody who could move inwards with the ball from the right halfspace – the reverse situation to the substitution last month against Azerbaijan where a right-footer was needed in the left halfspace .

Later on, Bale and James swapped wings, so Bale was on the left and James on the right. Bale and Wilson, both left footed, rotated the responsibility of occupying the wide left channel in order to stretch the neighbouring halfspace for the other.

When Tyler Roberts came on for Kieffer Moore, Bale and James swapped back again as Wales looked to try and stretch the play between Croatia’s defensive and midfield lines, however we did not get to see a lot of this due to Bale picking up an injury.

Ultimately, both of these draws were fair results and ones that Wales earned. This was a marked improvement from Ryan Giggs – who by drawing with Croatia has proven for the first time that he can get a result in a competitive match against a side deemed by many to be superior on paper. The Wales fans frustrated with these two draws aren’t frustrated with them in isolation – they are frustrated because of the dropped points in June. A point in Budapest would have made the world of difference to this group. But having said that, Wales are still in it and everything is to play for in November.

Thank you for reading/diolch am ddarllen.

If you are a Welsh speaker, you can listen to my recent segment on BBC Radio Cymru below. Thank you to Dylan Wyn and Dylan Jones for the incredible opportunity. I was very grateful for the chance to talk on the radio about my personal journey and recent Wales matches – it is a great show by great people, even if they did accidentally call me English ;).

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07qws6p

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