Wales came into their final two qualifiers knowing that two wins plus a Croatian triumph against Slovakia were both realistic requirements in order to achieve direct qualification to UEFA EURO 2020. Two 2-0 wins in succession and a 3-1 Croatian victory meant that Welsh dreams of a second European Championships in a row were realised. Thank you to everybody for reading the blogs throughout the campaign, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this Welsh side evolve and I hope you have enjoyed my blogs along the way. All of the other blogs can be found here and will be kept up for the forseeable future.
Matchday 7: Azerbaijan 0-2 Wales.
The home victory against Azerbaijan was a very hard-fought one and I used it as an opportunity to provide an overview of Wales’ general positional play when in possession. You can read that here. Fo the return match in Baku, Wales started in their expected 1-4-2-3-1 shape (Hennessey; C. Roberts, Lockyer, Mepham, B. Davies; Ampadu, Morrell; Bale, Wilson, James; Moore). You can see the double pivot and advanced line of three behind Kieffer Moore in the below photo (Morrell is next to the referee).
As shown in the next image, this shape becomes more of a 4-1-4-1 outfield shape when the right-centre midfielder (Ethan Ampadu here) steps forward to track their man as Azerbaijan rotate to form a double pivot.
A lot of people were surprised to see Morrell and Ampadu start in midfield, considering that Aaron Ramsey was available for the first time in the campaign. Personally, I was not surprised. Ryan Giggs had previously stated clearly that if he was to pick Ramsey, it would be as the “number 10” of the side. This was also what Ramsey desired. It would be ridiculous for Giggs to play Ramsey deeper having explicitly promised that he wouldn’t do so. Besides, the central midfield roles in this Wales team do not suit Ramsey at all and to play him there would be to nullify the unique strengths that he can bring to the team.
Whereas Morrell was expected to start in the place usually reserved for Joe Allen (right-centre midfield), Ampadu did instead, with Morrell assuming Ampadu’s usual slightly deeper and more central role. One reason for this could be that Azerbaijan heavily focus their attacking play down their left hand side. Rahimov, who played left midfield, is a vital outlet for them and he was adept at finding pockets of space either out wide or in the left halfspace. Rahimov and left back Krivotsyuk also regularly looked to combine and rotate together with substitute Ramazanov in the second half. We have seen in previous games how Connor Roberts sometimes gets overloaded at right back due to a lack of support as Bale tends to stay quite high. Also, in the first game against them, Azerbaijan got a lot of joy in their left halfspace/Wales’ right halfspace. By being Wales’ right-central midfielder, Ampadu often had a closer starting position to the areas Azerbaijan wanted to play in than he did against them in Cardiff. Azerbaijan also sent their long goal kicks to their left/Wales’ right, meaning that Ampadu’s added physicality could assist in winning and retaining second balls. This was a good move by Wales – and it shows good attention to detail from the coaching team.
The First Goal.
Wales’ set-pieces have been disappointing for much of 2019, so it was a relief to see a headed goal from a corner. However, appreciating this goal must begin before the corner itself. Wales were forced back to Wayne Hennessey, who accurately found Kieffer Moore with a long, aerial pass up the centre of the pitch. It isn’t pretty, but it is a perfect example of the different dimension that Moore has given this team. Giggs looked for it from Gareth Bale earlier in the campaign, but it negated many of his other strengths. Moore is already so important to this team because he helps Wales maintain a direct, aerial outball while freeing up Bale to play a role that he is much more suited to. The below image shows how his aerial challenge attracts three opponents, leaving Harry Wilson free to receive the ball from his flick-on. Notice also how Bale and Daniel James are high and wide, pinning back and occupying the Azeri fullbacks.
From there, Wilson was able to release Daniel James 1v1 with his fullback. He advanced high up the pitch before losing the ball, however Joe Morrell was perfectly placed to win the loose ball and shoot – earning the corner. Wales had relieved pressure and created an attacking situation within seconds of the ball leaving Hennessey’s boot. This allowed them to then get up the pitch and have the numbers ready to attack the 2nd ball. The progress that Wales have made in transitional moments was evident in this match, and the role of Moore in aiding this progress is very clear.
The corner itself was brilliantly simple. It was an in-swinging corner aimed over the goalkeeper (who was blocked by Ampadu) with four runners – near post, right-centre, left-centre and far post, with a slight rotation freeing Bale and Moore. Moore scored from the left-centre of the 6-yard box.
The Second Goal.
As with the first goal, the good work behind the second Wales goal started before Daniel James cut inside and hit the frame of the goal with an excellent strike. Wales forced Azerbaijan back to their goalkeeper, who was pressed by Moore. The keeper consequently sent the ball long, once again to their left/Wales’ right. The way in which Wales won and then retained the ball deserves praise.
Photo 1: Tom Lockyer wins the first header, brilliantly flicking it inside to Chris Mepham.
Photo 2: Mepham is first to the second ball and instead of panicking, he heads it onto Connor Roberts.
Photo 3: Connor Roberts deftly flicks the ball onto Ampadu.
From there, Ampadu lays the ball off to Joe Morrell. Lockyer, Mepham, Roberts, Ampadu and Morrell are all in their first international campaign and that level of composure and quality is pleasing to see. The next image shows Azerbaijan’s right midfielder staying high in order to block off the passing lane from Morrell to Ben Davies at left back. I spoke in my Azerbaijan piece about the Welsh pattern of play where Davies stays deep and narrow in order to play a direct ball to James, and how Azerbaijan shut this off well in Cardiff by maintaining high pressure on Davies. This leaves a lot of space for Harry Wilson, as shown. Bale, Moore and James are high to once again pin-back the Azeri back line.
Wilson passes to James, releasing him into another 1v1 with his fullback. As the next photo shows, this becomes a 1v3 as James gets into a shooting position. It is admittedly poor from Azerbaijan to, firstly, commit 3 men to James and then, secondly, to still allow him to get a shot off. The attention on James means a lack of attention on Wilson, and he is consequently free to stroll through and score the rebound.
There were a lot of other interesting features in the win against Azerbaijan, however due to time restraints I have not been able to go through them all in this blog. I am happy for anybody interested to get in touch with me regarding more details.
Matchday 8: Wales 2-0 Hungary.
Having completed the first part of the job out in Baku, all eyes were on Cardiff for the “winner takes all” clash with Hungary. Wales made two changes – Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey came in for Ethan Ampadu and Harry Wilson. Aaron Ramsey started for the first time in the campaign, meaning that the Allen/Ramsey/Bale trio with whom Wales have such a good record were reunited on the pitch for the first time in 2019. As previously mentioned, it was no surprise to see Ramsey start as the “10”. I have spoken on several occasions both in my blogs and on Twitter about how the framework built by Giggs would suit and be enhanced by Ramsey – and his first start in the system did not disappoint.
The midfield and forward lines of Wales’ 4-2-3-1 outfield shape are visible below. Bale and James zonally defended the halfspaces well all night, helping Wales to maintain a nice compact shape so that Hungary found it hard to play through or around the Wales defensive block. As usual, Allen would occasionally step out to form more of a line of 4 in front of Morrell. Wales initially had problems pressing Hungary’s build-up in Budapest and had to switch to a 4-3-3 pressing shape to counter Hungary’s short build-up. Lessons from Budapest were clearly learned as the Wales shape adapted accordingly in the games after that June encounter.
The next photo shows Wales in the usual framework, with the expected space in the left halfspace. The pass being made here – Mepham to the right-centre midfielder – was a common one in both matches. This helped Wales to shift the ball quicker and provoke the opposition into pressing with more purpose, something that they clearly needed to do after playing against Azerbaijan at home in September. Having said that, the pass to Allen was sometimes attempted in the wrong moments and got intercepted, particularly in Baku.
The First Goal.
This next photo shows Allen receiving the ball in his usual area within the framework, with Connor Roberts occupying the wide right channel and Bale moving into the right halfspace. Ramsey is at the top of the image in the left halfspace as expected. Notice how Hungary have two players ready to shut off the straight passing lane to Bale. At this point, Allen is too far away to play a good-quality pass to Connor Roberts that avoids being intercepted.
So, he dribbles forward and engages three Hungarian players. As you can see below, this frees up the passing lane to Roberts, while also taking attention off Bale. Notice that Moore is occupying both centre backs and that Ramsey is beginning to drift centrally. Allen attracting three players encourages the Hungary left back to step-up slightly and engage with Roberts, who can therefore play a ball down-the-line for Bale to chase. You can see Bale noticing the space open up in this photo.
This next photo shows Wales’ outfield shape when in possession. You can see a lot of the features that we have discussed this campaign. The right back is occupying the wide channel to facilitate inward movement for the right winger. The left back is deep and narrow with the left winger high and wide for the safe & quick switch option. Due to this, the “number 10” can stay farside, occupying the left halfspace for as long as is reasonable.
This next photo shows Kieffer Moore making an outward movement towards the back post, allowing Ramsey to continue moving centrally as Bale gets on the ball. The body shape of the Hungarian ballside centre back (the LCB) is all wrong. The last time he checked, Moore was making a central run, with Ramsey most likely making a movement towards the far post. In the moment this screenshot is taken, Ramsey checks back and halts his run for a split-second.
And you can see in this next clip, by checking his run and capitalising on the left-centre back’s lack of awareness, Ramsey has bought himself a fantastic bit of space and he is now free to make a central run and attack the incoming cross. It’s a great ball from Bale and overall it is a good Welsh goal – showing both the positives of the in-possession system and also the added quality that Ramsey’s long-awaited inclusion brings to it. In April, I predicted that Ramsey could score goals in this system by making late central runs into the box to meet crosses. I thought he would get one against Croatia, but I’ll take this one against Hungary instead!
After consecutive defeats in June, it felt like the only hope Wales had of reaching EURO 2020 would come via the playoffs. To have gone unbeaten since then shows the evolution of both Ryan Giggs as an international manager and the side that he is in charge of. There were several other interesting points to analyse across these final two games but I’ve kept things as concise as possible – due to my own personal time constraints at the moment but also because we won back-to-back games and reached a second major tournament in four years, so it felt best to stick to the fun stuff! Giggs and his staff deserve credit for the familiarity that the players now have with this system, which has made tactical adjustments to different opposition easier to manage. I also imagine that the additional training camps that have taken place contribute to the fact that players like Moore and Morrell were able to come into the squad and know their roles well straight away.
Thank you again for reading these blogs across 2019, I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. If you would like more in the future, get in touch on twitter @lukewilliamspd.
Thanks for reading/diolch am ddarllen.