The Red Wall. The Welsh Qualifying Campaign – My Thoughts

The dust has now settled, I am now less likely to snap at my family if they ask me a question at the wrong time. The dog now does not look so nervous around me (only joking dog lovers), so I must be on the comeback trail after Monday night’s defeat against the Republic of Ireland. So with all that in mind here are my thoughts on the loss, the overall qualifying campaign and a reason for us to be upbeat leading into the next European Championships qualifying attempt.

First of all my own thoughts on Monday night. I went to the game never contemplating defeat, after winning in Georgia only 3 days earlier which meant three wins on the bounce and three clean sheets, I felt all the momentum was with us, in my eyes Ireland was a decent hard working side but we had too much going in our favour. Just shows what overconfidence does for you. I had the same level of confidence going into the England game last summer in France, I never believed we would not come away from that game without at least a point. Clearly being confident going into Welsh matches does not work to me, back to being pessimistic no matter who the opposition is.

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On Monday, Wales started brightly and looked sharp in possession, this all changed once Joe Allen went off injured, the foul against him in my view was contrived and James McClean and David Meyler saw the opportunity almost instantaneously to commit the foul and certainly have Allen in a spot of bother. From Ireland’s perspective, it changed the game in their favour. My view of Ireland going into the game was that they were hard working and could not hurt us. However, I underplayed how well organised they are, with every player knowing their roles, and for this, you have to give Martin O’Neill and his coaching staff so much credit. Yes, their method of getting results is not to everyone’s liking but it is hugely effective with a group of players who do lack the star factor. Their best player is Seamus Coleman, who is a fine player, but at the end of the day is a right-back, how many top sides have that situation? Ireland came to Wales to frustrate, allow us possession, sit behind the ball and force us to try to break them out wide as they filled the central positions, and in terms of trying to score themselves, look to a set piece or an error by Wales to try and get that goal. And that plan worked perfectly.

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In terms of the Welsh performance on Monday, I thought as I mentioned they started brightly, but Allen going off was a turning point. The passing and tempo in the game slowed dramatically and we just seemed to lack ideas and penetration throughout the game. Chris Coleman made the decision to bring on Jonny Williams to replace the injured Allen, and to move Ramsey back into a central midfield withdrawn role. I am guessing Coleman had identified that with Allen off we needed someone to create and saw Williams as someone who could try and find pockets of space and be able to turn and commit defenders opening up space that way. Alas on the night, this did not happen. In terms of Ramsey, I much prefer to see him play in a more advanced position, getting up to support the lone striker be it Hal Robson-Kanu or Sam Vokes, but in Coleman’s eyes, I am assuming he felt he needed someone in that deeper role who could get on the ball and dictate the play, but again this did not happen, our build-up play was slow and ponderous and the Irish had opportunities to just shuffle across and fill the gaps with their high levels of organisation.

The qualifying campaign as a whole has so many plusses and negatives. In terms of plusses going the whole campaign bar the last critical game undefeated shows how much Wales have advanced as a team.  In ten games in the qualifiers, we only conceded six goals as well another positive, a very good defensive record. Other positives have been the breakthroughs of Ben Woodburn onto the international stage, Tom Lawrence also showing glimpses of the natural ability that he undoubtedly has. Also the continued outstanding international displays of players such as Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies through the campaign. There is no doubt that missing players such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen at periods of time through qualifying has been negative, but the draw in Belgrade without Bale against a good Serbia side was another positive, also a draw away in Austria without Ramsey, a game I will come onto later.

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In terms of the negatives or if we prefer the terms areas to develop for the future then two home draws against Serbia and Georgia certainly did not aid our progression into the finals. We also led in a number of matches but just could not hold on to get the wins. Austria away is another example of this, we led twice in Vienna. The Serbia draw in Cardiff, Wales were one up with four minutes left, Bale hits the post and Serbia then go up the other end and Aleksandr Mitrovic equalises, small margins, but crucial moments. The losses of Allen, Ramsey and Bale certainly had an impact, with those three on the pitch Wales are so much better, but in over 900 minutes of qualifying these three were on the pitch only 270 minutes together. Wales struggle when a team sit back and wait for them to create with bodies behind the ball, Wales need to adapt their game be sharper with the passing put more pace into the game, and when the opportunities arise, be decisive and take the opportunity as and when these moments arise. Wales now rightfully have respect on the international stage, so some teams will come and make the game difficult so Wales need to find a way to adjust and break through that.

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When you look forward to the next campaign for the European Championships, there are many reasons to be optimistic. The current squad in the large majority will be at a good age for those qualifiers. The only ones really that you think maybe a concern is Ashley Williams who will be 35 by then and James Collins who will be 36 years of age, so central defence becomes a concern. The others, the majority will be in the late twenties or early thirties. And you then have young potential stars such as Ben Woodburn, David Brooks and Ethan Ampadu who will be at the start of qualifiers, 19, 22 and 19 years of age respectively. There are also some really talented youngsters who in two years could be really pushing the current playing squad in addition to Woodburn, Brooks and Ampadu. Players such as George Thomas of Leicester City, Nathan Broadhead of Everton, Regan Poole, currently on loan to Northampton Town, but on Manchester United’s books, Gethin Jones of Everton, Cian Harries of Swansea City, Matthew Smith, of Manchester City, Harry Wilson, of Liverpool, Cameron Coxe of Cardiff City, Rabbi Matondo of Manchester City, Daniel James of Swansea City, Cole DaSilva of Chelsea and Tyler Roberts who is on West Bromwich Albion books. Each of these players has huge amounts of potential and all could play a part in the Welsh squads in the next couple of years. Really exciting talent. I also believe that Danny Ward could easily become the Welsh number one keeper by then, and also don’t forget George Williams, the young Welsh winger, who has suffered so many injuries, but if fit, can be another attacking option for Wales, similarly to Williams, Emyr Huws, a talented possession type midfielder, that could be another alternative to Joe Allen for Wales as when Joe is not available we do not have that type of player in midfield who is comfortable in possession and has a good eye for a pass.

With all this talent available I do hope Chris Coleman decides to stay on. When you look at his managerial record with Wales and what he has achieved it is a fantastic record. The players clearly react in a positive way to the manager and he has their respect, there are reports that senior influential players in the squad have had talks with Coleman to try to convince him to stay, a mark of their feelings for the man. If he does decide to leave, it would be a massive blow and who would replace him? Whoever it is has a great crop of players, a great togetherness and I just hope that togetherness is not broken up if Coleman does decide his future is elsewhere. The next few months could be a crucial time in what could happen to Welsh football for the next ten years if not more. It’s a vital period.

In closing a special mention of the Welsh fans, an unbelievable bunch of supporters that the players continuously voice their thanks for and rightly so.  The sound, the atmosphere created during games and pre-games is very very special. The singing of the national anthem on Monday night will live with me for a long time, the hairs on the back of my neck were up and I become a very emotional Welshman. I am sure that support will remain with the team and long may they continue to make us proud, give us great moments and also as per Monday, moments of being down, but after all, it’s all part of being a football fan, especially being a Welsh football fan.

Craig Muncey

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