Well, the day after the night before. I am hoping that this piece does not come off as a rant, and to write this is not too soon. However, I just wanted to give my views on last night and indeed the Croatian game. Two matches that we knew would be a tough ask. Two games at the end of a long season against two good sides, however, I do feel some areas have given me a lot of concern, which I want to cover in this piece.
Before I get into the two games, in particular, I want to talk about Ryan Giggs. Now I am not one of those calling for his head at this point. It is too early in the process in my view to be making that judgement, and we have been down the route of too soon in a managerial process for Wales calling for a manager’s head for them to turn it around. In recent memory, Gary Speed and Chris Coleman did precisely that. But, Giggs current record as the manager for Wales does not make for good reading. In 13 games so far, we have won five, drawn one and lost five, thus a 38%-win ratio. The five wins were against China, the Republic of Ireland (twice), Trinidad & Tobago and Slovakia. There is still time for him and his coaches to turn this around; however, these are the areas that as a fan, I have concerns over:
Wales number 1
For the last few years, Wayne Hennessey has been the incumbent keeper for Wales, and rightfully so. Still, in the previous two games, his performance and his club career situation cause concerns. In both recent games, he made excellent saves, but his control and presence in his penalty box have worried me. In the Croatia game, a cross, which was headed away from an inswinging free-kick from in his six-yard box, and this also happened against Hungary. The first goal against Croatia, I am still not convinced by his starting position for the initial long through ball. Keepers, such as Ederson, Alisson, Neuer etc. are on the edge of the penalty area in those situations, Hennessey is still in his goal area, he initially makes a cautious approach to the ball and then backs off which is not instilling confidence in anyone. If it were not for Joe Allen fantastic goal-line clearance, we would have conceded from another cross where Hennessey looks very uncomfortable with and makes a botch of an attempted clearance punch.
What I would say in his defence is that for his current club side, Crystal Palace, he is not cementing a place in the side week in week out, so lack of game time could well be affecting him. Last season he played 18 games in total and before the Croatia game his previous match was again for Wales against Slovakia in late March, so not ideal. The challenge that Wales has is that his leading contender for the shirt is Danny Ward of Leicester City, who again, cannot command a starting position with his side. Last season he only played three games, far from perfect. And if this continues, it is a real challenge for all concerned.
First of all, I want to look at selections made in this crucial area. The Croatian game, defensively we had our challenges. Connor Roberts, looked tired and several times got caught out positionally and James Lawrence for the second goal, gave the ball away trying to play a pass into midfield, and then when the ball broke on the edge of the box was too slow to react, and a Croatian nipped in front of him. I fully expected Ashley Williams to come in for the Hungary game, and was not too surprised when Chris Gunter replaced Roberts for his defensive capabilities. But when I saw the team selected, I was amazed that Lawrence kept his place, but it was Chris Mepham, who was the man replaced by Williams. Wales Online awarded Mepham the man of the match for the Croatian game, and I thought he looked far more switched on and defensively aware than Lawrence. I initially thought that possibly Mepham was carrying a knock but pre-game when interviewed Giggs confirmed the change was to freshen things up. Now I am not privy to what goes on in camp, but basing it on what we know, Mepham indeed should have started.
James Lawrence is still at the beginning of his international career, and from what I have seen he is composed, elegant even, in possession of the football and clearly can bring the ball out and pass the ball efficiently. He is naturally left-footed, which might be the reason Giggs selected him to give that balance in the centre of the defence, Williams is right footed so Lawrence on the left side, balances it off, where I think he does struggle is physically and also, in his decision, making.
Lawrence, some times, was not sure whether to engage a player or drop off, and when caught in that moment, he often makes a challenge he cannot win. Aerially, he does not look a dominant player. He is tall and is competent, but from what I have seen, he does not attack the ball with any real conviction. The goal last night, he gets engaged in a physical struggle with the Hungarian number nine, Adam Szalai, who overpowers him, and due to Lawrence being in contact with the player, uses his momentum to turn him. Lawrence needed to know in that situation what was likely to happen, and just let Szalai bring it down and then go to the player to make him do something to get an attempt on goal off. Minutes after the goal, Lawrence was fortunate not to get a red card after he lost possession just inside our half and haul a player over. It was a fraught few minutes for the young player.
There is no doubt that Wales missed James Chester for these two encounters. He is experienced, makes right decisions and does the basics well and in my view, is our best central defender so a significant loss. When all available, my two central defenders would be Chester and Mepham. We hope that Chester’s long-standing knee injury allows him to continue his international career as we need him.
Midfield third option
Going into the games, we knew Aaron Ramsey would be a significant loss and no surprises that this proved to be true. He is a great player for Wales, and when we play a three in midfield he gives us that cover in the engine room but the class and ability to influence things in the final third, be it an assist or a crucial goal and with him not there, that third player type in midfield it appears, is not there. Joe Allen, who was superb last night, did push on and try to be that player but it is not his natural game. Wales do have players who potentially could if Wales want to play with a three-person midfield alongside an Ampadu/Smith and Allen, try players such as Harry Wilson, Tom Lawrence and Johnny Williams but can they provide defensively what we would need when under pressure against the top international sides? We do not know, so if Ramsey is not available, is a change in formation required? One for Giggs to think over.
The front three
Similarly, to my point earlier, Wales tend to employ a three-person attack, with a central focal point through the middle and then two either side a little bit more withdrawn to support. Against both Croatia and Hungary, the players selected swapped and changed positions regularly, so much so, at times as a fan looking on, they seemed confused by it all. Many times against Croatia, Wilson found himself as the number nine up against a centre back. In the game last night, Dan James often found himself in that role, Tom Lawrence also had a spell in the role. In international football, especially away games Wales will come under pressure and having a player up top who can hold the ball up for a while, play others in, or earn a free kick is invaluable. It takes the pressure off, allows you to advance up the pitch and will enable you to control the tempo. I felt for Wilson, who in that role is not suited to it at all, he lost out almost every time, and for Hungary game was dropped. And it was no surprise, that James in both games had his best moments when out on the left-hand side running at his opposing full back. With the players selected the man who had to play that role predominantly in the two games was Gareth Bale, and talking of Bale….
So much emphasis is put on the player for obvious reasons, and there is no doubt he is nowhere near at his best currently. Not playing regularly for Real Madrid and knowing where his club future lies is having an impact. I would say though that even in the last two games, there were isolated glimpses, the vision for the throw in to get Wilson in for a strike on goal against Croatia was superb and also a moment when he was on the right-hand side dipped the shoulder powered inside and struck a shot on goal which the keeper did well to save, but the miss last night against Hungary where 99 times out of 100 he scores even the most die-hard fans would find hard to defend.
I also did not think him moving positions so often helped him. He popped up on the right on the left, and at the start of the Hungary game, seemed to be playing in a withdrawn midfield role. Bale at his best could have an impact in all these positions, but that is not where he is right now. As mentioned earlier, for me, he had to play the vast majority of the games as our main central striker, not in fleeting moments. Bale needs to sort out his club career, go away and fall back in love with the game again. Regularly playing, regularly scoring goals, and I have no doubt Gareth Bale can be a top star on the international stage still.
Regular game time
A challenge, not just Wales have, is that a number of their players are not playing regular football, so are coming into international camps potentially undercooked, which is a real concern.
There is a number that when you look at next season and beyond that, you wonder where the club games currently will come from, unless a transfer occurs or for younger players being loaned out to gain more playing experience. As mentioned earlier, the two keepers, Hennessey and Ward you worry about. Ben Davies, is not the first choice with Spurs, Ashley Williams currently without a club. Matt Smith, on loan from Manchester City to FC Twente. Ethan Ampadu at a club like Chelsea, how many games will he play, will he get loaned out? Harry Wilson, now back with Liverpool, will he play many games for them? Or is another loan on the cards? Ben Woodburn, same point as Wilson. Dan James and his recent move to Manchester United, will he play? Or will he sit on the bench or be loaned out? That is a big chunk of the squad where it is a bit unknown at the moment, which for Wales sake and the mentioned players, need to get resolved.
This qualifying campaign is not over yet; we need to go on a run of wins and hope other results go our way, and there is still a potential opportunity through the Nations Cup. But as it stands, Wales need to regroup and work through some of the points I have raised. I still believe the players are there to be very competitive, and if all in form, playing and fit, we still have to believe.
For what it is worth when everyone is available, this would be my starting eleven:
That aside, I still believe, is of a sufficient standard to be very competitive at any level. So let’s come back in September to this qualifying campaign and show everyone just what we can do on a football pitch.