Aaron Ramsey was playing for City, so I think it must have been in 2007 when I watched an Academy team game with Watford which, possibly because the grass pitches were waterlogged, was played on the 3G pitch up at Treforest. Watford were clearly ill at ease on the artificial surface and found themselves three down in ten minutes, but sorted themselves out from then on and the rest of the game was a competitive affair which City ended up winning 3-1.
Watching the match from the sidelines, it struck me that Watford had convinced themselves there were demons in the pitch which were just not there – while it wasn’t quite the same as playing on grass, it was easily the best artificial surface I’d seen football played on (I’m old enough to remember Loftus Road, Deepdale and Boundary Park from the 80’s!) up to then – Russia had entertained England on a similar pitch around that time as well and the general consensus was that it had played well.
Therefore, I tended to take the stories about a possible change of venue for last night’s Euro 2016 qualification match between Andorra and Wales because of concerns about the newly installed 3G pitch with a pinch of salt – after all, it was the same type of pitch that had been deemed acceptable getting on for ten years ago and, surely, the technology used to create such pitches has developed and improved in the intervening period?
Well, it only took a minute or two’s viewing to make me realise that I was wrong.- the pitch at the Andorra National Stadium was a disgrace and I’m baffled as to how UEFA deemed it acceptable. In layman’s terms (i.e. my level of expertise on the subject!), 3G pitches consist of artificial grass, supplemented by a layer of sand and an infill of rubber crumb. Now, it seems to me that the balance between those three elements was just about right on the pitches referred to earlier, whereas there was much too much of the rubber crumb on the pitch at the Andorra National Stadium.
Parts of the pitch looked more black than green and there was far more rubber flying through the air when the surface was fairly routinely disturbed than there had been from those earlier pitches. Chris Coleman was right when he said that it was not a surface to run with the ball on and I also had sympathy with his view that you may as well “forget it” if you were a passing side.
The one incident which summed it all up for me came about a minute after Wales had finally edged 2-1 in front when a back pass was rolled to Wayne Hennessey – it should have been a routine situation for a keeper who is usually a very good kicker of the ball, but, this time, the ball took the sort of hop pitches like this are supposed to rule out and bounced three or four inches in the air which led to Hennessey’s clearance scuttling along the floor straight to an Andorra player about forty yards out with not many of our defenders between him and the goal. Thankfully, the home side were not good enough to take advantage of this opportunity, but it did show what a lottery the pitch made of things.
So, I support the view that the pitch was a leveler which affected us a lot more than it did our more limited opponents. However, this doesn’t stop me believing that Coleman and his players should not be excused from criticism for what was still a poor performance and somewhat lucky victory.
As far as the manager goes, it wasn’t so much the 3-5-2 formation he used that I found fault with, more the personnel within it. Dean Saunders said what I had already been thinking when he questioned before the game whether the wing backs selected were going to get far enough up the pitch and provide enough of a goal threat in terms of their crossing and willingness to shoot – in City terms last night’s opponents merited a 3-5-2 with Noone and Pilkington in the wing back roles. not Brayford and Fabio.
In fairness to Chris Gunter, getting up the pitch was never an issue with him, but there were times when he got into promising positions and you were wishing for more quality on his cross. On the other flank, Neil Taylor (more suited to the wing back role than Gunter you would have thought) struggled after conceding the early penalty and did not look as assured as normal.
The wing backs Coleman selected are both, essentially, full backs which meant that we went on to the pitch against the side ranked 199 in the world, a side who had never taken a point in a European Championship qualification match before, a side that had not scored a competitive goal in four years and a side who have only won one competitive match in their history with five defenders!
What also galled me was that as the game wore on and remained deadlocked at 1-1 as Wales struggled to create any meaningful chances, we still stuck rigidly with three centrebacks despite them frequently only having one man to mark between them. We failed to note the example provided by our first goal when Ben Davis (comfortably the best of our back three in my opinion) stepped forward into midfield to provide the cross which led to our equaliser. Andorra did break dangerously once or twice in the second half, but, with Joe Allen (one of the better Welsh players on the night) always willing to cover such breaks, we still looked over manned at the back for a team like Andorra – there may well be a time and a place for the system and personnel Chris Coleman used, but last night didn’t feel like it to me.
The players shouldn’t be immune from criticism either. The goal we conceded wasn’t down to the pitch – it was down to James Chester carelessly giving the ball away (not for the only time), then us not dealing with a routine long throw in (Andorra tried a few of those in the first half and I don’t remember one where a Welsh player got the next touch) and then Taylor reacting in a panicky way on the far post. Yes, it could be argued that we’ll see a lot worse than what Taylor did go unpunished in the Premier League this weekend, but the wing back risked being penalised and a set of officials that gave us absolutely nothing in the first half (just like the pitch, referee Vincic was not up to the standard required at this level) reacted accordingly.
Wales looked uneasy at the back for much of the time and, in front of the defenders, we weren’t great in midfield – Allen battled manfully, King was anonymous apart from when he missed a great headed chance in the second half and Ramsey had his worst game in a Welsh shirt for a while as he became another player whose effectiveness was blunted by the pitch.
Ramsey did play a lovely long pass to Gunter in the opening seconds (unfortunately, long passes soon gave way to hoofs upfield as Wales took their manager’s advice and forgot about the passing game) and there were some lovely moments of skill from him (including some dribbling which showed that it was not completely impossible to run with the ball just before he picked up the injury which set the seal on a pretty miserable night for the former captain), but. like so many of his colleagues, he found it hard to show that he was up against opponents used to playing about six levels lower than he does.
Even matchwinner Bale didn’t really conquer the awful pitch because he was nowhere near as effective as he normally is in terms of his first touch and his ability to break away from opponents, while his pace was not the factor it usually is. However, what he never stopped doing was trying and his quality was able to shine through when he was able to take the pitch put of the equation. Examples of this came with his goals – his header for the equaliser was a beauty as he glanced the ball into the corner from about fifteen yards out and, although Wales were a little lucky to benefit from Vincic’s new found ability as the game wore on to spot examples of Andorran players breaking the rules when the ref ruled that Bale’s eighty first minute free kick be retaken – he made no mistake second time around with a shot which would have beaten much better keepers than Pol.
As Wales were labouring to victory, our next two opponents met in Zenica and, while the outcome showed Cyprus will be no pushovers next month, their 2-1 win over Bosnia was undoubtedly a great result for us. That said, I’m sure all involved know that we cannot keep on relying entirely on Gareth Bale for inspiration – besides our Champions League Winner, there were eight Welsh players with Premier League clubs in last night’s starting line up and more of them need to play as if that is their natural level.
Just to finish, our Under 21’s followed up Friday’s 2-2 draw in Finland with a 1-1 draw (Tommy O’Sullivan started and Theo Wharton came on as a sub as Lee Evans’ late goal rescued a point) in Lithuania to end in fourth position in their qualifying group – thankfully, Wales’ senior team were just about able to avoid the sort of banana skin the youngsters fell on when losing 1-0 to San Marino at the start of their campaign.by The other Bob Wilson with 3 comments
I daresay managers or coaches of international teams on their way to a major tournament don’t want their side to play brilliantly in their last warm up game before it starts because history is full of sides who run out of steam and lose form as such competitions progress. Based on the Netherlands’ (I’ve just been made aware that calling that country “Holland” is almost on a par with calling Great Britain “England”, so, hopefully, you won’t catch me doing that again!) 2-0 win over Wales in Amsterdam last night, Manchester United manager Louis Van Gall has few problems on that score – his team looked unbalanced and somewhat ponderous at the back with most of the real quality it possessed being focused upon the attacking trio of Van Persie, Robben and Schneider.
Although the team’s behavior can let them down at times (e.g. the 2010 World Cup Final and the Rijkaard spitting incident in the game against West Germany in 1990), I think it’s true to say that most football fans of a certain age will have a soft spot for the Netherlands team – if you are old enough to remember the superb 1974 side and the way that they lost to Argentina in 1978, then I believe most wouldn’t be too disappointed to see them crowned World champions in just over a month’s time.
Yes, for me the Netherlands are the best country never to have won a World Cup, but, based on what I saw last night, I would be very surprised if they broke their duck in 2014 – based on what they’ve shown in the Premier League, the likes of Ron Vlaar, Leroy Fer and Jonathan DeGuzman (who it seems will be a starter against Spain in their first game) are tidy performers, but they are not players who you picture being part of an outfit that wins the World Cup.
So, it would appear that it is not a vintage Dutch side that is heading for Brazil, but, to attribute the lack of sparkle amongst those wearing the orange last night solely to their own shortcomings would be unfair on a Welsh team that put in a promising performance – in certain areas of the pitch anyway.
Going into the game, most of the attention from a Welsh perspective was on the absence of their two best players. Gareth Bale would get into virtually every international team in the world and, based on his form in 13/14, there aren’t many who could leave Aaron Ramsey out either, but it is a bit of a concern that, as far as I can gather, the pair of them only featured in the same Welsh team for half an hour in the season just ended. Bale came off the bench to join Ramsey around the hour mark when Wales were 3-0 down to Serbia at Cardiff City Stadium in the autumn, but I don’t think the pair of them played together apart from that – with Bale likely to be involved with Real Madrid in the Euro Super Cup Final at Cardiff City Stadium at the time set aside for August international friendly games, it’s unlikely to happen before our opening game in the qualifying group for Euro 2016.
You’d like Bale and Ramsey to have had more time together to hone a partnership which is going to be absolutely vital to any chances Wales have of making it to the Finals in two years time, but it was also the absence of a few other established players that had me fearing a big defeat before kick off last night.
However, it was reassuring to see some evidence that, in terms of squad depth at least, Wales are probably better off than they have been for some time. At the back, the absence of James Collins and captain Ashley Williams meant that Chris Coleman’s options at centreback would be severely tested, but an assured debut by Hull’s James Chester, which included some good passing out from the back and an excellent combined block with Chris Gunter to deny Robben a first half goal, and a reminder from from Danny Gabbidon that, even at 34, he can be an accomplished defender at this level, offered proof that Coleman has more to choose in that position than at any time since he took over.
It’s the same at full back where, in Ben Davies’ absence, Neil Taylor again showed he is at home at this level and with Declan John and Newcastle’s Paul Dummett also getting some game time, left back especially looks to be well covered. On the right, Gunter does a perfectly adequate job and the injury hit Adam Matthews offers a different type of option when available, while Sam Ricketts can offer cover all along the back four.
In midfield, the presence of players such as David Vaughan and Emyr Huws on the bench last night shows that is an area where we have something of assortment of riches at the moment when you consider that the likes of Jack Collison and Andrew Crofts were absentees from last night’s squad. There was an eye catching first appearance by Fulham’s George Williams who had impressed as a winger in the London teams run to the final of the FA Youth Cup this season, but it was his ability to go past players in central areas of the pitch which was noticeable against the Dutch, so with Jonny Williams and, hopefully in a year or two, Harry Wilson, Wales suddenly look well covered for players who can dribble past opponents as well.
Yes, it’s looking quite good for Chris Coleman in so many ways, but there are a couple of areas where he’d welcome far more competition for places. Boaz Myhill’s international retirement means that we are almost completely reliant on Wayne Hennessey in the goalkeeping department, but it is up front where we are seriously lacking in my view. Sam Vokes’ very good season at Burnley offers hope that we’ll have a striker available who will be playing Premier League football week in, week out, but, if I’m being honest, I’m not wholly convinced he will be up to the task once he regains his fitness, while Simon Church hasn’t really fulfilled the promise he showed in that fine Wales under 21 side of four or five years ago.
Bearing all of this in mind, it seemed strange that Coleman chose to bring on the loyal, but limited at this level, Jermaine Easter when Church went off rather than turn to Manchester United’s Tom Lawrence who recently made his first team debut in the 3-1 win over Hull. Although his goalscoring record during loan spells with Carlisle and Yeovil wasn’t that good, Lawrence looks as likely as anyone for now to provide the goals and all round ability that might make him a good international performer – certainly he would appear to be a better bet than the 32 year old Easter?
The truth is that, as so often happens with Wales, relative strength in some areas tends to coincide with a period of drought in another and this time it’s the striking department that is suffering. Twenty odd years ago, Wales were having to move Mark Hughes into midfield to get Dean Saunders into the team alongside Ian Rush (Ryan Giggs came along a year or so later!) – what a difference just one of those would make to the current side.
Mind you, it just might be that the answer to Wales’ striking problems lies here at Cardiff City! I’m not being entirely serious there, because I don’t think Tommy O’Sullivan will ever become a prolific goalscorer even if he goes on to have a long and successful career in the game, but, fair play to him, he made a tremendous contribution to what was a very encouraging series of performances by Wales’ Under 19 side in the past week.
Having reached the Elite qualifying group stage at the expense of the Netherlands earlier in the season, Wales traveled to Portugal to be paired with the host nation, Belgium and Greece in a group in which only the winners would progress to the next stage. O’Sullivan was joined by City’s Josh Yorwerth in the starting line up for all three matches (Tom James was also in the eleven for the middle game with the Portugese) and got Wales’ goal in a 1-1 draw with Belgium. Then, when Wales found themselves 2-0 down to Portugal with fifteen minutes left, it was O’Sullivan who equalised after an earlier own goal had given his side hope, only for the hosts to score a last minute winner which ended Wales’ hopes of qualifying. The final match with Greece was therefore something of a “dead rubber”, but Wales were able to claim second place in a very tough group by scoring three times without reply in the second half with O’Sullivan netting twice more – you’d like to think that there might be a few from the Under 19 squad who will soon be adding to the strength in depth (by Wales standards anyway) I was talking about earlier.
* Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson with no comments yet