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
Ole Gunnar Solskjær and whoever is assisting him in negotiating the deals, it would appear to be one of Simon Lim and Mehmet Dalman or a combination of those two, deserve plenty of credit for the way they have acted to bring in new players at a time when we are usually being told that the transfer market only tends to really get started from July 1 when contracts run out.
Having already confirmed the arrival of Javi Guerra and completed the signing of Guido Burgstaller, City brought in two more newcomers last week in Fredrico Macheda and Adam Le Fondre who were signed from Manchester United and Reading respectively and it has to be a good thing that there will be at least four of our new players for 2014/15 taking part in pre season training when it begins at the end of this month rather the usual one or, if we were lucky, two that tended to be the case under Malky Mackay and most other recent Cardiff managers.
Thinking about it, the only season in the fairly recent past that I can think of where we were able to do much business so early in the close season was 2006/07 when at least three important members of that team in Kevin McNaughton, Steve McPhail and Michael Chopra were all brought in well before the players returned for pre season training (think that probably applied to Roger Johnson as well) and those old enough will all recall how well we started the campaign that year.
That team faded badly after their blistering start as lack of squad depth took it’s toll, but, although it’s generally accepted that there are going to be quite a few high profile departures from the club over the coming months, you would like to think that, if our season does go wrong, it won’t be down to a lack of numbers. Whatever you may think of sides that aren’t amongst the very best using some form of squad rotation, it seems Ole is a fan of such a policy and so I’d guess we’ll be seeing more of the same in 14/15.
Obviously, it’s to be expected that any further signings will include players in other areas of the pitch covered because, so far, the emphasis has been very much on goalscoring (even midfield man Burgstaller got twelve goals for Rapid Vienna last season), but with no Cardiff player having got into double figures on the scoring front for two seasons, Ole’s prioritising of the striker areas is to be understood – although I still maintain that, as I mentioned last week, better defensive organisation and understanding is something that must be addressed (preferably through a new defensive coach) in the pre season period.
That’s in the future though, what can be said about the new arrivals so far – particularly the two who signed in the last seven days? Well, firstly, the most positive slant I can put on their arrivals is to say that Macheda and LeFondre scored twenty eight goals between them while making a total of forty seven Championship starts last season, so, throw in the goalscoring records of Guerra and Burgstaller as well, together with the players currently at the club who are still likely to be with us next season, and you’d like to think that at least we should have someone who manages to get into double figure on the scoring front!
Macheda’s arrival was an expected one. His signing, on a three year contract, was confirmed early last week ending days of speculation that a move to Cardiff was imminent – actually “speculation” is not really the right word to use, because most of the reporting recorded it almost as a statement of fact! However, if the arrival of one the new players wasn’t a surprise, then the same cannot be said for LeFondre.
Despite, apparently, having had a bid for the former Stockport, Rochdale, Rotherham and Reading striker rejected during our frantic and unsuccessful last day of the the January transfer window search for a striker, his name was not mentioned as a possible target until the day before his signing was officially announced.
It’s always possible to look at new players in a negative light if you are so minded. For example, given the introduction he had into the game, it’s tempting to look at Macheda and ask “where did it all go wrong?” – after all, he spent large portions of last season on the bench for a couple of clubs up to their necks in Championship relegation trouble in Doncaster and Birmingham. LeFondre is also very familiar with substitute duties (much of the reputation he has formed since moving into the Championship has been based on what he has achieved as an impact sub) – I’d also say that, based on my somewhat limited knowledge of the player, he is a goalscorer pure and simple who will not contribute a great deal for the team in general play.
In the case of our other two new signings, there is always the possibility that they will be unable to settle in Cardiff in what is the first move abroad in both of their careers and I also have a concern that, at 32, Guerra may just be going over the hill.
However, although I’m sure all four of them are doing well out of their moves in terms of signing on fees and wages, the club appear to have not spent a great deal when it comes to transfer fees. Guerra and Macheda cost nothing, while Burgstaller’s fee is “undisclosed” with no real clue in the reporting of the deal into what that means, but, although I’ve seen the LeFondre fee being reported as high as £2.5 million, the general consensus appears to be that Reading’s need to pay their tax bill as quickly as possible meant that they were prepared to accept something around £1 million.
If that is true, then, notwithstanding those quibbles about his all round game. it seems a great bit of business to get someone with a goalscoring record in the top two division like LeFondre’s at such a fee – particularly when you look at the size of the release clause for Lewis Grabban (after just one very good season at Championship level) and the sort of fee QPR had to pay for Charlie Austin last year.
I’m sure that as the Caulkers, Medels and Marshalls leave us and our rivals start to do their transfer business in a few weeks time, the optimism currently being felt by many City fans on the back of our new signings will start to dissipate, but that would be unfair really – yes, it’s only a start and I still have concerns about other areas of the pitch, but, for me at least, it’s a good start and one that makes me a little more optimistic about what to expect in 14/15.
Finally, a well done to Tommy O’Sullivan for his goals for Wales Under 19′s against Belgium and Portugal at the Elite Group stage for qualification for the Euro Under 19 Finals. Unfortunately, Wales are not going to go any further in the competition, but they have acquitted themselves very well so far in what was a very tough group. Tommy and Josh Yorwerth both started in the 1-1 draw with the Belgians and were joined by Tom James in the 3-2 defeat by hosts Portugal who scored a last minute winner after Wales had fought back from 2-0 down – they complete their fixtures against Greece tomorrow.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.cardiffcityfc.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson with 3 comments