The first thing that needs to be said about last night’s 2-0 defeat for Wales which, almost certainly, means that the long wait for qualification for a major tournament will be extended for at least another two years is that, having watched our group’s other pace setters Belgium beat us by the same score, I think we lost to a better team than them last night. Belgium are a young side who are still improving whereas Croatia have a few players at or nearing the veteran stage, so the final table may tell a different story, but the Croats were very impressive and have the advantage of already having drawn in Brussels. Certainly, I’d say Croatia are a much better team than Serbia, whose two recent results since their win over Wales put into context just how dreadful we were on our previous visit to the Adriatic region last month – the resilience and spirit Wales showed in defeat last night means that they can come home with their pride intact to a far greater degree than they did after the Novi Sad massacre.
However, a look at the match stats tells a story that the final scoreline didn’t – Croatia enjoyed 76% possession, they had twenty nine goal attempts (an amazing twenty of them were on target) while Wales replied with six efforts on goal (three of which were on target). Based on last night, what might stop Croatia topping the group and qualifying for Brazil automatically is their profligacy in front of goal – to score just twice while having that many goal attempts suggests a weakness in finishing, but I can’t help thinking that if circumstances meant that they needed to score five last night they would have done so.
They didn’t though and some dogged Welsh defending and fine goalkeeping by Lewis Price, who offered a reminder as to why the current Crystal Palace reserve was so highly regarded ten years ago, needs to be recognised as having played a part in keeping the score down. However, those possession stats offer the clue that for much of the time it was almost like one of those attack and defence games I used to play as a kid because the ball just kept on coming back at the Welsh back four. Sometimes, this was due to us having everyone back as we defended free kicks and corners, but for too much of the time, it was because we were being absolutely taken to the cleaners in midfield as our players surrendered possession time and again.
Now, I happen to think that Wales’ improvement last year was based primarily on the fact that we were able to hold our own in the middle of the park and in some cases win the battle in that part of the pitch – I also believe that midfield is the strongest area of the current team, but we came second in that area by miles last night. It was so bad that the usual complaint when the ball keeps on coming back at you that it isn’t sticking with the striker(s) couldn’t be applied because we weren’t getting the ball that far up the pitch! So, why should a midfield consisting of a player who has been described as being good enough to get into any team in the world, someone who cost Liverpool £15 million this summer. someone who has spent the last few seasons playing a lot of Premiership football, someone who is a regular for the current Scottish Champions (and before anyone goes on about standards in the Scottish Premiership, Celtic have taken four points from their two Champions League matches so far) and someone who often starts for the side who are second in the Championship, be so comprehensively outplayed when, on paper, it looked a pretty useful unit?
Well, I’d say Gareth Bale suffered because we simply could not get the ball to him enough – although there was the occasional poor pass, when he was in possession he did all that was expected of him and Croatia had to resort to fouling him most of the time to stop him, Joe Ledley didn’t play that well, but he had to spend too much time trying to cope with Srna and Rakitic who between them made it an uncomfortable second international appearance for Ben Davies and, apart from one header, Andy King was, predictably, anonymous (he’s more suited to matches where his side are expected to do a lot more attacking than Wales were likely to last night in my opinion). It’s the other two players in our midfield that most interest me at the moment though – because I feel they were the ones who most exemplified our failings.
After decades where power and physique have dominated, small has become beautiful in recent years as Spain and Barcelona have dominated with their tiki taka passing game which places far more emphasis on technique and ball retention than the more traditional British “attributes” of power and strength. Although it’s stretching a point to say that the Premiership is full of sides playing like Barcleona, there is evidence that teams such as Chelsea (successfully so far) and Liverpool (not so successfully) have joined Arsenal and, it has to be said, Swansea in playing a more possession based game – if any of those teams were to end up winning something this season, you can be sure others would follow.
One disadvantage of playing in such a way for Premiership clubs, is that there aren’t too many domestic players around capable of making a decent fist of such an approach, it follows therefore that British international teams are not best suited to playing in a way which sees a midfield populated by technicians (often not as tall and strong as the more traditional UK midfielder) rather than athletes. However Wales had two players in their midfield last night who are regarded as good technical footballers that rarely surrender possession – these assets are generally believed to invalidate any concerns about them being small men who could find the physical side of the game something of a struggle. By British standards both Joe Allen and David Vaughan are thought of as skilful, intelligent players who can keep the ball for you while also being able to give the team something defensively – why was it then that they both appeared so ponderous in thought and deed last night as they constantly surrendered possession through poor ball control or misplaced passing?
The sort of wet, muddy pitch that they will have not seen much of in their professional careers will have had something to do with that and it certainly played a part in Croatia’s first goal as Ashley Williams’ error prone season continued with a back pass which came up short and let in Mandzukic to score after Price’s attempted clearance hit him, but it was no worse than the sort of pitch that they would have played on most weeks from November onwards twenty or thirty years ago. Furthermore, Croatia, excellently orchestrated by another small, technical player in Modric, were able to move the ball about with a pace and precision which really emphasised the difference in the depth of footballing technique available to either country – let’s not forget either that Croatia only have a population of 4.2 million compared to our 3.1 million.
Now, the best footballer on the pitch last night was, arguably, a Welshman in Gareth Bale, but, after him, I think many would have said that our two players best suited to be prototypes for the sort of modern midfielder who could get by in a side playing something like Tiki Taka were so off the pace that they wouldn’t have got near being selected for the Crotia team. In saying that, I’m certainly not blaming our defeat solely on Allen and Vaughan, it’s more I’m trying to point out that two players regarded as good in technical aspects of the game by British observers came up a long way short of their European opponents in that department last night – what an indictment of British attitudes to coaching of young players that is.
Because of what has been going on in Spain since 2008, players such as Allen and Vaughan are, hopefully, not having to overcome as many prejudices based solely on their size compared to, say, ten years ago, but they will need to do a lot better than they did last night if they are going to continue to benefit from that change in attitude because bigger, less accomplished players with the power they lack will soon start to look more attractive options to managers and coaches if they keep up last night’s level of performance.
I’m certainly hopeful that will happen with Allen in particular because, although I’d say we can forget about qualification now, third place, and all of the benefits such a finish could bring in terms of future draws (Northern Ireland, who did so well in Portugal last night, have been paired with Israel, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in their group as a result of being fourth seeds), is definitely up for grabs and he showed last year he can be part of a winning Welsh team – with more places up for grabs in the Finals of Euro 2016, finishing as high as we can in this qualifying group could have huge benefits for us in a couple of years time.
by The other Bob Wilson
“Pitiful” is the word that best sums up Wales’ first half performance against England yesterday. For me it was as bad as anything seen under John Toshack – in fact, given that we were playing a side that should get even the poorest of Welsh teams to at least show some fight, it was probably worse. I had been hopeful of a good showing beforehand. Even before Gareth Bale dropped out I never contemplated a win for Wales, but I did think a combination of the new manager effect, a full house and a game against England would draw a performance from the team which offered the hope of better days for the future. Instead of that though we got an abject capitulation as any confidence and spirit the side had (and there wasn’t much evidence of that in the little time when the score was 0-0) evaporated as soon as Frank Lampard’s penalty hit the net.
I’ve seen heavier defeats for Welsh sides against England, but I can’t remember anything as dismal and depressing as yesterday’s meek surrender. For me this is not a great England team – their efforts in the last two World Cup Final tournaments and the fact that they didn’t even reach the latter stages of Euro 2008 show that their team of the last five years or so is not as strong as many of those sides I have seen play Wales down the years and yet, in the first half in particular, Wales approached their task as if they were up against the 1970 Brazilian World Cup winning team in their pomp!
Although I don’t have a high opinion of the current English team, the painful truth is that they were much, much too good for us. They had the match won in the first quarter of an hour and then effectively “declared” after that as they saw out the game in a manner which suggested to me that if, miracle of miracles, Wales actually began to inconvenience them a little, they could have stepped things up and scored again if they needed to. Those who tried to take comfort from an improved second half display by Wales need to bear this in mind – for me, England were perfectly happy to keep us at arm’s length after the break content in the knowledge that we had nothing that could trouble them.
No doubt yesterday’s result will mean a further slide down the FIFA World rankings and, having talked about the poorest of Welsh sides a little earlier, I daresay that there will be many who would say that this unwanted award should go to the current side, but, even without the likes of Bale and Collison, this side should be better than they are showing, so are they failing to play to the level they should because they are poorly managed? I’m not so sure of that myself – I supported John Toshack longer than most other Wales fans, it was obvious though that there were problems with his relationship with many of the players and with Gary Speed having now followed his uninspiring debut game in Ireland with this dreadful defeat, it is tempting to point the finger of blame at the man in charge when looking for reasons as to why the team has done so poorly since their win over Scotland in 2009. However, there has to come a time when the players have to take responsibility for their part in proceedings as defeat follows defeat.
Yes, Gary Speed got it wrong yesterday in selecting Andy King to play in an unfamiliar position that nullified his greatest asset (i.e. his ability to make late runs beyond the strikers) and it’s not with the benefit of hindsight that I say that David Vaughan should have been in the starting line up. I thought the non selection of a player who has been very impressive as a regular pick for a Premiership team was a strange decision even before a ball was kicked and watching Joe Ledley and Andrew Crofts labouring away without ever looking like establishing anything vaguely resembling an element of control in the middle of the park only confirmed this. It’s no coincidence that Wales were able to finally put the England defence under some of pressure after Vaughan was, belatedly, introduced.
However, if Speed did show his managerial inexperience a bit then I’m afraid that, like Toshack before him, he was very poorly served by the players who now should be providing the experienced guiding hand to help those in their early twenties through games. I am talking in particular here about the two Collins’ in our back four. Although I reckon he’s had a poor club season this time around, James is an established Premiership standard defender now, but he has looked nothing like that in recent Wales games where his habit of making at least one major error per game makes him an accident waiting to happen – to be fair, his fall in the lead up to the penalty he gave away was down to a pitch which should have the FAW looking to play all games away from the Millennium Stadium from now on, but these sort of things are happening too often at this level to a player who should be providing an example to his team mates.
As for Danny, well he threw a strop when Toshack didn’t pick him for some friendly game and did not come back into the fold until after Tosh had gone. Collins’ reaction makes it obvious that he thinks he is better than the other candidates for the left back role in the Welsh team, but, nine games into his International career, I am still waiting to see any evidence that suggests he is right in believing this. Yesterday’s was a pretty typical Danny Collins Wales display in that he was probably the worst player in the side. To be caught out like he was in the build up to England’s second goal was very disappointing, but for him to lose his man in an identical manner shortly afterwards was criminal – people ask how many of the current City side could cut it in the Premiership if we went up, well, Collins is someone who has played the majority of his football in the top flight, so I would say that, based on his example, the answer to that question has to be all of them!
I’d exempt Craig Bellamy, who turned in a six out of ten performance which probably made him our best player and at least looked like he cared about what was happening, from any criticism of the senior players, but it also has to be said that the likes of Gunter and Ledley should be becoming more influential now given the number of caps they have. As for Aaron Ramsey, I think he showed last week and yesterday that, while he is fit enough to look a class act at Championship level, he is still not back to match sharpness at the next step up and he probably won’t be until he has the benefit of six weeks pre-season training behind him. The way in which he took on too much himself when things were going wrong was pretty predictable, but it also showed his bravery as a footballer because he was still looking to get on the ball and play despite things often not working out for him in the manner they usually do.
Finally, the most galling thing for me about yesterday was that the team’s craven performance justified all of the platitudes, delivered in a condescending manner, directed at Wales by English pundits before the game. Who can blame the English based media for looking down on us when their team comes to our capital and wins as comfortably as they would do when playing in San Marino or Andorra (I was going to say Liechtenstein, but I seem to remember them giving England a far tougher game when they went there than we did yesterday!)? Wales were not England’s “little brother” yesterday (little brothers can be an annoyance), they were the baby brother that teenage boys barely look at while saying “yeah he’s nice isn’t he” before moving on to more important matters.by The other Bob Wilson