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.