After 58 years of agony, Wales are finally heading to their first major tournament since 1958, and the nation couldn’t be prouder. However, in spite of starting the qualifying campaign as the fourth lowest ranked team to qualify for this summer’s team, Chris Coleman’s side won’t be heading to France just to make up the numbers; while the Dragons certainly aren’t expecting to win, they will be quietly optimistic about roaring their way to the latter stages.
Regardless of what happens this summer, it has been a truly remarkable turnaround for a country that had rarely come close to qualifying for a European Championships prior to this, their 14th attempt. Moreover, recent years had seen Wales suffer badly both on and off the field; the Dragons lost manager Gary Speed under the most heartbreaking circumstances in 2011, before dropping down the rankings table to become a Pot 6 team ahead of the World Cup 2014 qualification process.
Despite a few signs of promise regarding the quality within the squad, Coleman’s side had hit rock bottom. A 10-point return from the former Fulham manager’s first full campaign showed minor progress but it was still only enough to see them finish fifth out of a six-team round robin, meaning they’d fallen off the road to Brazil long before the party started. Even with the Euro 2016 tournament seeing an expansion of 16 to 24 teams, nobody could have had serious hopes for Wales in this campaign, especially after drawing Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Israel. A third-placed play-off looked unlikely while automatic qualification for France seemed impossible.
Those feelings were personified to perfection in the first game of the campaign as Wales fell behind after just six minutes against minnows Andorra. While the goal itself didn’t exactly have the alarm bells ringing in terms of the result, it was an early indication that suggested this could be yet another long and tedious campaign. However, a brace from Gareth Bale spared their blushes to get their campaign off to a win. From then on, they never looked back.
When you have the world’s most expensive player in your ranks, it’s only natural that your hopes are placed on his shoulders. The Real Madrid star was magnificent as Wales battled their way to automatic qualification. Bale contributed over half of the team’s 11 goals to finish as the joint sixth highest individual scorer throughout the qualifying process with seven. More importantly, the 26-year-old stepped up at the most crucial moments. After netting the late winner during the group opener, he netted a fantastic winner against Belgium midway through the campaign, which served as a huge turning point where the Dragons finally started to truly believe that the dream could be achieved. Meanwhile, a late winner away at Cyprus in the next game would also signal another significant moment on the road to France.
Bale handled the pressure of carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders with ease, and was easily the catalyst throughout the qualifying process. Coleman knows that he is blessed with an immense talent, and the entire team is built to maximise the star man’s talent. Bale thrives under the freedom that this role provides, and he could make the Dragons a real threat in France.
We’ve seen various examples over the years to suggest that it’s better to have a star man in attack. Even in this century, the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samuel Eto’o, Asamoah Gyan and James Rodriguez have all demonstrated that a prominent force in the attacking third can transform an outfit completely. Putting the ball in the net is the most difficult job in football; if you possess a player that can do that on a regular basis, you’ll always have half a chance.
However, this is only possible when you possess a strong and organised defence. Aside from the obvious threat of Bale, those defensive solidarities are the calling card of Coleman’s Wales. In spite of conceding just six minutes into that opener in Andorra, the Dragons only conceded four goals throughout the entire Group B campaign. Two clean sheets against Belgium, along with further shutouts against both Bosnia and Israel are testimony to the team’s ability to stand strong. Without boasting any world superstars, it’s not a bad backline on paper either. The experienced duo of captain Ashley Williams and James Collins form a steady guard in front of Wayne Hennessey, with the skipper organising things with supreme assurance. Meanwhile, Tottenham’s Ben Davies is rapidly developing into a top rising talent.
The Wales backline isn’t only capable of defending, but it’s capable of defending under pressure. Coleman’s greatest strength during his time as manager has been the ability to use the available resources. While unleashing Bale is the focus of the attack, the 45-year-old has appreciated the fact that his side is better suited to surrendering possession. That’s often seen Wales adopt an adapted 5-3-2, which allows the attacking stars to flourish with more freedom, but is also open to using the 4-2-3-1. Regardless of the exact formation, the style and tactics don’t change too much. Success is built on the foundation of keeping things tight at the back, and hoping for the best when their creative players reach the attacking third.
As a defender in his playing days, the manager has great authority to squeeze more out of his rearguard. Quite frankly, the fact they’ve been used to playing this defensive minded philosophy throughout qualifying could serve them extremely well in the tournament.
Group B rivals England, for example, are accustomed to playing with the ball, and they tend to perform very well in qualifying. However, when it gets to the tournament, particularly the latter stages, they often succumb to a lack of adaptability. As soon as the Three Lions face a technically superior team, things often fall apart. Roy Hodgson has made palpable attempts to rectify this situation by utilising youthful raw talent and quick-counter attack, but there’s a strong possibility that the need to change strategy will become their Achilles heel. In comparison, Wales don’t really have to change anything. They’ve already proved that they can achieve success with these tactics, most noticeably against Belgium, and can head to France with quiet optimism.
Another potential positive for Wales is the sheer lack of expectation. The squad, and entire nation, and quietly confident about their chances of doing well. However, simply being invited to the party is a huge achievement. Even finishing bottom wouldn’t be the end of the world; the supporters will enjoy the experience no matter what. Anything beyond the group stage would be a bonus.
In truth, though, the competition format should give Coleman’s side a fantastic chance of reaching the knockout phase. The opening game against Slovakia in Bordeaux is certainly winnable while anything could happen when Wales meet England in Lens on June 16th. Positive results in those two games could see them through before they’ve even faced Russia in Toulouse. On the other hand, if they do need a result, then there’s nothing to fear against a nation that has had huge issues on and off the field for the entire duration of this campaign.
As far as playing style is concerned, we can know what to expect from Wales. Regarding results, however, they are one of the most unpredictable of all 24 entrants. While finishing bottom wouldn’t surprise anyone, you certainly wouldn’t put topping Group B past them either.
Of course, Coleman will be relying on avoiding injuries to Bale, Williams and other key members. The same could be said for most teams heading to France, though. If they can get the midfield balance right too, then they’ve got a real chance of reaching the last 16 and quarter-finals.
Wales have had to deal with the loss of a talented midfielder in the form of Jack Collison as injuries forced the 27-year-old into retirement. However, those problems had seen him fall away from the international scene some time ago, so it’s simply a case of a missed opportunity rather than needing to adapt.
Current stars Joe Ledley and Joe Allen can provide a disciplined unit. Meanwhile, if Aaron Ramsey’s attacking runs can be utilised to support Bale, then the Arsenal man could become Coleman’s secret weapon. Opposing side will clearly look to nullify the star man, which could work to Ramsey’s advantage. If both men are given the license to roam in attack, while still satisfying their defensive responsibilities, Wales could be considered dark horses.
On the face of it, the lack of a world class No.9 could be the only issue. Coleman will hope to see the duo of Bale and Ramsey compensate, but there is no question that Wales could do with better options than Simon Church, Sam Vokes and Hal-Robson Kanu. Sadly, it’s hard to see them going all the way with that obvious deficiency. Then again, who would’ve fancied Greece in 2004?
Most people would have written off Wales chances of even qualifying, so they have absolutely nothing to lose in their first Euro’s appearance. If they start strongly on June 11th, who knows how far they can go.
It could be a rollercoaster of a tournament but, whatever happens, we’re sure that the Welsh will enjoy the ride.