This summer will see Wales compete in their first major international tournament in 58 years. Boasting the world’s most expensive player in Gareth Bale, Wales qualified for the 2016 European Championships with 21 points from ten games, losing just once. En route to France, Bale scored seven of Wales’ 11 goals in the qualifying campaign. It has led to The Dragons being pejoratively dubbed a ‘one-man team.’ Yet their defensive discipline and organisation as part of Chris Coleman’s new system helped the nation qualify for this summer’s European Championships in equal measure.
Wales: One-Man Team Reliant on a Solid Back Five
By the end of the qualifying campaign, which spanned just over 13 months, Wales had kept a remarkable seven clean sheets – only Romania, with eight from ten matches, would keep more. Wales denied each of their Group B opponents from scoring at least once and Belgium and Israel twice. Their total of clean sheets would equal the number of times Bale netted for The Dragons, but the solidity of the Wales defence would go largely unheralded.
It was the Real Madrid man’s goal-scoring performances against Andorra, Belgium, Israel and Cyprus which were making the headlines. There is no doubt Bale is their talisman but his return of seven goals in ten matches would not be enough for Wales to have qualified for the Euros without the resilience, discipline and organisation of their five-strong backline.
Coleman’s team lined up against a number of highly-rated attacking players, not least Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Edin Dzeko. But the ex-Fulham boss was wise with his tactics. Bale, undoubtedly Wales’ best player, would not be able to drag his nation through to a European Championships all by himself, despite what many believe. Their needed to be a solid platform for him to flourish.
Speaking at the FAW Trust National Coaches Conference 2016, Coleman discussed the system his team implemented for much of the qualifying campaign. It would rely heavily on the versatility of a number of Bale’s overlooked teammates. Ben Davies, Anthony Taylor, Jazz Richards and Hal Robson-Kanu were all utilised in several different roles across the ten matches. Captain Ashley Williams would direct things at the heart of defence, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley would remain compact in the middle, while Aaron Ramsey would offer support further upfield.
Two back-to-back wins to stand out as the defining period in the Welsh qualification for Euro 2016.
Israel had won their first three matches convincingly when they welcomed Wales to Haifa. After two straight games of setting up with four at the back, Wales returned to the 5-3-2 formation they kicked the campaign off with. Davies would take his place alongside Williams and James Collins in central defence, with Chris Gunter and Anthony Taylor playing as wing backs.
Coleman explained: “For this game I really wanted three centre backs and Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale doubling up as number 10s. If we could get those two in possession high up the pitch, I knew we could do damage. We fancy those two against anybody, even if they’re being man marked.
“We gave Israel a real shock because they thought we were going to defend for 90 minutes but we went for them from the start and dominated possession. At this point I could see the players enjoying the formation because we were so expansive.”
By this stage, Wales had won three and drawn two, leap-frogging Israel at the top of Group B. They had announced themselves as real contenders to reach the Euros. The favourites in this group, Belgium, had an identical record to the Welsh by the time they visited Cardiff in June 2015 and the two teams were neck and neck.
With belief in Coleman’s system at its peak, there was a genuine sense that Wales could overcome one of the highest ranked teams in the world. Using the same formation that served them so well against Israel, the manager made just a couple of personnel alterations at the back. Bale and Ramsey remained in their positions behind Robson-Kanu but Richards and James Chester would come in for Collins and Davies – Chester dropping to centre back, and Richards taking up the right wing back role.
Coleman said: “They were always going to dominate possession but after 20 minutes Aaron Ramsey complained he had too much ground to cover. It wasn’t Aaron’s fault, he’s incredibly fit but the centre backs and full backs were staying too deep and that was causing him a real problem.
“Jazz Richards started coming out of his comfort zone and putting pressure on their left back [Jan Vertonghen]. It looked as though he was leaving Hazard on his own but the ball never got that far. That night we executed the plan brilliantly.”
Belgium have now scored in 8 of their last 10 games – Wales (home & away) being the only side to stop them scoring. pic.twitter.com/CBVsK6uOZ9
— Squawka (@Squawka) October 10, 2015
Wales’ tactics through the qualifying stage was dependent on all 11 players on the pitch working as a unit. They didn’t simply sit back and wait for Bale to produce a moment of magic, as he so often would. Instead they adjusted depending on the opposition. In Israel, they were fluid, free-flowing and ultimately overwhelming. Against Belgium the team stayed compact, the backline pushing further up the field to close off the space and they waited patiently for their chance to nick a winner.
The back-to-back victories over Israel and Belgium would come as part of a five-game streak in which Wales did not concede a goal. A 2-0 defeat to Bosnia in October 2015 meant Wales would not go the length of the qualifying campaign unbeaten, nor would they finish at the top of the group. But Cyprus’ win over Israel did confirm Wales’ place in their first major tournament since the late 1950s.
Bale, rightly or wrongly, was heralded as the man most responsible for their qualification – without his goals, Wales would not be preparing for summer in France. Yet nor would they if it was not for Coleman’s savvy tactics or the defence’s stern resilience.
For two years now, the Welsh squad have been championing the FAW’s ‘Together Stronger’ campaign on social media. What started out as an ordinary marketing campaign, has turned into the national team’s ethos. Whether you believe it or not, this Wales squad goes further than one Gareth Bale.