The announcement of the postponement of Euro 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic was met with a combination of dismay and a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable by international football fans across the continent.
In Wales, opportunities to watch our national team at a tournament are few and far between, having qualified for the finals of just two major tournaments in our history.
Our semi-final in Euro 2016, a tournament where ‘the stars aligned’ as we reached our best ever tournament finish, was our first finals appearance since the 1958 World Cup – a whopping 58-year wait, made all the worse by more than our fair share of heartbreaking near misses.
So, for a country accustomed to having to wait for our time in the sun, the initial disappointment has been tempered – but not just because one year is better than 58.
When thinking of the Welsh national team, the first names that come to mind are of the household variety: global superstars like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and the well-established – Joe Allen, Ashley Williams and Chris Gunter. These players were the stars of the Euro 2016 campaign, but to attribute Wales’ successes post-France to these men would do a disservice to the plethora of young talent manager Ryan Giggs has nurtured.
Since taking over in January 2018, Giggs and his staff have gone about painstakingly adding depth to the team that fell at the final hurdle to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Particularly in attacking positions, where the fledgeling triumvirate of Harry Wilson, Dan James and David Brooks have competed for places alongside Kieffer Moore, Tom Lawrence, Jonny Williams, Ramsey, and Bale.
To have this amount of attacking talent at their disposal is an encouraging development for Wales, particularly when looking in more detail at their failure to qualify for the previous World Cup under Chris Coleman.
In a closely fought campaign where precious points were sacrificed with criminal frequency (ten points were dropped from winning positions), it came down to the final game: a winner-takes-all shootout with the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff. However, Bale was missing with an ankle injury, and the resulting lack of attacking potency lead to a 1-0 smash and grab for the Boys in Green.
Whilst any team in world football would feel the loss of a player such as Bale, and Wales had won the two qualifiers leading up to that clash without him – away wins in Georgia and Moldova – Wales’ lack of attacking alternatives against a resolute but (on paper at least) inferior Republic of Ireland team were made painfully obvious.
Leading the line that night was the experienced Hal Robson-Kanu, who was replaced by Sam Vokes, both of whom were on the scoresheet in the quarter-final win over Belgium in 2016. Whilst neither could be deemed old – they were 28 and 27 respectively at the time – it was clear that Wales lacked flexibility and depth in their attacking options and had a certain predictability so at odds with their performances in France.
The individual effectiveness of Robson-Kanu and Vokes was also tempered by Bale’s absence, with his mere presence in attack diverting defenders’ attention to give his teammates the extra space to cause damage.
This issue was emphasised by the other attacking substitute introduced that night: Liverpool starlet Ben Woodburn. The youngster had netted a heroic debut winner against Austria just four weeks previously but was placed under an excessive amount of pressure to repeat the feat. This overreliance on a raw 17-year old to save the day was the ultimate indictment of Wales’ attacking deficiencies.
It would be unfair to lumber Wales’ failure to qualify only on the attack, however. Okriashvili’s equaliser for the Georgians in Cardiff, Mitrovic’s for Serbia home and away, and of course James McClean’s winner for the Irish could all be directly attributed to defensive lapses. During the successful 2016 qualification campaign, Wales scored less goals, but their game was built on a solid defensive system and a clinical attacking edge which carried them through. Bale also didn’t miss a game, scoring 7 out of their 11 goals.
It was a combination of these attacking struggles, and a breakdown of the defence which had served them so well previously, which led to Wales’ ultimate failure to qualify for a first World Cup since 1958.
And so, following the loss and Coleman’s subsequent departure, the rebuild began, with Giggs giving more opportunities to young players whilst continuing to build the team around the core of Allen, Ramsey and Bale.
The change in personnel necessitated a change in style, with a move to a more fluid, high tempo pressing game to suit the likes of James and Brooks.
Further back, too, changes were made with this transition in style in mind, with ball-playing centre backs Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham – both 22 years of age – giving Wales the option of playing out from the back. In midfield, the unflappable Ethan Ampadu was installed, the 19-year old playing with composure and poise on the ball that belies his age.
There were certainly growing pains in this transition. There have been various low points, including a 1-0 away loss to Albania, and the double-header losses away in Hungary and Croatia that left Wales staring down the barrel.
But the instalment of 6ft 5in Kieffer Moore changed everything, moving Wales away slightly from that fluid front line Giggs was aiming for, but adding the balance and the necessary flexibility in attack that was lacking.
This seemed to do the trick, and Wales went unbeaten for the rest of the campaign, a run that culminated in a 2-0 win over Hungary in Cardiff to secure their place in European international football’s showpiece.
Whilst these youthful options Wales can now call upon are certainly talented, they are far from the finished article, with several of them having endured difficult seasons at club level despite excelling internationally.
Dan James, who came to the wider attention of the football world with a stunning FA Cup solo goal for Swansea, has had a difficult first season in the Premier League with Manchester United. The winger has been lumbered with a massive amount of responsibility at one of the biggest clubs in the world, as well as losing his father, and has arguably come in for some unfair criticism as a result.
Ampadu is suffering with the opposite problem, having made just three appearances in his loan spell from Chelsea to RB Leipzig despite impressing immensely in the Champions League last 16 against Tottenham.
After showing so much promise for Bournemouth last season, his first in the Premier League, David Brooks is yet to make an appearance in this campaign following two ankle operations. The good news for him is that the pandemic has meant a 100-day hiatus of the Premier League, the resumption of which meaning he is likely to get some game time this season after all.
Harry Wilson has fared better for the Cherries, netting 7 goals in 30 appearances, but shows flashes of inconsistency characteristic of many players in his stage of development.
Ben Woodburn’s progress seems to have faltered completely following his blistering start, his loan spells from Liverpool to Sheffield and Oxford United blighted by injury problems.
More positively, the likes of Mepham, Rodon, 23-year old Joe Morrell and 24-year old Conor Roberts have enjoyed solid seasons for their clubs whilst getting plenty of game time for Wales.
There’s also Neco Williams and Rabbi Matondo, who have both shown encouraging signs in their performances for Liverpool and Schalke respectively. Euro 2020 would have potentially come too soon for them – Williams more so than Matondo – but with an extra season under their belts they can stake a real claim for a place in Giggs’ squad next summer.
This doesn’t just apply to the younger players, however – Wayne Hennessey has spent much of the past season on the bench for Crystal Palace, and although it won’t have as much of an adverse effect on him as a well-established 32-year old, you’d imagine Giggs would prefer his no. 1 goalkeeper to be playing regular football.
Ramsey has struggled to get any momentum in an injury-beset season at Juventus, making 15 appearances with 6 of them off the bench. Although he did get on the scoresheet in the Derby d’Italia, the top of the table clash with Inter Milan in their last game before Serie A was put on hold. Similar could be said of Bale, who has been well below his usual standards, scoring 5 goals in 23 appearances for Real Madrid.
Joe Allen is probably the happiest man of all with the postponement, who looked set to miss the tournament altogether due to a ruptured Achilles.
Form is temporary
Whilst Wales had built up momentum as a team towards the end of the campaign, individuals’ form at club level wasn’t at the level it could be.
Although it certainly isn’t a given, the extra year that the aforementioned players have to get either crucial game time, play themselves into form, or return from injury could prove vital for such a young Wales squad.
Bale and Ramsey will, of course, be one year older, but at 30 and 29 they will hardly be over the hill by next summer, and remain Wales’ two genuine world-class individuals.
Should the next season go to plan, things could fall into place nicely for Giggs’ men as they attempt to emulate the history-making class of 2016.