International football is back this week, in the new form of the Nations League. If you are unaware of what the Nations League is, feel free to read this explanation article I posted last month. In one simple sentence – they are competitive games and not friendlies.
There are a few things of importance riding on this game for Wales:
- It’s Ryan Giggs’ first competitive game
- There’s a chance to get 3 points on the board before playing a potentially weakened Denmark team on Sunday
- Gives Wales an opportunity to beat the Republic of Ireland for the first time in 26 years (or if you really want to delve into the stats, you have to look back 39 years to find the last win on home soil).
Bad news for the Irish
Firstly, Declan Rice has decided for now he doesn’t want to play for the Republic and wants to play for England instead, despite playing 3 times under Martin O’Neill this year. Of course, there is no guarantee that he’ll play for England anytime soon with the sheer amount of options they have, and there is hope for Ireland that he could change his mind again.
O’Neill has done nothing but praise him to the press, but it’s not going to turn that decision anytime soon. He looked like the next big talent for Ireland and it’s a huge blow for them to not have him available for the upcoming games.
It also arose in the news this week that part of Declan Rice’s omission was due to a bust up with assistant manager, Roy Keane, which also involved in-form Cardiff midfielder, Harry Arter. In the squad of 26 announced on Monday morning, Arter was one of the many names missing.
Ireland go into the game against Wales with a woeful lack of forward options, the least seen for a number of years. The more positive days of players like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Kevin Doyle are a far distant memory.
They are now contending with a 34-year-old Jonathan Walters and… well that’s about it. Shane Long is the other obvious option but he is injured, as is talisman Robbie Brady and Sean Maguire of Preston.
James McClean, who scored the only goal in the previous meeting between the two sides, was ruled out with a wrist injury on Tuesday afternoon. Daryl Murphy retired earlier this year, which leaves just 3 inexperienced options to challenge for a place in the side – twice-capped Graham Burke and an uncapped duo of Aiden O’Brien & Callum Robinson.
Compare this to Gareth Bale who is firing goals in every game he plays for Real Madrid. Tom Lawrence, who’s doing the same at Championship level for Derby and David Brooks continues to shine for Bournemouth in the Premier League. Wilson and Woodburn have looked exciting for Wales in recent games and target man Sam Vokes has scored 2 goals and grabbed 2 assists under Ryan Giggs in 2018. This is all without mentioning Aaron Ramsey, who is the second highest goalscorer in the current squad with 13.
How both teams are likely to line up:
Thoughts behind the Welsh selection – 4-2-3-1
The first question Giggs will be asking is, “where to play Gareth Bale?” He has played mostly on the right side for Madrid this season in a similar 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation that is shown above. As he has flourished in that ‘Bale of old’ type position, it’s likely Giggs will want to use him there, with the licence to free roam when Bale sees best.
Under Coleman, Bale would often drop very deep to collect the ball and this completely nullified what he is best at – scoring and creating goals. As a world-class winger in his prime, I can’t imagine Giggs will be a fan of Bale sitting behind Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey when Wales are likely to dominate possession in Cardiff.
Aaron Ramsey in a very forward no.10 role will depend on the fitness of Joe Ledley this week. We all know the damage Ramsey can do to the opposition when he is at the tip of the midfield, but given the lack of experienced central players in the squad, he might be given a box-to-box role instead. Should Ledley start, I can’t imagine he will play for more than 60-70 minutes and will probably be replaced by Ampadu or King.
The selection of Joe Allen obviously picks itself, he will be indispensable in the middle of the park, should the Irish players not injure him out of the game again. I mentioned Joe Allen’s magnificent ball recovery stats in an assessment based article I posted a couple of weeks ago.
Joe Allen made 70 recoveries in 633 minutes of game time (8 matches and bear in mind he went off injured in two) – take my word for it, it’s a crazy stat. Compare it to the players of the top ranked teams in the European World Cup qualifiers:
Luka Modric (Croatia) – 67 in 853 mins,
Sergio Busquets (Spain) – 66 in 810 mins,
Axel Witsel (Belgium) – 54 in 688 mins,
Toni Kroos (Germany) – 52 in 615 mins,
Jordan Henderson (England) – 49 in 694 mins,
N’Golo Kante (France) – 43 in 397 mins.
It says a lot when Kante’s stat is the only one closely comparable on average to Allen’s.
The selection of Vokes through the middle is not what I would personally choose at this stage but it’s what Giggs will presumably opt for. If it doesn’t seem to be working after 50 or so minutes, Brooks/Wilson/Woodburn will replace Vokes and Bale will likely move into the no.9 position. On Lawrence’s form for Derby this year I think he is a guaranteed starter and rightly deserves it.
A rare problem for Wales is the uncertainty of the defensive line. Ashley Williams and James Chester have both had poor starts to the season by their usual standards and Chris Gunter only played his first set of 90 minutes last week. Ben Davies is the only name you can definitely say will be on the teamsheet.
There are three players that could contend current places – Paul Dummett, Chris Mepham and Connor Roberts. If Giggs decides to go with a back five there will be a choice to be made on whether to select in-form Championship youngster, Chris Mepham or Premier League regular, Paul Dummett as the extra defender.
Gunter’s lack of game time for Reading is also something Giggs will be deliberating. Connor Roberts’ excellent performances for Swansea will have him majorly contending for that spot at right back, if not this week then certainly in upcoming fixtures.
Despite these defensive concerns, I think Giggs will go for the tried and tested for his first match in charge. He said in the press conference this week that Ashley Williams will remain as captain, and that understandably says he will also keep his place in the team. James Chester has been far too consistent for Wales to be dropped from the side.
Wayne Hennessey is still not being challenged by Danny Ward for his place between the sticks. After Ward’s £12.5m move to Leicester in the summer, many thought he would be the number one choice for the former Premier League Champions, but Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel remains first choice and Ward proceeds to sit on the bench every week.
Ireland to play a back five in Cardiff? 5-3-2
There isn’t as much competition for places in the Ireland setup. The friendlies in the Spring and Summer saw Martin O’Neill tinker with a back five, reverting to a 3-4-3 in attack, much like Wales played for 3-4 years under Chris Coleman.
Given the injury’s to Shane Long and James McClean, we might see O’Neill play a front two of Jonathan Walters and Graham Burke. Burke has only played twice for the Rep. of Ireland, but he has already scored – against the USA this summer in a 2-1 win in Dublin, whilst he was still a Shamrock Rovers player. The 24-year-old became the first domestic Irish international goalscorer since 1978. Both Walters and Burke now play their football in the Championship – for Ipswich and Preston, respectively.
Ireland’s lack of experienced wide midfielders will be a slight concern for O’Neill. The width instead could be provided by Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Burnley’s Stephen Ward. Coleman hasn’t played a competitive game for Ireland since his horrific leg break in Dublin against Wales in March 2017, but he has played in all three of Ireland’s friendlies this year.
Harry Arter’s strong form for Cardiff this season should have earned him a place in the 11, but to much amazement, he’s not in the squad altogether. Irish regulars, Jeff Hendrick and David Meyler will definitely start, the other position in midfield could be a toss of a coin. I’ve predicted Conor Hourihane, but it could easily go to Callum O’Dowda.
The biggest strength for Ireland will be their back three of Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and Kevin Long, who are all Premier League regulars. Clark and Duffy both played in Cardiff last October and did their defensive jobs at the back perfectly. Incredibly, they are the joint third highest goalscorer’s in the current Irish team with 2 goals each, behind Jonathan Walters (14) and Stephen Ward (3).
The Irish defence and midfield will want to alleviate the creativity of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, and keep things as tight as possible so Gareth Bale is not able to thrive. However, this is far easier said than done and with the plethora of options Wales have in attack, starting and from the bench, it will be very difficult for the Irish to consistently stay tight for 90 minutes.
Ireland’s lack of international caps in the overall squad might be inferior to Wales’, but the backline I’ve predicted has 153 caps between them. I’m fairly certain O’Neill will be coming to Cardiff hoping for a draw; a back five and keeping it as compact as possible is his best protocol in achieving that.
• Ben Davies on the Nations League matches & Dummett’s welcome back
• Interview with Welsh International, David Brooks
• All of the summer transfer moves for Welsh players
• Wales left heartbroken in Newport as England qualify for the 2019 World Cup