Wales kicked off their Nations League campaign under Ryan Giggs with an emphatic 4-1 win over the Republic of Ireland on Thursday night.
Chris Gunter (29), James Chester (29), Joe Ledley (31) and Sam Vokes (28) were all left out of the starting eleven in favour of Connor Roberts (22), Chris Mepham (20), Ethan Ampadu (17) and David Brooks (21). Is this the start of something incredibly special for Wales?
Firstly, Ryan Giggs has to be commended for his bravery in selecting four, very inexperienced players at international level, to play a country that hadn’t lost a game against Wales since 1992. Before the game kicked off, C. Roberts, Mepham, Ampadu and Brooks had 9 Welsh caps between them – all of which were from friendly matches. These four players were absolutely instrumental in the stunning victory that shocked everyone, Welsh and Irish fans included.
Giggs also brought on Matthew Smith (18), Tyler Roberts (19) and Paul Dummett (26) for their first competitive caps (Tyler Roberts’ Wales senior debut). The game was already won by the time the three were used, but they wouldn’t have been brought on if the manager didn’t think so highly of them.
That makes seven players in one game who won their first competitive caps, and six were under the age of 22. I have no idea if another country can boast such figures in the modern era, but it’s an amazing fact nonetheless and Giggs should be commended for that.
I predicted earlier in the week that he would play it safe for his first competitive game and start with all of the experienced regulars we have seen over the past 8-10 years. I couldn’t have been further from the reality and I’m so glad about it.
The standout player last night was a 17-year-old who isn’t playing senior football regularly, on a field that included Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Everton’s Seamus Coleman.
Ampadu has played a total of 9 league games (8 in League Two and 1 in the Premier League) and won his third senior cap for his country last night. By comparison, Bale, Ramsey and Coleman have collated 1,035 club and international appearances between them. Ampadu is playing years beyond his actual age and has showed a maturity that is extremely rare to witness from someone so young.
Ethan qualified to play for Wales through his Welsh mother. He was full of passion last night and continued to inspire his fellow teammates throughout the match. He sung every single word of the national anthem and that was beautiful to see.
He was also qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland and I’m sure Irish fans were desperately wondering after that performance why he was never in their youth squads from the age of 14/15.
He was exceptional all over the pitch. He can tackle, pass it short, pass it long, shoot, intercept, hold it up, win it in key areas, organise the team, position himself perfectly; everything of a player who will go right to the very top.
His assist for the third goal, scored by Aaron Ramsey, was something you might see Luka Modric or Paul Pogba do for their countries. He wins the ball on the halfway line, carries it 30 yards through the Irish midfield and plays a brilliant pass into the feet of Aaron Ramsey for him to finish.
Ampadu left the field after 67 minutes to a standing ovation from the home crowd. It was one of the best performances from a 17-year-old that I have ever seen in an international shirt, and I’m sure many would be in complete agreement.
Even though he is not getting regular senior football for Chelsea, at this stage of his career I don’t think it is doing him any harm whatsoever. He will be learning from the likes of N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and David Luiz every week; that is surely better for a player who has this much potential, than getting kicked to pieces in the Championship every week because he is exceptional with the ball at his feet.
If this is a performance from Ethan Ampadu as a boy, imagine what he will be like in say, five years? The future is incredibly bright for this player, for club and country.
More competitive debuts
Connor Roberts was the first right-back to take the place of an available Chris Gunter for over 10 years. In 3 caps he managed to score a goal for Wales, and a stunning one at that. By comparison, Gunter hasn’t managed to find the net in 88 appearances.
The technique involved to score that goal; having to flick it up and volley it in to the bottom corner with his weaker foot was outstanding.
The build up to the goal was pure football:
A back heel flick from Bale to Ramsey for him to carry it down the wing. Ramsey plays a through ball back to Bale, who sees Lawrence making a run into the box. Lawrence drags 3 defenders with him and gives the ball back to Bale, who notices Roberts on the edge of the box in space and makes a first time pass to his feet. Roberts flicks it up and smashes it beyond Randolph’s near post from 19 yards. Sheer excellence.
Chris Mepham took the place of James Chester in the left centre back position, to partner Ashley Williams in the heart of defence. At 20 years old, he has become one of the standout names in the Championship, after playing under 30 league games for Brentford over a couple of seasons. Bournemouth submitted an 8-figure fee for him in the summer, which was rejected by his current club. On last night’s showing, it is easy to see why he is valued so highly.
He looked completely at ease with the ball at his feet and never looked like making an error in the 90 minutes he played yesterday. He had a strong test against an experienced target-man in Jonathan Walters and passed it with flying colours.
Giggs has employed a new tactic of playing out from the back and there’s a need for all of the defenders and the goalkeeper to be comfortable on the ball. Mepham is absolutely perfect for the central role and there’s no doubt he will be a regular for Wales in years to come.
David Brooks is a name that became more famous in the summer, after his £10 million transfer to Bournemouth. He was a breath of fresh air last night, and I particularly thought his awareness was outstanding. There was never a time where he was caught out on the ball, he always played the right pass and can take on a player and beat him with confidence.
If there was one criticism of his game, it’s scoring goals, but that will come with time. There was a golden chance where Tyler Roberts chipped a beautiful ball over the defender to play in Brooks to be one-on-one with Darren Randolph in the box. With a bit more composure he would have slotted that away to make it 5-1, but he took too much time and was unable to get the shot in quick enough.
The aforementioned Tyler Roberts was a surprise name to be added to the squad and probably got his place due to the international retirement of Hal Robson-Kanu. He was excellent in the 20 or so minutes that he played. He almost got a debut goal in an alluring piece of play with Aaron Ramsey, but a good save from Randolph denied the dream start.
His hold-up play was excellent and he has a lot more pace than the strikers that have been available in recent years. Roberts has been a regular for Wales U21’s recently, but I’d imagine his place in the senior squad will be more of a regularity from now on.
Matthew Smith, a Man City youth product (currently on loan at FC Twente), settled into the game really well, having replaced Ethan Ampadu to be the midfield partner of Joe Allen. Smith was another surprise in the squad and he didn’t disappoint Giggs’ selection.
His passing ability stood out greatly, as did his tackling in the middle of the park, often winning back the ball for Wales to play on the counter attack. He did not look out of place in this team, even though he is playing second tier football in the Netherlands at the moment. Keep an eye out for my Wales Watch articles in future to be updated with his progress.
Older, experienced heads were switched on
Gareth Bale needs no introduction to the world, but the Irish defenders seemingly forgot not to show him onto his left foot. If you do, he will at the very least make the keeper work.
This goal came from an incredible 70 yard pass from Ben Davies at left-back, who was also exceptional on the night. Bale chested it down with ease, something many players would have struggled to control at all. The Real Madrid winger worked himself a yard of space and belted the ball into the top corner.
It has taken a while, but in the past 12 months, Tom Lawrence has been brilliant for club and country. From the moment he scored that breathtaking, vital goal against Georgia in October 2017, he seems to carry a new confidence.
Yesterday, he was as good as I’ve seen him in a Wales shirt. He scored the first goal, took on defenders and created important space unselfishly. He has been a key player for Frank Lampard for Derby and will continue to do so. Consistency is something he probably lacked in previous seasons, but he seems to have turned a corner in that regard and long may it continue.
Though Joe Allen has not had the best time at Stoke this year, last night he was as good as he always is in a red shirt. His pass for the Lawrence goal was played with pinpoint accuracy and was weighted perfectly.
It’s small things that Allen does, which go unnoticed that make all the difference to a team. Winning the ball in key areas to restart an attack, his interceptions, switching play to ease pressure. His place in the side is as important as Bale or Ramsey for me and with Ampadu alongside him, they were a dream central midfield duo.
I briefly mentioned Aaron Ramsey when speaking about Ampadu above, but it’s only right that I highlight his brilliant skill. Other than his blunder for the conceded consolation goal, he was as good as ever. His touches and flicks were sensational and confused defenders time and time again. He scored his 14th goal for Wales last night, and is now just one behind equalling the tally of the legend, John Charles.
This flick over Shane Duffy was highly impressive:
Ben Davies showed why he is going to start every game for Wales for the next 10 years. Highly underrated in the Premier League because he doesn’t score many goals from left-back, but what he does bring is stability and quality on the ball.
We are very lucky to have the versatility Davies brings to the squad and now he has decent backup in Paul Dummett, who made his competitive debut last night after a long-awaited return. Aston Villa left-back, Neil Taylor now looks to be far from contention but that only shows the number of options now available.
What does the future hold?
I’ve ran out of superlatives in this article to describe this new-look Welsh team. Incredibly I haven’t mentioned the other names that have been exciting for Wales in recent games. Ben Woodburn, Harry Wilson and Declan John. Players like Tom Lockyer, Lee Evans and Joe Rodon who will no doubt be important in upcoming campaigns. This is the most strength in depth I’ve ever seen a Wales side have in my lifetime.
You can put together a pretty decent starting 11 out of some promising Welsh players under 23 (apart from Danny Ward, who is 25).
Put this lot together with Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies, Joe Allen and co. and we have an exciting future to look forward to.
Player ratings v Ireland:
Hennessey (7), C Roberts (8), Williams (7), Mepham (8), Davies (8), Allen (8), Ampadu (10), Ramsey (7), Brooks (7), Lawrence (8), Bale (8).
Subs: Smith (7), Roberts (7), Dummett (didn’t have enough time on the pitch).
• James Chester: “I think this is a time that’s only going to be exciting”
• Rep. of Ireland pre-match press conference with Ryan Giggs & Ashley Williams
• Ben Davies on the Nations League matches & Dummett’s welcome back
• David Brooks: “I won’t be putting on an England shirt again”
• The UEFA Nations League explained