With Wales qualifying for their first ever European Championships and first major tournament since 1958, many people have received richly deserved plaudits. However, one individual for who this praise seems to be slightly reserved is manager Chris Coleman.
For the man who has masterminded the success, it’s quite astounding but the quiet and reserved boss probably doesn’t mind it this way.
Gareth Bale is one of the best players in World football, but getting the best out of him still relies on the way the team is set up, as Real Madrid have found out. Coleman has recognised that Bale is at his best in a central role, but can also be a threat down the flanks. As a result, he has provided Bale with a free role is this Welsh team, being able to roam and pick up the ball wherever he wants.
This may be seen as sensible and straightforward – giving your one World Class player the freedom to do what he wants in an attacking sense. However, Coleman has had the flexibility and confidence to do this, something that many managers would lack.
Where Coleman has really excelled though, is in the way he had built the team around Bale, both in terms of formation and personnel.
Firstly, giving Bale freedom has meant the need to have a focal point up front to give Welsh defenders an ‘out’ ball and to preoccupy opposition defenders so that they can’t just follow the Wales star man around.
The chosen one has been Hal Robson-Kanu, scorer of the winning goal against Slovakia last week. Robson-Kanu isn’t among the world’s top strikers, demonstrated by the fact he currently finds himself without a club after being released by Championship Reading. Additionally, his goalscoring record for club and country is relatively poor.
However, he is quick and strong with a high work ethic, perfect attributes to worry and occupy defenders. With the threat offered by Bale, Robson-Kanu is the perfect foil.
Another player with a prominent attacking role under Coleman is Arsenal man Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey has looked most comfortable when playing as a central midfielder in the Premier League, but the Welsh manager has recognised his creativity and moved him further up the pitch into the ‘No. 10’ role.
By putting Ramsey and Bale closer together, Wales’ best two players have been able to link up and create chances for each other. It might be a small change but it is one that gives Wales’ attack much more potency.
However, Wales are still far from prolific when it comes to goalscoring – 11 goals in 10 qualifying games demonstrates this – and this means a strong defence has been vital to their success; something that the country hasn’t always had in recent years.
To try and get the most out of his attackers; and the defensive players available, Coleman experimented with a 5-man defence at the start of qualifying. The move worked wonders as Wales kept 7 clean sheets in 10 games on their way to qualifying for France.
Playing with wing-backs perfectly suits Chris Gunter, a player who has spent most of his career in the Championship but become a stalwart for his country. It also means Wales can keep good width to their play while keeping the triple axis of Bale-Robson-Kanu-Ramsey on the pitch too. With Bale being La Liga’s top headed goalscorer in 2015-16, it would be one his great strengths that was missed if Wales were not able to put crosses into the box, as demonstrated by his thumping headers against Andorra and Cyprus during qualifying.
The back three of James Chester or James Collins, Ashley Williams and Ben Davies has also worked wonders for Coleman. Being left footed means Davies provides much more balance to the defence, but having been a left-back throughout his club career to date, the position comes slightly unnaturally to him. However, the 23 year old’s physical presence means he should be suited to a centre-back role. Through good coaching and time on the training ground, Davies looks more assured in each appearance, culminating in his standout performance against Slovakia, including an incredible goalline clearance from Marek Hamsik.
One of Coleman’s big decisions early in his tenure was to change captain from Aaron Ramsey to Ashley Williams. The change appears to have had the desired effect with Williams looking every inch a top class international player. Having been Swansea captain for a number of years and leading his side into the Premier League, Williams appears to have relished the extra responsibility and taken it upon himself to marshal Wales’ 5 man defence. Additionally, Ramsey has been revitalised without the extra burden of captaincy, meaning he can concentrate on attacking and creating chances for his teammates.
When Wales became the first ever home nation to win their opening European Championships fixture last Saturday, there was naturally a lot of furore. However, Coleman’s influence and decision making was once again under-appreciated. Robson-Kanu and Joe Ledley, two key figures in Wales’ qualifying campaign had both been injured and therefore were a risk to start.
In Ledley’s absence, many, myself included, called for Leicester’s Premier League winner Andy King to be included in the starting line-up. Instead, Coleman opted for Wolves man Dave Edwards. Selecting a Championship player over a Premier League winner naturally caused some raised eyebrows. However, it was another masterstroke from the manager, with the more defensively-minded Edwards helping to nullify Slovakia star man Marek Hamsik’s influence on the game.
Then, with Slovakia finally on the front foot in the second half, Coleman timed his substitutions to perfection, bringing on Ledley (for the tiring Edwards) and Robson-Kanu to change the game. The tide turned back Wales’ way and the game was won thanks to a pinpoint ball from Ledley, an assist from Ramsey – playing high up the pitch and able to influence the game more – and a finish from Robson-Kanu. It may have been hard for Coleman to think up a better winning goal.
Both goals showed the togetherness of the whole squad with mass celebrations following each time. It’s easy to underestimate a manager’s role in this and whilst Gareth Bale may not have the ego of most top footballing stars, getting a whole squad with one standout individual to gel is no mean feat. The manager has also given confidence and opportunity to those who may have thought they didn’t have a chance to take part in Euro 2016. Youngsters such as Jonny Williams have flourished despite struggling for their club sides whilst convincing James Chester to play for Wales was a masterstroke with the West Brom man bringing more Premier League experience and added strength in depth to the back line. Even the previously lesser spotted James Collins appears to be around at every international gathering.
For a team that were 117th in the World just 5 years ago, it’s been a remarkable rise. A difficult start under Coleman meant fans were critical from the start but the manager and his team have turned things around spectacularly.
Following the late Gary Speed into the Welsh dugout was always going to be an incredibly difficult task, but Coleman and his side should be extremely proud of the way they have gone about their business and the way they have played. The manager’s influence should also not be underestimated. There have been numerous subtle changes under the former Fulham man which have developed Wales into a very impressive team.
Featured image: All rights reserved by rhys coleman.