Wales 1 – 3 Russia
World Cup Qualifier 2010, Group #4
Millennium Stadium, Wednesday, 9 September 2009, 7.45pm
The build up to Wales’s most recent and irrelevant World Cup qualifying group game was punctuated by the rather petulant and juvenile civil war of criticism levied by legend Welsh players towards the ineptitude of the current national team. The bitter and embarrassing barbs were derided and counter derided in a blemish that a sensitive Welsh football team can hardy tolerate.
Further torture arrived with the callused news that Jason Koumas had announced his retirement from international football. And While Koumas has a chequered and unspectacular history he is the closest thing that Wales have to flair or talent.
The appointment of John Toshack back in 2004 was met with a series of mixed emotions. After the crescendo of Mark Hughes’s Euro Championship campaign the nation was divided, buoyant and worried about the prognosis of the Welsh national football team. And while Wales had not qualified for Portugal there was at least hope and tangible advancement. Toshack was not a widely popular choice, mostly because of his soiled flirtation with the national squad and even though ten years previous that one game abandonment still stains a few memories. Anyway, regardless of his reputation the proud nation once again rallied around the new manager.
Since then and up to now the predicament for Toshack has been blighted and self-induced, often in equal measure. The catalogue of player retirees is vast. A cavity in quality and in quantity that Wales just could not afford to lose. Never have Wales been blessed with options and to have that kitty diluted unnecessarily is nothing short of negligent. Age and injury are unavoidable reasons to retire but Toshack has forced plenty of players to terminate their association with international football. Many valuable players have expressed the desire not to play for the manager rather than not to play for their country. And while I don’t condone player power undermining a national team’s qualifying campaign, I have to say that a manager of a country like Wales must plicate and acquiesce or sometime pander to the requirements of a delicate squad. To resist against the talent just makes the task even more difficult, and to be the catalyst for the player departures is foolish.
The lack of first team variety or available alternative has seen a massive migration from the youth ranks and from a very special u21 structure. The defect or legacy of Toshck’s managerial atmosphere has broadened the Welsh squad providing a greater depth across the player pool. But the infant age and the lack of Premiership experience leaves a sometimes hollow team sheet playing around an isolated forward accountable for guiding the team and winning the game. An unachievable task.
During this pre game press conference Toshack was quick and accurate to reference that Wales had been dealt a vixen in terms of a qualifying group. Both Germany and Russia are resident in the top ten of Fifa’s dubious rankings. Four and six, if you care. And to have two such European heavyweights in one group is indeed harsh. However, what Toshack does not point out so quickly or so accurately is that Wales continue to dwell in a subordinate seeding pot because Wales continue to bodge qualifying campaigns thus never raising the coefficient enough not to have two or more better teams above. Fourth again this time. Three better teams again next time.
Toshack never commands the press conference with the sharpest of cerebral wisdom and it seems that his stubborn and ultimately fruitless approach to management is again coming up dry. There were many who weren’t that fanatical about his appointment at the start and those dissenters are canvassing more support for this perspective after each disappointment. Toshack doesn’t have a strong managerial honours list despite a reputation that I can’t quite understand, and it seems that his ineptitude continues to be unravelled on the field.
For a very long time now the Wales team under Toshack has constantly deployed a five man defensive unit. The three belligerent central defenders flanked by two fullbacks that years ago used to be called wingbacks. I have massive issue with this primitive system that Wales continue to play irrespective of the personnel available. Three central defenders is one too many, and instead of churning out more work or more protection the chores just get shared around by diminished responsibility. Gabbidon and Collins are not world class defender but they are decent enough. Adding in supplementary players just doesn’t give any more value to the centre of defence and even takes accountability away from two good players. Gabbidon and Collins should be the two first choice central defenders and other central defenders should remain replacements and options.
The other unfathomable connotation of the wingback mystery is that the width of the team is then provided by the fullbacks. On a couple of occasions the two Welsh fullbacks had made good penetration down the flanks exploiting the good theory of the system. The demise then came as the deliveries into the box were devoid of quality. Wales had poor Championship quality fullbacks on display and yet despite their technical inferiority they held the key to any potential Welsh success. The wide ball was never delivered with the quality required because the players delivering the ball were not of the quality required. Bale or Ledley would have made a better left wingback in this system; sadly neither were playing left wingback. The system and the playing staff just didn’t fit. An excellent piece of strategy or subterfuge was to swap Ricketts and Gunter, this merely shifted incompetence to another part of the field previously occupied by incompetence. And lead to more Russian goals against.
The midfield four seemed to lack any kind of direction. All four were honest in their endeavours but the shape of the midfield was incoherent. That left Bellamy a little secluded, and despite his marathon of energy Bellamy was betrayed by the tactics. Bellamy’s forward isolation smarts of a pending retirement; Manchester City must seem more of a valid prospect for him now, surely.
The individual performances were not at all bad, whereas the collective outcome continues to be intolerable. The Welsh industry to keep funnelling back behind the ball was impeccable. Each and every Welsh player had great aspiration to assist with the team cause. The missing detail was that the priority for the Welsh players was to get back and adhere to the team shape but in doing so they neglected to prioritise the ball. On numerous occasions the Welsh team were in synchronised formation and yet the first defender pressure on the ball was absent. It’s a forgotten sentiment in contemporary football that team defending is oddly eclipsing the ubiquitous necessity to pressure the ball. A maverick Arshavin picked passes through the entire infantry of a Welsh defence, and under no duress he could have done so blindfold.
On the rare occasion where the assembled masses of the Welsh defence did turn over possession it was inevitable that a counterattack could not be staged due to such a deep lying concentration of almost every player. Without the counterattack option available ahead of the play the flawed choice was just a generic long ball through the channels arbitrarily guided towards the pace of Bellamy. This did not work. A poor quality set piece corner was the only moment of success and even that was more than fortunate.
As mentioned I don’t think that the individual players performed that poorly, there was much to be pleased with. Brian Stock looked very comfortable on debut, it’s nice to see Gabbidon and Collins playing, Ramsey got some more field time, Hennessey…etc. The Wales team just lack that guidance and they lack that direction. The tactics were abhorrent this evening, as they regularly are, and the net result reads the same as last time and the time before and the time before that.
Wales will again almost certainly be stranded in a mid table mediocrity after this result and yet again some disillusioned Premiership star will surely choose to prolong his Premiership contract ahead of his national compulsion. Wales don’t have the privilege to be radical with its decisions but things just aren’t right. And I know what my preference would be for change.
From The Writings Of Jonny Carter