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England vs. Wales preview: Wales can expose frailties

gareth-bale

One of the hallmarks of Wales’ emergence as a force on the international stage has been the unburdened style of football they’ve been playing.

Under the guidance of manager Chris Coleman, their currency has been pragmatism, organization and sprinkling of brilliance from the magnificent Gareth Bale. Yet there’s an evident enjoyment about the way in which the team operates, with plenty tied to the team happy to buckle in and enjoy this absorbing ride.

That was clear in their opening game of the European Championships against Slovakia. Bale again produced a decisive moment and even when their opponents roared back into the game, Welsh belief didn’t waiver. You could belief coarse through the players, fans and staff as they celebrated Hal Robson-Kanu’s bundled winner in Bordeaux.

The momentum propelling this team forward will be a concern to England manager Roy Hodgson. On the cusp of their crucial all-British clash on Thursday, the last thing he will want is to be playing a local rival that’s assured, has full belief in its methods and is tailor made for springing on the counter-attack.

SEE MORE: England vs. Wales: Team news, possible lineups and predictions from Euro 2016

After they tossed two points away in Marseille late on to an injury-ravaged Russia side, the onus is on the Three Lions to come out and grasp the victory here.

While another game without a win wouldn’t be a total disaster for Hodgson in terms of the team’s hopes of qualifying for the last 16, it would raise major concerns about the prospects of this group of players. England have been handed one of the most favorable pools of all the top seeds after all; not topping it would be a big blow to their confidence.

Although Bale brashly claimed that no England player would get into the Welsh squad ahead of the game, the Three Lions are the big favorites to grab a win in this home nations showdown. But there’s plenty to suggest that Coleman can guide his team to what’d arguably be the most significant result in the nation’s football history.

The scenario could play perfectly into Wales’ hands from a tactical perspective. There will be massive expectation for England to win this one and as they did against Russia, that’ll surely prompt Hodgson into urging his players to press high up the pitch.

That’ll inevitably make space for Bale. The Three Lions would have definitely been detailed to keep a close eye on the Real Madrid forward and will seek to stem the service into him. But in pursuit of the three points, there will be times in the game when the Welsh talisman finds time in possession and gaps to surge into.

The pitfalls of focusing on one man where shown by Slovakia’s approach too, with Aaron Ramsey and the rumbustious Robson-Kanu linking up brilliantly for the winner.

It’s a tactic this Wales team has used for a long time now. Rarely do they deviate from this blueprint and as such, they are instinctive and mechanical in the way they play. That’s supplement by a robust defensive structure, with the team familiar playing a back five, marshaled superbly by skipper Ashley Williams.

By contrast, it’s tough to say exactly how England will set up. The opening game saw Hodgson use Wayne Rooney in a deeper midfield position in partnership with Eric Dier for the first time in England colors; in their final game before the tournament the manager instructed Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane to funnel into wide positions. Again, it was a first from Hodgson.

Versatility is obviously vital to any team having success, especially in a convoluted tournament setup. But England’s approach, formation and personnel seems to alter every time they take to the field, something that’s prevented them from cultivating cohesion and kindling partnerships. The Welsh side has an ethos forged over many years; the Three Lions’ own mantras are blurred.

SEE MORE: How to watch England vs. Wales with a free trial to Sling TV

Given the progress Wales have made in fashioning this defined template, there’s absolute conviction in the way in which the team is going about their business. In the wake of a heartbreaking late equalizer against the Russians in Marseille, the same unbending belief may not be as prevalent in the England camp.

And with Bale stirring the pot a couple of times ahead of this one, a tetchy England have taken the bait. Hodgson said it was “disrespectful” of the Wales forward to say his side “big themselves up before they’ve done anything.” “We know that Wales don’t like us,” said Jack Wilshere, whose response was “not really” when asked if he was fond of their British rivals.

For many of these players it’ll be the biggest day in their careers, and overcoming the nerves that accompany competing on this stage in such a high-profile game will be a test. Adhering to a strict tactical plan is always tough when emotions run high, as they inevitably will do at some point in Lens.

Still, should they continue to play their soccer with the same enjoyment and application that’s been on show under Coleman, Wales have the quality to conquer an England team under close examination. It’d be the zenith of their recent ascent in the football hierarchy if they could pull it off.

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