Taming The Dragon
How Will Wales Try To Play?
While Wales will line up with their usual 3-4-2-1 their team selection will be telling. They have, for the most part, a settled side, yet they have used both Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu up front at different times.
If Vokes is chosen, it will be to act as a figurehead for the attack, as he is better at holding up the ball, while Robson-Kanu, as a converted winger, will be trying to stretch Ireland's defence and force them to defend slightly deeper than John O'Shea's lack of pace will already require them to do.
With this in mind, it would be a great shock if they go with Vokes. Not being able to play a high defensive line will hugely limit Ireland's ability to press Wales.
Wales often seek to overload the central midfield area (using their wing backs and also Bale & Ramsey dropping back in to make more numbers), which creates more space out wide and also for Bale, who is at his most dangerous operating between the midfield and defence.
Ben Davies, as the left sided centre back, likes to bring the ball out of defence and into midfield, creating an extra body in midfield. However, he is naturally a full-back. Ireland need to get Jonny Walters playing on top of him as much as possible to focus his attention on his day job, so to speak
Playing On The Break
Wales's key strength is playing on the counter. They have struggled against more pragmatic teams, who would sit deep and force Wales to break them down, as Portugal showed in the Euro's. That’s not how Wales like to play. Chris Coleman has set his side up to absorb pressure themselves and hit teams on the break.
How do Ireland deal with Wales on the counter?
Firstly through good positioning, our holding midfielder/s cannot get caught ahead of the ball. This is where Bale thrives, with space ahead of him to gallop into and commit defenders. There are few better in world football at it.
Secondly, though many will sniff at this, we need to be smart and commit tactical fouls, to stop their counter attacks at source. Our attacking four can afford to play with yellow cards while our holding midfielders/centre halves probably cannot.
Dealing With Bale
Playing in a free role, he is so difficult to pin down. As well as when he has space to drive into, Bale is at his most dangerous when cutting in from the right within shooting distance of goal.
It is imperative that our left side central midfielder is waiting for him every time he cuts inside from the right into this space and to not allow him onto his left.
Stopping Bale at source means cutting out Joe Allen's space and time on the ball. Without forward movement and passing options his danger is considerably less.
Finally, discipline. Free kicks within shooting distance of the Irish goal need to avoided at all costs.
The wing-backs are key to Wales’s approach. They provide the width to the side when attacking, allowing quick switches of play that drag the opposition over and back and also drop deep to made a flat-back five when they have lost possession.
(Image courtesy of FourFourTwo and previously used by ZonalMarking.net)
This graphic taken from the Wales's 3-1 whooping of Belgium in the EURO 2016 quarter-final shows how much of an attacking influence the Welsh wing-backs were and the freedom they had to drive up the pitch.
In some of their qualifiers their wing-backs have taken to making diagonal runs up the inside channels, rather than always attacking around the outside.
It was spoken about after the victory against Italy in Lille that the difficulty of playing against back three's was something that had been addressed in the run up to the match.
That night Ireland pressed high on the Italians, pushing the front three of Long, Murphy and McClean right up on their three centre back to disrupt their attempts to play the ball out from the back.
Being able to do this depends on who is dictating the terms of engagement. If we are, their full-backs will worry about our wide attackers. If they are, they our wide attackers have to retreat really deep, which is a worry.
This exact scenario happened on that dreadful night in Glasgow in November 2014. Aiden McGeady spent the entirety of his return to Celtic Park chasing Scotland's left back Andy Robertson, while Ikechi Anya kept Coleman focused on defending to the extent that his attacking contribution was almost nil.
Whether the Welsh wing-backs end up tracking Walters and McClean or vice-versa will depend on the midfield battle and whether our central players (Hendricks in particular) can manage to pick out the space behind the Welsh wing-backs.
In the Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal, despite being favourites, the Portuguese decided to not press Wales at all and retreated into their own half. However, they also played a high defensive line, which limited the space between the lines. This allowed them maintain a resolute compactness, creating a solid midfield block which Wales struggled to play through.
This lead to Bale dropping into much deeper positions that he is used to, and more importantly, restricted him to areas that he could not create danger from.
We spoke earlier about the threats posed be the Welsh wingbacks, however, they also present opportunity.
With any back 3, space is always available behind the wing-backs and outside of the 3 centre backs. In Wales's 1-1 home draw with Georgia (which they were very fortunate to not lose), Georgia's equaliser came from this very ploy.
A quick early ball was played in behind Chris Gunter (right wing-back) to the wide Georgia player on the left, as the move progressed, neither wing-back recovered their positions (being both too far upfield and also too narrow), unsettling the three Welsh centre backs and Okriashvili ghosted in behind the Welsh back three with Neil Taylor floundering in his wake, and planted a beaut of a header.
(Welsh wing-backs highlighted in yellow, the 3 centre-backs highlighted in white)
As the game went on Wales kept pushing for the lead goal, leaving spaces behind that Georgia exploited very well but didn't manage to capitalise on with a goal that they absolutely deserved.
How Should Ireland Set-Up?
It is quite the double edged sword - if we sit off them, we protect ourselves from the counter attack but allow Wales build possession and dictate the play - are we strong enough to do this and are we threatening enough on the counter ourselves? We suffered heavily when adopting this approach against Belgium at the Euro's but executed it excellently in our famous victory over the Germans.
The alternate option is to (ala Italy game in Lille) go toe-to-toe with them, attempt to enforce our game on them, keep their wing-backs on the back foot, press their back three, squeeze the pitch and hope John O'Shea survives!
All of our big victories come from big moments. It's difficult to imagine Friday being any different.