The View From The Valleys
TOJ: Wales produced a magnificent showing at EURO 2016 (after a sustained improvement), yet have fallen behind in the World Cup qualifying campaign, how would you assess their qualification campaign thus far?
SS: A disappointment, there’s no doubt about that. After the highs of the summer, as a nation we couldn’t wait to get started with the World Cup qualifying. After a 4-0 win against Moldova, all seemed well, but three draws in a row have knocked us back a peg. Austria and Serbia I think we can accept, but the Georgia draw was dreadful.
TOJ: With arguably their greatest ever tournament performance occurring at EURO 2016, have expectations increased in Wales?
SS: Yes and no. They have increased because of the summer but also due to the fact that this is arguably our best ever crop of players and we know how well they can perform. I don’t, though, think that expectations have risen beyond being realistic. Everyone in Wales knows how amazing the summer was but also how its probably a one-off. They played out of their skins in the summer and, whilst we expect qualification, no one is expecting them to work miracles again.
TOJ: Has the popularity of football made inroads into traditional rugby areas or is it still primarily the sport of the cities?
SS: Anyone who still says that Wales is a rugby country is wrong, I’m sorry. Sure, rugby is still a very popular sport but there’s no way rugby would’ve had the same reaction as the football did in the summer. If you see a bunch of kids on the streets, I’ll guarantee that you’ll spot plenty of football shirts and few rugby ones, no matter where in Wales you are.
TOJ: How is the relationship between the Welsh national team and the public?
SS: A good one. The motto is ‘Together Stronger’ and it couldn’t be more spot on. The public is very much behind the national side and you really do get the feeling that the lads feel a special bond with the fans. There’s plenty of footage of the players interacting with fans, applauding at the end of games and it gives you a real sense of unity. The Don’t Take Me Home documentary by Jonny Owen captured it perfectly and increases the sense of pride amongst the fans.
TOJ: How are the Welsh XI likely to line out from a tactical and strategy point of view?
SS: The famous 5-3-2 behind the Euros success was ditched against Serbia to little success and I fully expect Coleman to switch back to his tried and trusted tactical system against Ireland. It just works and suits the Welsh side down to a tee. They like to invite the opposition onto them before exploiting the space behind.
TOJ: Do you expect Sam Vokes or Hal Robson-Kanu to lead the attack, what difference could that decision make?
SS: Both are playing well, so it’s a tough call for Coleman to make. With some injuries in the Irish defence and the likes of John O’Shea likely to feature, I’d expect Hal Robson-Kanu to get the nod. His pace and runs in behind can cause real problems, as we saw against Arsenal recently, and I think Coleman will see that.
TOJ: How is this Irish team perceived in Wales?
SS: They’re a very good team, there’s no doubt about that. Everyone is wary of the dangers and Ireland top the group for a reason. With the injuries and a few key players missing, I think it’s very much perceived that Ireland are there for the taking. Interestingly, we did a prediction with Welsh fans for Y Ddraig (a Welsh football blog I run as well as In Bed With Maradona), and of 20 predictions, 17 said Wales to win, 1 said Ireland and the other 2 predicted draws.
TOJ: On this, where do you see Wales's strengths with respect to playing this Irish team?
SS: The pace on the counter attack is our undoubted strength. With John O’Shea and Richard Keogh set to be the Irish centre-back pairing, I think Robson-Kanu & Bale’s pace could cause them some real problems. If we can suck Ireland deep into our half, leaving lots of space in behind, then we can capitalise with the pace of the aforementioned two.
TOJ: Does this Welsh team have weaknesses? And if so what do you think they are?
SS: I think we lack the concentration to see games out sometimes. We saw it in the Euros against England where we conceded late and also in our last qualifier against Serbia when Mitrovic’s late equaliser stunned us all. It’s not a huge problem always, but it does catch us out.
TOJ: Wales seem to excel when teams attack them, allowing space for Bale, Ramsey et al to counter attack into, do they have an issue with having to break down packed defences?
SS: It’s a big problem and it’s largely the reason why we’ve struggled so far this year. Coleman’s switch to 4-4-2 was down to the inability to break down packed defences, but that seemed to struggle too. I think that it depends on the players we play, really, rather than the formation we play.
I’d keep the 5-3-2, but push the wing-backs further forward. I’d also stick Ben Woodburn (or Vokes if we think it’s too soon) up front instead of Robson-Kanu so that there’s more of a presence in the box. The problem with playing Bale and Robson-Kanu is that they both drift, meaning that when we try to break down packed defences there’s no presence in the box.
I’d also sacrifice Joe Ledley in favour of a forward thinking midfielder. With three at the back, we’ve got no need for a defensive midfielder too, I don’t think. Bringing in Andy King or Dave Edwards would make a real difference to breaking down a deep defence as they’ll look to push a team back and make runs into the box, something Joe Ledley does not bring.
TOJ: How are Welsh spirits going into this game? Are the team anxious to catch up the lost points or are they patient enough to play the long game?
SS: Excitement, more than anything. Welsh international football has become something to be excited about rather than dread, as some fans of other nations do. We look forward to international matches and this one is no different.
Everyone is keen to catch up on lost points but we have full confidence in Chris Coleman and the boys and are still enjoying the journey.
TOJ: Finally, how do you see the game ending up?
SS: Ireland 1–2 Wales
We are just about finding our feet in the qualifying group stages and I think we’ll have enough about us to edge past Martin O’Neill’s side. Ireland have a makeshift back four and I think that Gareth Bale & co will have too much for them to contain.
TOJ: Well Scott, we hope you're wrong on this one but enjoy the match!
Follow him on Twitter @scottsltr