Ben Davies and the Welsh dragons go through as forcing their opponent to play narrower opens up the wide areas, with it finishing Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.
A cagey encounter with both teams not wanting to make a mistake saw the match edged by a single goal. Wales got it as their substitutions helped swing the game. Their changes forced their opponent to play much narrower. The wide areas that they had previously had trouble attacking were suddenly opened up to provide the key moment and it finished Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s difficult shape
Northern Ireland set up extremely well and were difficult to break down. Like Wales, they use a back three, and the two formations offset each other. The result was a very stifled and cagey match where each team was playing not to make a mistake.
Northern Ireland’s set up functioned slightly differently to Wales. They were looking to press the Welsh centre backs when they had the ball. They were trying to force it out to Ben Davies and James Chester on the outside of the trio and then close them down. On top of this, the midfield three would pinch in to stop Joe Allen and Joe Ledley playing through the centre.
All of this lead to Wales then having to look for longer diagonal balls over the central and pressing congestion. Wales’ overall goal was to get the ball wide to their wingbacks. However, hindering this were their opposing wingback counterparts. They were closely marking Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor, cutting out passes to them.
But it didn’t stop there. Northern Ireland also had plans to take Gareth Bale out of the game. Jonny Evans and Stuart Dallas were closely tracking Wales’ star man. Often a third player from midfield to simply outnumber him would join the pair. A frustrated Bale then often came deep for the ball, where he struggled to affect the match.
Wales struggle to get the ball wide
Wales continued with their tactic to get the ball wide to their wingbacks. This has been their strategy all tournament, but Northern Ireland were well setup to counteract it.
With Sam Vokes as their target, Wales did get some joy though. A long ball forward from Ashley Williams saw Neil Taylor whip in a cross for the big man. Vokes’ header down was travelling goalwards and was turned in by Aaron Ramsey. The midfielder was offside though and the goal was wiped off.
In the second half, Ramsey turned provider. His cross from a deep position, almost midway inside the Northern Ireland half, found Vokes’ head once more. This time he nodded wide with the whole goal to aim at, the clearest cut chance of the match.
Wales would win the game the game from wide, but only after these areas opened up from two changes.
Wales’ substitutions change the game
Chris Coleman has made a number of game-changing substitutions that have helped his side either win matches or alter their flow. Here his switches did both.
His first was to remove Sam Vokes and bring on Hal Robson-Kanu. The change took off the big-man whose aerial presence Wales were looking to use with their crossing. It replaced him with a player wanting to run in-behind and stretch the defence. It didn’t have much effect, until Robson-Kanu looked to get in-behind on the game’s only goal.
The other change was to introduce Jonathan Williams. This had a much bigger influence on the game for two reasons.
Firstly, it brought Aaron Ramsey slightly deeper in the formation. This meant that Wales had much better passers in all levels of their team now. The ball progression through the formation was much more assured as Ramsey could influence and pull the strings.
Secondly, and more importantly, Williams was buzzing about between the lines and brought much needed energy and dribbling. His ability to ghost past opponents in the middle of the pitch opened Northern Ireland up and sucked help defenders in so that they became narrower. More help defenders had to come to stop him. Combined with fatigue, this meant that the wide areas that Wales had craved suddenly became more open.
Wales win from wide
The flanks were now beginning to open as a result of the Welsh changes. Northern Ireland were becoming narrower and this was when the trouble started. They got a warning, which they didn’t heed. Twenty seconds later, and on an identical move, the match was won.
Assuring much better progression of the ball from his deeper position saw Aaron Ramsey heavily involved. Gareth Bale was now also escaping the attention that he had previously been receiving.
Ramsey found Bale with the freedom of the flank with Northern Ireland caught narrow.
Bale’s dangerous curling ball in to the centre was partially cleared. Jonathan Williams was buzzing around and gathered up the loose ball. He set off on a dribble, which sucked defenders in, before laying off to Ramsey, triggering a restart of the same move.
Bale had been left free once again, but this time with Northern Ireland even narrower, he was closer to his target.
Bale delivered a wicked ball through the six-yard box that was aimed for Hal Robson-Kanu trying to get behind the defence. Gareth McAuley was the only player between him and the goal. On the stretch, McAuley had very little chance of clearing it. He couldn’t and diverting it in to his own net broke the deadlock, Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland tried to respond with changes of their own. Sacrificing one of their three centre backs, Gareth McAuley was withdrawn for more attacking power. It had little effect, as much of the flow of the game was sucked out of it by fouls and stoppages for injuries. Involved in the most serious was Ashley Williams. The captain ended the game with his left arm hanging by his side in a heroic performance, but he is now a doubt for their Euro 2016 quarter-final clash.
Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland overall
Northern Ireland were the better tactical side to start with, but Chris Coleman addressed this with his changes. Jonathan Williams’ introduction changed the flow of the match, forcing Northern Ireland to become narrower. This allowed Wales’ star players in Ramsey and Bale to become greater factors and use their quality to win the game from wide.
Euro 2016 Spurs: Ben Davies
Ben Davies had a decent game. He wasn’t able to progress up the pitch as much as he has done in previous matches due to Northern Ireland’s shape. He did cope well with their pressing and moving the ball out of tight situations. Like Wales’ other centre backs, he struggled with hitting longer passes on the diagonal or up the field to get the ball to their wingbacks.
Final score: Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.