Wales kicked off their Euro 2016 campaign with a win against Slovakia and went to the top of the table as England dropped two valuable points against Russia in the second game of Group B. Gareth Bale scored with a free kick early on in the match. Slovakia equalised through Ondrej Duda. But the parity achieved was ephemeral as Hal Robson-Kanu scored to put Wales in the driver’s seat once again.
Wales, featuring in a major football competition for the first time since 1958, stuck to its manager Chris Coleman’s favoured 5-4-1 formation. Gareth bale started as the striker and was supported by Aaron Ramsey and Jonathan Williams on either side. Joe Allen and David Edwards formed the central midfield pair for Wales. The backline consisted of wingbacks Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter with Ashely Williams, Ben Davies and James Chester in the middle. Danny Ward started in the goal in the absence of Wayne Hennessey.
For Slovakia, manager Jan Kozak preferred a 4-3-3 formation with Matus Kozakic between the sticks. Peter Pekarik, Martin Skrtel, Jan Durica and Dusan Svento formed the defensive four. At the base of the midfield triangle was Patrik Hrosovsky who was supported by Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka. Robert Mak and Vladimir Weiss were the wingers and Michal Duris was the striker.
The 5-4-1 of Wales
Coleman sought to bring the best out of his team using the 5-4-1 formation. With Bale up front, the main aim was to feed him with good deliveries – a mixture of both passes through the middle and crosses from the wings.
The 5-4-1 provided Wales with a lot of advantages during the game mainly because of the occupation of the half-spaces by Williams and Ramsey. The importance of this positioning of the two Welshmen needs to be explored in detail and you can find more below.
Half-space orientation of Ramsey and Williams and Wales attack.
The midfield line of Wales in the 5-4-1 formation was not flat and spread out. Instead, it was boat shaped because of the positioning of Williams and Ramsey in the half-spaces.
This positioning helped both the players while attacking since they were able to pass the ball out to all the parts of the field from their respective positions – out to the wings for the wingbacks to cross, in towards the centre for Bale or other advancing Wales players to have a go at the goal or create a goal scoring chance.
Not just Ramsey and Williams but right centre back, Chester and left centre back, Davies were also in the half-space. Although they were deep inside Wales half, their positioning helped in circulating the ball well during the build-ups.
For different scenarios, the positioning in the half-space provided different passes – a back pass to Williams when pressed by Slovakia, a square pass to Chester to shift the play from left to right, a diagonal long ball to Gunter to exploit the space on the far side, short pass build-ups with Allen and Taylor and vertical passes through the half-space to Williams to mount a direct attack on Slovakian defence. There were a few vertical passes played by the CBs through the half-space during build-ups in order to evade the pressing of Slovakian players and bypass them.
Wales players exploited the space on their far side by making diagonal passes to their wingbacks. The wingbacks of Wales were occupying positions high up in Slovakian half. Since Wales were drawing nearly all of the Slovakian players to the side of action, Gunter and Taylor were usually finding acres of space in front of them.
The main reasons why Wales were able to create overloads on one side were – one, Slovakia was narrow while defending. Two, Wales had a player in half-space who was drawing a couple of extra Slovakian players while in possession of the ball.
The wingbacks of Wales were reverting back to their original positions and changing to back five when Slovakia was in possession. The wingbacks of Wales were moving out of their zones to press Slovakian players. But they never followed the opposition wingers Mak and Weiss inwards towards the centre since they were wary of the Slovakian wingbacks who were in favourable positions to overlap and double up on the Wales wingbacks.
Wales players were pressing high during Slovakian build-ups but were happy in settling back in their 5-4-1 shape to deal with the threat when Slovakia was approaching closer towards final third. Wales were happy to lure Slovakia into traps and press. In the early stages of the game, Slovakia found it hard to maintain possession in the middle mainly because of the involvement of Welsh midfielders in blocking the passing lanes. The midfield line of Wales was narrow in comparison to the defensive line mainly to deny their opponents the access to the central regions.
The positioning of Ramsey and Williams helped Wales in pressing high up the pitch and at the same time not opening up any space in the midfield. Many teams press the entire defensive line of the opponents and use their wingers to provide width resulting in the creation of gaps in the central zones for the opposition players to pass into. But Wales used Williams and Ramsey in the half-space and along with Bale put pressure on the central areas and cut the link between Slovakian defenders and their central midfielders. Slovakia was forced to go around Wales’ midfield in order to mount their attacks.
Since from the half-space, both the wings and centre are equidistant, it is easy for the players who are pressing to move to either the wings or the centre. Also, it becomes quite easy for the whole chain of players to move from one side to another. The four-man midfield chain of Wales was benefited from this.
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Slovakia rarely pressed high and from the beginning, they were happy in moving back to the original positions to regain their shape and wait for Wales to move into the middle third. Their shape while defending was 4-5-1. The wingers Mak and Weiss followed the wingbacks of Wales till the final third and were passing on the marking duties to the wingbacks. The Slovakian wingbacks never rushed out stop Gunter or Taylor in the middle third. Slovakia generally maintained a narrow shape in the final third.
The way Wales defended gave Slovakia very little to gain from during their build-ups. Skrtel and Durica had their passing lanes through the centre blocked by Wales forwards. So, for the first thirty odd minutes, when Slovakian attacks were being thwarted in the middle, Wales controlled the game.
However, as Hamsik, Kucka and Hrosovsky started to move more towards the outside, the centre backs started to find some options to pass to. This was supported by the Mak and Weiss, who started to move towards the centre. With this, Slovakia was temporarily forming a crude rhombus but failed to utilise it properly.
Wales had a plan and executed it very well. They showed how well a 5-4-1 with half-space oriented players in the midfield line instead of wingers can be used to frustrate opposition teams from having easy build-ups and equally well while attacking. The way Slovakia struggled to adjust themselves for Wales’ shape took time and is a testimonial to how tactically prepared Wales team was.