Chris Coleman is rocketing in my estimation with every Wales match. He’s got a proper team spirit going, illustrated by another brave, disciplined performance in Euro 2016 qualifying group B in Belgium last weekend. We don’t crumble at the first sign of pressure any more! Coleman has done it by getting the vital no-pain-no-gain message over to the players through just the right mix of boot-chucking sergeant-major and touchy-feely sports psychologist, cleverly calibrated to the differing personalities of each individual. The usually undemonstrative and uninvolved Neil Taylor, for instance, gave his best performance yet in a Wales shirt – thanks to man-management masterclasses like this:
The other thing that Coleman is getting right is how best to use Gareth Bale. Part of the reason Belgium rarely troubled a Welsh defence in which Ashley Williams and James Chester were outstanding is that they never threw the kitchen sink at us, and that’s because any side facing Bale is rightly reluctant to attack all-out knowing what he’s capable of with just a sniff of the ball. By playing Bale as a free-ranging lone front man, Coleman thus automatically tied up four Belgian defenders for the whole match, their full-backs hardly daring to leave their own half. Old maxims like ‘attack is the best form of defence’ and ‘defend from the front’ have rarely seemed truer. Note that I’m not taking credit for this tactical coup even though it was exactly what I suggested in a blog last month. That would be presumptuous. And therefore out of character…
Anyhow, it was probably obvious. When you’ve got no striker, why not just get rid of the position altogether and reconfigure? This unlikely happenstance of possessing the best player in the world but no centre-forward is by accident putting Wales in the vanguard of a great seismic change in football tactics that has been gaining traction in recent years: the end of the specialist playing in a fixed position. In the future all footballers will be like a Bale clone – super-athletic, completely adaptable technicians able to play in all outfield positions within a single game. Though I doubt whether his penchant for an alice band, sorry bandana, will have many imitators.
Talking of hair, how come Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini wasn’t sent off for his vicious assault on Joe Allen in the second half? He smashed him in the face with his elbow then followed through with his arm and shoved him to the ground, yet didn’t even get booked by Czech ref Kralovec. The only consolation for bloodied but unbowed Allen, who worked his socks off in midfield, is that at least Fellaini didn’t lead with his bubble-perm – that would have been really dangerous.
Next up are table-toppers Israel in Haifa in March. They’ve won three out of three so far in Group B but have not beaten Wales in four previous attempts. It’s a mouth-watering prospect: the Chosen People have never qualified for the European Championship finals – and neither have Israel.