This tactical analysis will focus on a special night for Welsh football at the Cardiff City Stadium. Wales qualified UEFA Euro 2020, which will be just their third-ever major tournament with a 2-0 win over Hungary.
In truth, it was a far more comfortable night for Wales than many expected. Wales always appeared in control of the game despite Hungary largely dominating possession.
In this analysis we will consider how wales achieved this win, paying special consideration to how their tactics have evolved during the qualifiers under Ryan Giggs. We will also look and how and why Hungary’s strategy broke down, especially when they were in possession.
Both sides set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. For Wales Wayne Hennessey started in goal behind a back four of Ben Davies, Chris Mepham, Tom Lockyer and Connor Roberts. Wales operated with a double pivot in midfield of Joe Allen and Joe Morrell. In the attacking midfield roles, Dan James started on the left with Aaron Ramsey through the middle and Gareth Bale wide right. Upfront Kieffer Moore functioned as a lone target man.
Hungary started with RB Leipzig’s Peter Gulacsi in goal. From left to right their back four consisted of Zsolt Nagy, Adam Lang, Botond Barath and Gergo Lovrencsics. Shielding the back four were Bristol City’s Adam Nagy and Mate Patkai. Freiburg’s Roland Solai started as the left-sided attacking midfielder, with teenager Dominik Szoboslai at ‘10’ and Balazs Dzsudzsak on the right. Upfront was the tall target man Adam Szalai.
Contrasting setups despite the same shape
Despite both sides lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that were stark contrasts between their ‘in-play’ animations and setups both in and out of possession.
Out of possession Wales primarily operated with a medium block in a 4-1-4-1.
Above we can see Wales’ typical 4-1-4-1 in action. Ramsey and Allen are roughly in a line covering the two Hungary pivots. Morrell is deeper covering the central area occupied by Hungary’s ‘10’ Szoboslai. At ‘9’ Moore’s role was to front shield the central pass into midfield when Hungary had safe possession. It’s also worth noting that Davies (circled) has pushed high from left-back to deny Dzsudzsak space to receive a pass. Winning the ball quickly when it was played between into or through the Welsh midfield line was a key feature of Wales’ defensive plan (more on that later).
Occasionally Ramsey would break from his position in the block to press the Hungary centre-backs. When this happened Morrell, or later Ethan Ampadu, would step up alongside Allen with Wales forming a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.
We can see an example of this below. Hungary centre back Lang is attempting to carry the ball out from the back. Ramsey uses this as a cue to break from his deeper role to press the ball. Ampadu steps up with Allen leaving Wales in a 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) out of possession. His angle of approach here is also important, preventing the sideways pass into the Hungarian pivot. As he is supported by Bale, Allen, and Ampadu all covering the nearest passing options the Lang decides to play long.
It was also noticeable later in the game that Wales more regularly played in a 4-4-1-1 when out of possession as Ramsey was starting to tire.
Wales mainly focused on winning the ball back in wide areas. In such areas, the radius of passing options or space to move into is halved compared to central areas. When the ball was played wide Wales would get four or five players around the ball. With the man pressing getting tight and the remaining players covering the nearest passing options
We can see this happening above. As the ball is played wide Wales get six players around the ball. This congests the space and creates a 6v3 defensive overload. This allows them to have two players applying intense pressure on the ball, forcing a loose pace and creating a turnover in possession.
We can see how successful this was from the map below. It shows occasions when Hungary players lost possession. Note how many turnovers occurred in wide areas of the pitch. Especially when Hungary worked the ball close to or behind Wales’ midfield line.
In possession, Hungary’s on-field animations were very different from Wales’. Whereas Bale and James stayed wide for Wales largely hugging the touchline, all three of Hungary’s attacking midfielders largely played narrow and close together.
We can see this in action below. Hungary’s central striker, left-sided attacker and ‘10’ are all occupying central areas of the pitch and maintaining close horizontal distances. While their right-sided attacking midfielder (circled) has dropped deep to link play. This interchanging of positions was also a key feature of their play in possession and we’ll touch on it later.
The primary objective here was to get the ball into central areas and create overloads with four attacking players around the ball. Key to being able to do that was playing split passes through or over the Wales midfield block into central areas. When successful the closeness of the attacking line allowed for central overloads, quick link-up play and intelligent movements and counter-movements.
Take the clip above as an example. Hungary’s left-back Nagy has hit a clipped pass towards target man Szalai. Should he win the aerial battle we can see that Szoboszlai is moving into position for the knockdown. Alternatively, a flick on would release Sallai making a run of Szoboszlai in behind. Fortunately for Wales however on this occasion, they win the aerial battle.
And that was the issue for Hungary when playing over the block to Szalai. On a number of occasions, Hungary’s attacking midfield trio made intelligent runs off him into space, only for Szalai to lose the aerial duel. In all Szalai only won two of his eight aerial battles.
At other times one of Solai, Szoboslai and Balazs Dzsudzsak would find central pockets of space between the defensive and midfield lines for a split pass. Central to creating these opportunities was excellent player rotations and movement in midfield areas.
Above Wales have maintained excellent defensive organisation. Hungary are forced to play the ball in front of the Welsh block. Recognising this, Dzsudzsak drops deep from his advanced position to form a single pivot. As he activates this movement both Hungary double pivots step beyond the Wales midfield line. Although none of these players receive the ball, Dzsudzsak’s movement drawers the attention of Allen. Allen turns to watch him and becomes pre-occupied with his movement.
As Dzsudzsak moves forward again, Patkai drops back into his holding midfield role to receive the pass. The key to breaking the midfield line, however, is Dzsudzsak’s movement. Having become preoccupied with tracking him Allen is pulled slightly out of position (he should be closer to the red circle). This leaves just enough of a gap for a split pass into Szoboszlai, who is between the Wales defensive and midfield lines.
While their midfield rotation was impressive, Hungary let themselves down in the final third. This was also the case in the above clip. After driving with the ball to the edge of the 18-yard box, Kovacs overhits his through pass and the attacking momentum is lost.
Although Hungary had some success with this approach in general Wales maintained good defensive shape and forced the aerial pass over the press. Moreover, as the ball forwards was often much slower to arrive than Wales’ direct pass, they lost the opportunity to exploit any defensive disorganisation in transitions. Thus, when they did play long Wales had good numbers in position to challenge for the first and second balls. It also did not help that Wales dominated the aerial battle in the game, winning 79% of the aerial duels.
Furthermore, when Hungary were able to play the split pass, Wales quickly pressed in the midfield or between the midfield and defensive lines. They used the pass through the lines as a queue to press and always had players in and around the ball in these key areas who were able to apply quick pressure. Often the Hungary player receiving the pass was unable to cope with this pressure and conceded possession. Either let down by his first touch or wanting too much time on the ball.
We see this in action below. A pass into attacking midfielder Dzudzsak is taken as a queue to press, with Wales quickly committing two players to win the ball. Dzudzsak’s first touch ends up with the ball stuck between his feet and James (more advanced) nicks in to win the ball and launch a counter.
A final point of note was how Hungary created width. With the advanced midfielders narrow it was up to the full-backs to provide an outlet out wide. They often hugged the touchline in advanced areas. Left-back Nagy was particularly influential. 43% of Hungary’s came down his side and we can see from his heat map how he attempted to get forward and provide width.
When unable to exploit central areas Hungary also tried to play behind the Welsh defence into the channels. On such occasions, however, the pace of Welsh full-backs Davies and Roberts nullified this approach. Their success at defending this pass is reflected in that both finished with two interceptions and four clearances each.
Hungary out of possession and Wales in possession
Unlike Wales, Hungary maintained their 4-2-3-1 shape when out of possession. Their attacking midfield three of Solai, Szoboslai and Dzsudzsak formed a high defensive line behind Szalai. Below we see how the three Hungary attacking midfielders have formed a clear line ahead of the two pivots
Unfortunately for Hungary, the effectiveness of this approach was largely nullified by Wales’ direct passing strategy.
Since his appointment as boss Giggs has overseen a rethink of the ‘Welsh way’ across all levels of Welsh international football. This restructuring has focused on quick short passes, creating overloads across the pitch through movement and switches of play, thus allowing for ball progression through the lines.
On Tuesday, with the pressure of qualification on the line, Giggs adapted his approach. Gone was the short passing, patient, possession-based build-up play. This was a direct Wales side. Rather than building from defence into the double pivot and beyond, Wales went direct to the giant Moore. The plan was simple, get the ball into the final third and play from there.
To do this they regularly played long to Moore as early as possible, using his strength, aerial prowess and ability to hold up the ball to bring those around him into play. This immediately took the first two lines of Hungary’s defence out of play. With four players pushed high up the pitch it also created large areas of space in the midfield zone for Wales to exploit.
Above Hungary have committed their front four players to the press, temporarily forming a box press as the right-sided Dzudzsak presses high on Mepham. Hennessey, as was the case for much of the night, has no interest in playing short. Instead, he launches a ball up to Moore.
Hungary’s press has left a huge gap between midfield and defence for Ramsey to exploit as Moore wins the aerial ball. Although on this occasion the ref was perhaps too quick to blow for a Welsh free-kick preventing the attack from materialising.
This ploys success was reliant on Moore being able to link play and bring Wales’ steller three behind him into play. For his part Moore was magnificent. Despite being a relative novice at international level Moore was every bit the archetypal lone target man. He was strong, excellent in the air, linked play well and had just enough pace to not be caught when running in behind. Moore won an outstanding 12 of his 15 aerial duels as he bullied the Hungary centre backs and provided Wales’ main attacking outlet all evening. His relatively low pass success rate of 48% does not reflect the quality of his link-up play. He was often playing passes under immense pressure or off the back of bringing down difficult balls.
The role Bale and James played in the side was also very different from that of Hungary’s two widest attackers. Whereas the Hungarians played narrow, Bale and James hugged the touchline, stretching play and always leaving the option of a switch of play. When the ball was switched, James and Bale could use their pace and dribbling prowess to isolate and beat their fullback 1v1.
With Wales attacking down the left we can just about see Bale in frame on the opposite flank acting as a spare man stretching play.
As the ball is switched to him he is isolated 1v1 with his man. Bale can either cut inside to shoot, drive into the box or carry the ball to the byline to cross.
In the centre of the park, both Allen and Ramsey excelled. Allen was excellent defensively registering five tackles and seven interceptions. He also demonstrated his attacking importance, none more so than when he was the driving force behind the Welsh opening goal.
Allen picks the ball up in his own half on the half turn. He immediately drives forward into space. Breaking the second Hungary defensive line by dribbling past two players.
By attracting three Hungary players to the ball he creates a 2v1 overload out wide. He shows great awareness of when to release the ball, passing out wide to Roberts who quickly releases Bale down the line. Bales’ superb whipped cross is then headed home by Ramsey arriving at the near post.
This moves us neatly on to Ramsey, who again demonstrated his importance to this Welsh side. His outstanding display was capped by two goals, but equally impressive was his movement to pick up pockets of space in between the lines. He showed excellent awareness of when to hold central positions and when to drift wide to pick up the ball. His underlying numbers demonstrate his influence on the side, completing five dribbles, four shots and one key pass. He was constantly brave in possession, always looking for a forward pass when available.
Wales’ tactics more successful than Hungary’s
Wales’ success is reflected in a number of the stats from the game. Hungary dominated possession, finishing with 59% to Wales’ 41% and playing 490 passes to Wales’ 338. However, much of the game was played in Hungary’s half, with 38% of the play taking place in their defensive third and just 20% in the Welsh third.
Moreover, both sides made on average four passes per move. The difference being that Hungary made the majority of their passes in their own half before playing long, usually losing possession. Whereas Wales played forward quickly and built attacks from inside Hungary’s half.
In the pass location map above we can see a nice visualisation of this. Look at the density of Hungary’s (blue) passes in their own half. Then compare this to Wales’ map below, and how evenly distributed their passes are between the two boxes.
The end result was that Wales were able to get their front four on the ball far more regularly than Hungary were theirs. 35% of Wales’ total possession was split between their four most attacking players. In contrast, Hungary’s front four accounted for just 19% of the time their sides possession. (Stats include subs who came on in those positions).
Quality in final third the difference
Despite demonstrating excellent player rotations and ball retention in their own half, Hungary’s attacks would frequently break down in the final third. In contrast, Wales came to life in the attacking third. With the pace, skill and creativity of James, Ramsey and Bale superbly complemented by the strength and hold up play of Moore.
Wales width meant that they frequently attacked wide areas, unleashing James and Bale against their fullbacks. We saw this in action for the first goal as Bale gets to the byline before unleashing a perfect cross for Ramsey to head home.
James, Ramsey and Bale were a constant menace for the Hungary defence. Completing a combined ten successful dribbles, in contrast to just three successful dribbles by their Hungarian counterparts. While the same Welsh trio were dispossessed just once, with the Hungarian equivalent being tackled on five occasions.
Wales’ tactics demonstrated how their approach under Giggs has evolved during the qualifying campaign. In their final Nations League match, a 2-1 home defeat to Denmark, Wales attempted 499 passes with just 12% hit long. In this match, they attempted just 355 passes, 18% of which went wrong.
It appears that Giggs may well have found a strategy which can see Wales compete at Euro 2020. When they focused their attacks on short passing Wales struggled to get their three most talented players on the ball in dangerous areas. Bale, Ramsey and James were often forced to drop deep to receive the ball.
Wales’ desire to go direct early, coupled with Moore’s excellence in the lone striker role, was the key to them dominating the shot count 16-5. James, Ramsey and Bale were all regularly able to create from advanced positions. Moore may only have five Wales caps, but he now appears to be a central cog in this new-look style of play.
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