Wales recorded a magnificent victory over Belgium at the Cardiff City Stadium to take top spot of their Euro qualifying group. Gareth Bale scored the only goal having capitalised on a Radja Nainggolan mistake in a game that marked Chris Coleman’s first back to back competitive wins as Wales manager.
Chris Coleman set up with a 3-5-2 formation, with Crystal Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey starting between the sticks. Chris Gunter and James Chester lined up either side of captain Ashley Williams in a back three. Neil Taylor began on the left wing-back and the inexperienced Jazz Richards was a surprise starter on the right. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Ledley started in the middle, whilst Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, winning his 50th international cap, playing in a more central role than normal alongside Hal Robson-Kanu.
The team ranked second best in the world and sitting joint top with Wales in the Group B qualifying table started with a 4-2-3-1 formation. There were four changes from the reverse fixture in Brussels eight months prior which finished in a 0-0 draw. Divock Origi, Anthony Vanden Borre, and Nacer Chadli all dropped to the bench, whilst Marouane Fellaini missed out to injury. Chelsea’s Thibault Courtois started in goal with a back four of Toby Alderweireld, Jason Denayer, Nicolas Lombaerts, and Jan Vertonghen. Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan set up in the middle, with the talented trio of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, and Kevin De Bruyne all playing in advanced midfield roles. Christian Benteke lined up in a lone centre-forward position.
Wales Sensational Defensive Display
The win in Cardiff will go down in history as one of Wales’ best defensive performances on home soil. Throughout the 90 minutes, the Welsh withstood pressure from a Belgian team made up of some of the best playmakers in the world.
Despite 65.4% possession throughout the game, Belgium had little to show for it. When the ball was lost, Wales were quick to get men behind the ball to minimise the space available to Hazard and De Bruyne. Wing-backs Richards and Taylor were a key example of this. They immediately dropped deep to make a defensive back five, whilst Joe Allen sat in a holding position to screen the backline. Gareth Bale tracked back to sit in a deeper position which all but nullified the Belgian passing lanes down the middle of the pitch.
With little space to operate, the tempo of the Belgian play was constantly slowed down. As a result, they were forced to look wide to get in behind the Welsh lines. In the image below, talisman Bale once again drops in to support his midfield.
Hard work to minimise available space
Up front, Christian Benteke struggled to find the ball at his feet in the first half, partly due to defensive masterclass by Ashley Williams in following his every move. The Welsh captain led by example all night, keeping those in front of him organised and winning every challenge.
Belgium’s manager, Marc Wilmots, recognised more support was needed. Romelu Lukaku was introduced at the interval to replace Dries Mertens. This substitution meant a change in formation to 4-4-2, with Premier League forwards Lukaku and Benteke expected to put more pressure on the Welsh backline along with support from De Bruyne and Hazard. Although Wales subsequently sat deeper, there was minimal difference. Much of the second 45 was a similar story to the first. Lukaku was exquisitely marshalled by either Gunter or Chester, making it difficult for him to find space and create goalscoring opportunities.
Welsh legs were visibly tired as a result of their hard work. In the last 10 minutes of the game, Bale was suffering with constant cramp. As stoppage time approached, Sam Vokes replaced him with the task of winning any flick-ons or holding the ball up to allow the home team to get up the pitch. It turned into a ‘clear your lines at all costs’ as the Welsh battled on. Belgium persevered with their laboured performance, and a string of array passes late on summed up a frustrating night.
Surviving the Belgian Delivery
As a result, play was constantly forced wide, with both Vertonghen and Alderweireld providing additional support down the flanks. This is where Belgium could find Wales vulnerable, with Richards and Taylor both doing poor jobs in preventing crosses throughout the game. However, clear cut chances were few and far between for the Red Devils. This was mainly down to their inability to get the delivery past the first defender. As highlighted in the image below, a Welsh centre-half would regularly be well-positioned to cut out the cross on the top of the six-yard box before it could get near a Belgian forward.
Disappointing Belgian Delivery
Just like the crosses from open play, Belgium’s corners were met with little conviction too. Despite the aerial threats of players such as Witsel, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Lukaku, and Benteke, all nine of the away teams corners failed to result in Wayne Hennessey even being tested. The rigid man-marking from Wales proved to be effective, irrespective of the fact that Joe Allen, the smallest player on the pitch, found himself marking 6 ft 2” Jan Vertonghen on a couple of occasions.
For Hennessey, it actually turned out to be a fairly quiet afternoon other than a couple of important catches and parrying a long-range shot from Radja Nainggolan. In fact, only one of Belgium’s eighteen shots at goal was on target. Nine of those attempts were blocked by Welsh defenders, a stat that was epitomised in the last minutes of the game by Jazz Richards, taking an Axel Witsel boot to the face after throwing his entire upper body in front of his attempted strike.
Attacking set pieces were another disappointment for the Belgians. With talented free-kick takers such as Hazard, De Bruyne, and Mertens on the pitch, the responsibility was given to Vertonghen. Whilst the defender is known for his powerful strikes, he has only ever scored three career goals from direct free kicks, all at club level. On two occasions, from dangerous positions around 25-30 yards out, he fired straight into a well organised, firm standing wall that caused Hennessey no problem.
The Welsh Attack- ‘Go Gareth, Go’
There is no doubt that the heart and soul of the Welsh attacking threat was Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid star was showing why he is the world’s most expensive player as he continuously threatened the Belgian defence with his explosive pace and constant movement. Whilst Aaron Ramsey’s performance was one that prioritised defensive duties over attacking, Bale contributed heavily to both. His tidy finish in the 25th minute won the game after pouncing on Radja Nainggolan’s poor attempt to head back to his keeper.
The high energy of both Taylor and Richards at wing-back was epitomised once possession was retained. They then bombed forward to provide width and open more space for those in the middle of the park. Wales then effectively had five in midfield when in possession, with Bale either dropping deep to collect the ball or playing off Robson-Kanu as the last man.
Robson-Kanu hold up play
Wayne Hennessey preferred a direct approach out the back, hitting Robson-Kanu with his goal kicks in the faith he would battle with Lombaerts and Denayer to win any first or second balls. The West Brom striker is not known for his goal scoring but rather his hold up play and ability to involve others in the attack. His performance in this game was a classic example of this. The image below shows a typical moment in which Robson-Kanu drops to receive the ball to then bring others into the play.
When Wales did play out from the back, both Allen or Ledley looked to receive and then find Bale. Rather than collecting the ball with his back to goal, he peeled off or sat in the pocket of space behind his marker. One of the numerous times this paid off is exemplified in the images below, as Allen breaks the line to find Bale on the turn to run at the backtracking defence.
For the Belgian defence, a player of such quality and speed running directly at you means danger. Having felt the full force of Bale’s pace in the first half, Lombaerts resorted to kicking him. In the 59th minute, he was lucky to see yellow and not red for a very clumsy tackle. Such was the influence of Bale in so much of Wales’ play in this match, it would be very hard to imagine that they would have got anything from this game without him.
This was a huge result for Wales that helped them take a huge stride to their first major finals since 1958. Their tactics worked, with defensive discipline and togetherness getting the best of Belgium.
For Marc Wilmots, this was a bitterly disappointing result. Wales have now taken four points from a possible six in qualifying. It was a complacent performance that was littered with sloppy mistakes, and the deserving team took all three points.
Belgium will look to bounce back in their next fixture when they host Bosnia & Herzegovina on September 3rd, whilst group leaders Wales travel to Nicosia for a big game against Cyprus.