In the fifth round of League B, Group 4 of the UEFA Nations League 2020/21, Wales hosted Ireland. Wales top the group undefeated, with four wins and one draw, scoring just four goals and conceding zero.
Ireland entered this fixture in very poor form, after not winning a single match in the group. Two draws and three defeats see them just one point above last place Bulgaria, and ten points off second place Finland.
In this tactical analysis, we will break down why Ireland played poorly, and where they should be looking to improve if they want to be taken seriously as a footballing nation. Wales deployed a few tactics that are well worth analysis, and have a solid foundation of young and exciting players to build off for future tournaments.
Below are the lineups for both teams. A full strength Wales team, captained by Tottenham Hotspur and former Real Madrid man Gareth Bale. Wales sarted as a 3-4-3, however, out of possession, it often resembled a flexible 4-4-2. Doing this allowed Wales to press in a style that best suited their opposition. We will see that Wales rarely pressed Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph because he doesn’t have the distribution skills to be considered a threat. This forced Ireland to play long balls that Wales were more than capable of handling, as they won 34/59 (58%) of their aerial duels.
Ireland started in a 4-2-3-1 and looked to use wide players James McClean and Daryl Horgan to exploit the space in behind the Welsh wing-backs Neco Williams of Liverpool and Rhys Norrington-Davies of Luton Town. However, the rarely created chances this way as they struggled to beat the Welsh press. Out of possession, Ireland attempted to maintain a narrow and compact 4-5-1 structure, but struggled to keep up with the pace of Wales.
We will quickly take a look at the average positions of both teams when out of possession. Up first is Ireland. Below we see that the space between the defensive line and midfield line is staggered, and isn’t a solid enough structure. Midfielders Jeff Hendrick and Jayson Molumby sit deep in the middle of the pitch, giving Robert Brady freedom to roam in a creative attacking-midfielder role. This would prove to be ineffective against a Welsh midfield with energy to press.
Up next is Wales as seen above. Out of possession, they have a flexible back four, with Liverpool man Williams and Ben Davies occupying traditional full-back roles. Ben Davies started as a left-sided centre-back, giving him the defensive responsibilities of a full-back, while his more attacking teammate Norrington-Davies is given the freedom to attack as a wide player. This left flank flexibility proved to be tedious for Ireland to deal with. Williams was given the entire right flank to play in, as Bale played more of an inside-forward role. With Bale as a third central attacking player, this created overloads against the Irish central defenders as we will see.
The Welsh press
Below we see Wales pressed early in the game. Two lines of four and a front pairing that rotated between David Brooks, Daniel James and Bale, depending on which slide of the field play was on. In this example, James and Bale are the two forwards who press the Irish defenders attempting to build play out from the back.
Wales pressed intelligently. Irish goalkeeper Randolph is not known for his long ranged distribution and Wales know this. Of nine attempted long passes, six of them reached teammates who immediately lost the ball, and one of them never reached a teammate at all. Below, Wales do not man-mark their opponents, but instead, keep them in eyesight and close enough to press them should Randolph complete a pass to them.
Once their opponents reach wide areas, Wales press in numbers as seen below. With six Irish players out of position, this proved to be the best time to begin pressing. When the ball reaches the wide spaces, the pressing team can use the touchline as a 12th player forcing a turnover or a throw in. The Republic of Ireland struggled to beat the Welsh press. A quick fix is having one of the six out of position players occupy space in which there is no Irish player and act as a possible passing option.
Both teams in the build-up
First up is Ireland. Very quickly they tried to pass out of the Welsh press and succeeded too as seen below. Midfielder Hendrick drops deep for Randolph to pass to, and he immediately has right-sided central-defender Shane Duffy and right full-back Matt Doherty of Tottenham Hotspur. As we saw in the previous section, Wales became wise to the Irish build-up, and instead marked the Irish passing options, instead of pressing Randolph. This was done quickly, as Randolph had completed 22 of 24 (91%) short passes in his own half when the game finished.
When transitioning from defence to attack, Ireland players had different ideas and tactics as to how they were going to play. Below is Doherty on the ball. Hendricks asks for the ball to be played backwards as the right side of the field is being pressed. Midfielder Brady is moving forward instead of the space behind the Welsh players pressing. If Brady plays in the red space below, he is now another passing option Wales need to worry about because Ireland now have a four versus four scenario, instead of a four versus three.
When Wales transition from defence to attack, goalkeeper Danny Ward is never without a passing option. Below we see that far and wide, he never needs to worry. The Ireland press was in full effect, however, the wide spaces occupied by Norrington-Davies and Williams can exploit the space left behind. Joe Morrell occupies the space between the forward and midfield Irish lines, and David Brooks drops into the space behind the first midfield pressing line.
We will see a few times in this analysis that Wales failed to exploit the space behind the Irish pressing players, as seen below. When Wales have possession, Ireland press, but leave space that Bale failed to exploit. In this photo, Wales moves the ball backwards, instead of taking advantage of the space and moving forward to start an attack.
The Welsh attack
A common theme in this tactical analysis is space and not attacking it. While Wales did win this match, it was not very convincing at times after only getting five shots on target. Shots come from chances, and chances come from exploiting weaknesses. Below we see a frail Ireland defence. Left full-back Dara O’Shea is nowhere to be seen. Ethan Ampadu has acres of space to run into, creating a three versus three attack for his team. Instead, defender Chris Mepham looks at an across the field passing option. He did not attempt the pass, nor did he pass into the space that Ampadu should be attacking, he instead went backwards.
Below we see the Wales front three in attack. Norrington-Davies acts as a winger on the left side of the field, drawing his right full-back marker Doherty out of position. This now leaves three channels for Wales to attack. Coincidentally, there are three forward players. When Wales attacked on the left side of the pitch, they got it right and played some exciting football. On the ball is Ben Davies who has time and space to watch for the runs of his forward teammates who are playing between the midfield and defensive lines.
Let’s take a look at the Irish press. In order to deploy an effective press, all members of the team must work together. Circled are two Irish players marking Welsh players, while the remaining three Irish players are not marking anyone, nor pressing potential passing options. On the ball is Bale, who is more than capable of playing the ball over the one Irish player in his way, and into the path of his teammate.
Below is an example of how Wales pressed, and how Ireland handled it. Wales have seven players in the opposition half (and they’re up a goal too!) Ireland now look to kick the ball forward, far and long. Circled is space that should be occupied by Irish players. In this space there might be a passing option, or maybe another attacking player. Ireland fail to use space the Welsh left behind them. This is what separates average teams from great ones. This photo isn’t just after a set-piece either. After 70 minutes, Wales were still pressing with full intensity.
Finally, we see Wales counter after a failed freekick from Ireland below. Irish full-backs are out of position, leaving their central defenders with a two versus two problem and a fast overhead ball coming their way. To prevent this from happening again, one or both full-backs should be instructed to stay at the halfway line. Daniel James went on to have a shot, and luckily for Ireland, he missed.
What was expected to be a boring game with Wales having an expected goals (xG) tally of 1.60 and Ireland having an xG of 0.84, proved to be one full of tactics and exciting analysis talking points.
Wales should learn from the missed opportunities they had in this match. Against stronger opponents, they will not get the space that Ireland were kind enough to give them. However, with young players like Neco WIlliams, Joe Rodon, Ethan Ampadu, Rhys Norrington-Davies and Daniel James of Manchester United, the future looks bright!
Ireland played with a mixed identity. Some players were happy to build out an attack through defense, while others neglected that responsibility. Defensively they were too easily pulled apart, and against a stronger opponent, it could very well be an embarrassing score line.