Ken Early: How Wales have shown up England
Welsh share many of the disadvantages that are always cited when their neighbours fail
It was past 2am on Saturday morning and Le Palermo Pizzeria in Lille was empty except for one hardy group of bedraggled yet still high-spirited Wales fans. “Who had a dream?” one of them shouted.
“COLEMAN!” yelled the rest of them.
“Who had a dream?” “COLEMAN!”
Then they launched into their Chris Coleman song, to the tune of Sloop John B:
“Chris Coleman had a dream / To build the national team / We have no strikers so we play with five at the back (five at the back) / With Bale in attack / With Bale in attaaaack / Watch out Europe, we’re on our way back.”
Earlier that night Coleman had given a press conference in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy that had seemed a bit like a dream. Wales had destroyed one of the tournament favourites in the best game of Euro 2016. Coleman had just masterminded the greatest achievement in Welsh football history and he didn’t even seem surprised.
He was hitting all the right notes – dignity, gratitude, resolution. It was hard to believe that this serene, presidential figure was the same man who once turned up 90 minutes late to his own press conference because he’d been out till 5am partying at a student club night.
This Chris Coleman, visionary architect of Welsh football’s renaissance, was the same guy who had lost his first five games in charge, and who once wasn’t allowed fly out with his players for a World Cup qualifier in Macedonia because he’d lost his passport.
Along with Iceland, Coleman’s Wales are the team that have played best in France, the ones that have come closest to showing the best of themselves. They have won four out of five matches and until France’s turkey shoot against Iceland, Wales were the top scorers in the tournament.
The comparison between Wales’ success and England’s grotesque failure is instructive because Wales share many of the disadvantages that are always cited when England fail in tournaments, except Wales have them to a greater degree.
The English complain that their players don’t develop their technical and tactical skills to the same extent, but the Welsh players grew up in a similar football culture (actually, in many cases they grew up in England) and yet there were no technical and tactical shortcomings in evidence as they crushed Belgium.
The English bemoan the fact that only 35 per cent of players in the Premier League are English, but that’s still almost 200 Premier League players they have to choose from. Wales have 22.
Wales have turned that disadvantage on its head. This is not a squad with a lot of flux, so the players have got to know each other’s games very well. England’s squad included several players who had not played any part in qualification, and they fielded several combinations of players who had never played together before.
It helps that Coleman uses tactics that suit the players at his disposal. He didn’t switch to 3-5-2 at the beginning of the Euro qualification campaign because he has an ideological preference for that formation; it was a pragmatic decision designed to get the best players on the field in a system that made sense for them.
It’s a clear contrast with Roy Hodgson, who had a potential strike partnership of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy staring him in the face, but decided instead to use a 4-3-3 system that didn’t really suit anybody. That ideologically driven approach to management might work at Barcelona or FC Bayern, who can sign the perfect players to fit into their system, but it isn’t suited to international football.
The truth about international football is that compared to the highest level of the club game, the matches are tactically unsophisticated. Tactically advanced international teams like the Barcelona-influenced Spain are the exception rather than the rule. Once a team has a basic level of organisation, two things make the difference: the individual quality and collective attitude.
The most obvious difference between Wales and England is one of attitude. A goal down to a Belgium team that is terrifying on the counter-attack, they fought back and ran the Belgians off the pitch. England’s response to going a goal down to Iceland was to sink into a stupor that lasted 78 minutes.
An international manager can’t do much about the quality of his players but he can influence the attitude. Coleman is nobody’s idea of a tactical genius, but he’s the right man in the right place at the right time; it may not be entirely his doing, but Wales’ emotional chemistry is working. There is a connection with the players that Hodgson could not replicate.
England are currently looking for a new manager and there have already been reports that senior players would prefer a foreigner, since they don’t think the best English managers are any good.
That snobbery suggests an attitude problem as well as a delusional notion of the England national team’s place in the game. The managers regarded as the best in the club game have no interest in taking over England. Only English managers regard it as the biggest job in the world.
If England want to get their players excited about playing for the country again, they should start by appointing a coach who is excited to manage it.