Analysing where the battles were won and lost in Cardiff
Wales continued their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign with a 1–1 draw against Serbia, a nation who defeated Wales 6–1 just four years ago.
Gareth Bale opened the scoring with a fine strike away from the goalkeeper after hard pressing by Hal Robson-Kanu, before hitting the post in the second half after a great piece of work by Aaron Ramsey. With the 90th minute approaching, Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic headed home a late equaliser for the visiting Serbians.
A change in system for Chris Coleman
With teams changing the way they set up against Wales, Chris Coleman experimented with a new system at the Cardiff City Stadium. The usual 5–3–2 was switched to a more attacking 4–4–2, 4–2–3–1 variant; intent on getting more men forward and keeping the pressure on the defensive Serbians.
Full-backs pushing up
With a flat back four, there was more of an emphasis on full-backs Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter dropping back to create a compact unit.
Without the extra central defender, there was not the cover for the full-backs once they have pushed on in support of the attack.
That being said, the new formation did not stop Taylor and Gunter from getting forward and were a key outlet for Coleman’s side, as they were all summer.
By pushing up the pitch, the full-backs created an overload for the Serbian defence, resulting in a spare man for the Welsh attack on many occasion.
Joe Ledley key
The Crystal Palace midfielder was instrumental in replacing the missing third centre back. Whilst pushed ahead of the usual third centre back, Ledley was key in recycling the play and covering any advancements from the full-backs.
Missing third man back results in sloppy play on the ball
It’s often unnoticed how vital a third centre-back is for Wales’ progressive play and for them to build from the back. By taking that spare man out, it means that the remaining two centre-backs, this time James Chester and Ashley Williams, have to be more conservative in stepping out from the back line.
This also means that options for keeping the ball are more limited, with less options for Wales to recycle the ball between waiting for the right moment to spring the counter attack.
Pressure from the front three
With a front three of Gareth Bale, Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu, Coleman knew he’d get hard work and killer instinct. The three men showed that, with tireless pressing high up the field a statement of the Welsh play.
It led to Bale’s opening goal on half an hour, with Robson-Kanu chasing a hapless ball into the corner and pressuring Serbian defender Matija Nastasić into a mistake. With his fellow front men also pushing Serbia high up the pitch, it meant that as soon as he’d won the ball back, he had options to threaten goal. Bale did that, smashing one past the goalkeeper.
Ramsey dropping deep
With a man missing from defence, the emphasis was on Aaron Ramsey to provide a crucial link to the attacking front line. He did just that, dropping deep to get the ball before laying off and spinning past a defender. He did it countless times throughout the match to great avail.
Did no back three cost Wales?
Chris Coleman needed to try something new, there’s no doubt about that, but did the switch from three central defenders cost Wales the three points? Possible.
If we take a look at the Mitrovic goal, when his team-mate swings the ball into the box, there’s a big hole between Chester and Williams for the striker to attack. Arguably, with a third centre-back there, it would’ve been easier to defend and clear the ball.