When the Wales players relax in their hotel in Dinard in between matches, they play table-tennis, PlayStation and do quizzes. Most of the players watch most of the other Euro 2016 matches but there is one side who have especially caught their attention, even more than Iceland.
Italy have been the best team at Euro 2016 so far and they have something special in common with Wales, setting them apart from all the other teams that came to France: their 3-5-2 system. That is how Antonio Conte organised his tactical masterclass victories over Spain on Sunday and in the group stage against Belgium. Wales play Belgium in their quarter-final on Friday night, and are very aware of how few answers Marc Wilmots had that night in Lyon.
“The lads watched Italy’s first game quite closely,” Neil Taylor said last week, “knowing that they played the same formation and that they were very good at it. They did it very well, little aspects of the game, especially defensively, and the way they worked as a back five. The Italians are known for it.”
Belgium dominated possession against Italy but could never find a way round the famous old Juventus back three, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, who were supported by the two wing-backs Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian. But when Italy had the ball the Belgian front three pressed the three Italian centre-backs, leaving three Belgian midfielders isolated against five Italians. So Italy played diagonals to the wing-backs, or long-balls to Graziano Pelle, and hit Belgium on the break.
That afternoon the Belgian players ran a combined 108km. The Italians ran 120km, 11 per cent more. “That is a staggering stat,” Taylor said. “But that is the work you need to get through in that formation, it’s hard work. But if it’s done properly it can be very effective.”
That is exactly what Wales have found. Chris Coleman decided to use the system at the start of their qualification campaign for this tournament, as he started to put his stamp on the team. They have grown into it over time, even though few of them ever use it at club level.
The 3-5-2, which can also be a 3-4-3 depending on personnel, provides a selfless striking partner for Gareth Bale while not leaving Wales exposed as a 4-4-2 would. If football is a trade-off between defensive solidity and attacking power, Coleman has found the right balance with Wales, even if few thought so at the time.
“If you had said to anyone outside the squad before a ball was kicked in the qualifying campaign that Wales would qualify predominantly with a 3-5-2, then I don’t think many people will have believed you,” said Chris Gunter, Taylor’s opposite number at right wing-back. “Not many teams play it. But we are comfortable with what we do.”
Coleman is not an ideologue and during qualification he did change the system once, switching to a 4-5-1 with Bale up front to grind out a 0-0 in Brussels in November 2014. But he also wants his team to have a recognised way of playing, an identity, and that means consistency of approach and selection. Tournaments reward teams who are more than just a group of players, which is why Italy and Wales have done so well.
This system makes Taylor and Gunter two of the most important players. “We’ve got the role to do of defending against their winger and attacking against their full-back, so we’ve got to play two roles,” Taylor explained. “We have a big influence on what happens in the middle of the park as well. It’s a lot of running.”
Taylor and Gunter have done all the running, though, and that has been part of the story in their success so far. Against Slovakia in Bordeaux Jonny Williams and Aaron Ramsey dragged the Slovakian full-backs inside, creating space for Taylor and Gunter out wide. But England pinned Taylor and Gunter back into a line of five, shutting down Wales’ attacks.
“How us wing-backs try and play and affect the game has a big effect on the whole team,” Taylor explained. “We’ll be honest, against England we were sat back deep. If you end up in a back five like that it can be quite difficult to get out, and can be the reason why you don’t keep the ball too well.”
Against Russia in Toulouse, Wales rediscovered their shape, allowed Russia to attack them, confident in their back line, before hitting them on the break. Taylor even got forward and scored the second goal.
Wales know that Friday night in Lille will be their hardest test yet, and Gunter said that their priorities were “discipline and shape”. But if they do that then this Belgium side is liable to panic, over-commit and leave gaps for Wales to exploit. Wales have done their homework. Marc Wilmots will have to do his.
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