On paper, Wales have had a successful couple of days. A vital 1-0 win over Austria before a 2-0 win in Moldova has lifted them to 2nd in Group D in their quest for World Cup qualification. They’ve remained unbeaten throughout the whole qualification process, added two more clean sheets along their way, and found a new gem in Ben Woodburn. However, these headlines all detract from the problems Wales have had.
To begin with, we should at least acknowledge Ben Woodburn’s impact on the games, where he injected some much-needed energy and creativity. In what had been a lackluster match, his goal against Austria in the 74th minute was audacious but equally ferocious as it rifled into the bottom corner of the net.
Against Moldova, again coming off the bench, he set up Hal Robson-Kanu for the away side’s late opener, before Aaron Ramsey finished off the match in injury time. These contributions saved Wales from having a mountain to climb, as with only two games left, the group has been blown wide open.
It could be argued that the end justified the means, as Austria’s toothless display meant that Wales were more likely to take the three points, and the overwhelming amount of shots on goal at Moldova was bound to pay dividends eventually.
To start on Saturday night, Wales were fortunate that Marko Arnautovic and Martin Harnik spurned good chances in the first half. David Alaba was the engine running the show, shrugging off every challenge Wales could throw at him, but there was no end product.
Austria’s control over the first half was largely down to Chris Coleman’s set-up. A rather unadventurous 5-4-1 formation gave Alaba all the time and space he needed to orchestrate the match. This encouraged Austria to play with a considerably high defensive line, supposedly easy pickings for a side with the pace of Gareth Bale at their disposal.
But this proved not to be the case, as Wales were left resorting to hopeless long balls from the back. They clearly missed playmaker Joe Allen, who was suspended following a booking in their previous match against Serbia.
Instead, Bale was left to act as the playmaker, though he merely imitated a 5-a-side player clearly leagues above his teammates and trying to play in every position. He was often found in front of the defence trying to start plays, whilst being the target-man of Williams’ and Chester’s long punts forward.
Only when Coleman shifted the shape at half-time did Wales begin to put pressure on Austria, but they still had to rely on a moment of magic to get them the result, rather than consistent quality and skill.
Three days later against rock bottom Moldova, Wales suffered from the same struggles. Joe Allen definitely provided something that was sorely missed in Cardiff, but clear-cut opportunities remained a problem. Most of the chances created were speculative shots at goal, hardly the right approach when playing a side with just two points on the board.
The lack of creativity and flair is surely something that will concern fans. From a side who wowed the continent in France one year ago, they should not have been forced into turning to an inexperienced 17-year old for the second game in succession.
Only two players were missing from that epic night in Lille against Belgium last year, so where was the magic? Maybe it was the grit and determination to have to come from behind. Against Austria, they encouraged their opponents to play with the ball and come forward, but they had no bite or venom to take it off them.
Maybe it was the absence of patience from the build-up play against a stubborn Moldovan defence. Without stooping to long-range shots, Wales may well have eventually found that killer pass. With Allen, Ramsey and Andy King in the centre, there was no lack of quality on the pitch to deliver this. But instead, it was snap-shots that seemed to be their only route forward.
Up next Wales face Georgia and Ireland in must-win games. A slip-up against Georgia is unthinkable, and it is Ireland where everything will likely boil down to. Sitting 3rd in the group, Ireland will almost definitely prove to be a tougher task than Austria and Moldova, despite their poor results against Georgia and Serbia.
As Coleman has said, his tenure as Welsh boss will be ending shortly; things need to end on a high or they run the risk of falling back down the footballing ladder. Failing to qualify for the World Cup will be a bitter disappointment for a team that have muscled themselves in amongst the elite.
Starting Woodburn in these matches may help Wales to revitalise themselves and reboot their campaign, but it’d be at the cost of accepting that things were simply not working. It’s going to be a difficult few days in October for Coleman to decide who will push Wales over the line.