Wales have a potentially sensational generation of players in their squad, but with little sign of progress in his tenure so far, is Ryan Giggs really the best man to make the most of them…?
Ryan Giggs has a pretty tough task as Wales coach. He had to follow Chris Coleman, who took them to their first international tournament in a couple of generations and the greatest times any Welsh fan can remember. He had to deal with all the problems that a relatively small country does on the international stage. He also had to deal with the perception that he’s not exactly an especially inspiring figure, as suggested in that notorious rousing team talk during his brief spell as Manchester United manager.
A tough task, but not an impossible one. While the glorious side of 2016 is beginning to break up and the likes of Ashley Williams and Joe Ledley are no longer the players and the pillars of the team they were, a new and thoroughly exciting generation is coming through.
Daniel James, David Brooks, Harry Wilson, Tom Lawrence, Ethan Ampadu, Chris Mepham, potentially Ben Woodburn if he irons out the stuttering start to his senior career: this is the finest collection of Welsh players in some years.
This is amazing. Giggs' final team meeting as Man United caretaker manager. Lol. pic.twitter.com/fbvlCywZDz
— Sean (@shornKOOMINS) January 16, 2018
The fear is that this generation is being wasted under Giggs.
Friday’s qualifier against Azerbaijan was a case in point. It’s not that Wales being dug out of trouble by Gareth Bale is a new thing, and it shouldn’t necessarily be a harsh criticism of a team that their best player continues to be their best player. It’s not even that concerning that they were helped by a colossal slice of luck, their opener coming from a Bale shot that took two deflections, the second off a defender looking the other way. Luck is a tricky thing to quantify in football and every team gets good and bad breaks.
More worrying should be the performance. It’s not just that Wales were bad: that happens, particularly in international football. They were bad, but the way they were bad suggested little progress has been made in the 18 months or so that Giggs has been in charge. Bad would be fine after 14 games, but it’s difficult, if not impossible to actually figure out what Giggs is trying to do, what exactly the plan is.
Bad is also something Welsh fans are very much used to. They were terrible for years, but for the most part that was understandable because they didn’t have the talent. They do now, or more specifically will have tomorrow.
After the game, players made positive yet vague noises. “There are still things we are improving on,” said Bale. “I think we are progressing. We are working on his style of play and what he wants us to do. Sometimes it does take a bit of time, it does take a bit of getting used to. We are trying to play quick football, trying to move the ball very quickly and trying to create space for the attackers.”
But has there been much evidence of that? Not really. The speed at which they ran out of ideas on Friday was pretty alarming, as was the fact that Azerbaijan had more shots on target. Progress is of course subjective, and perhaps things are really fizzing on the training ground, but it’s not obvious on the pitch.
I think we are progressing...We are trying to play quick football, trying to move the ball very quickly.
Perhaps that old perception of Giggs is working against him. From his public appearances at least, his lack of obvious charisma and outward football intelligence is almost alarming for a man who spent over two decades at Manchester United during the most glorious period in their history. As we know, playing under Alex Ferguson is not a guarantee that you’ll be a good or even passable manager, but listening to him talk is not to feel like you’re getting a lecture on the finer points of the game.
Maybe all of that is artificially enhancing the idea that things are not progressing, or more that things are not going to get better. And maybe it will all be fine: maybe things will improve when Aaron Ramsey and Brooks return from injury. Also, it’s worth pointing out that while they’re long-shots for automatic qualification, for various complicated reasons to do with the Nations League and the new qualifying format, Wales pretty much guaranteed a place in the Euro 2020 playoffs.
But should they be thinking longer term than that? This could be a huge opportunity for sustained success, and while the record of ‘golden generations’ is, to say the least, mixed, Wales can’t afford to let this group of youngsters drift.
Expectations have not been excessively raised by the hazy summer of 2016: the run to the semi-finals of the European Championships have not given Welsh fans the sense of entitlement to think that is now the norm.
What they can expect is that they make the best of the resources they have. At the moment, there’s little sign of that happening under Giggs.
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