A feature on the immediate international impact of Ben Woodburn for Wales.
One name has dominated the sporting landscape in Wales over the last few days, and while the English media persist in debating the national heritage of another one that got away, Ben Woodburn is making headlines for all the right reasons in the country that has taken him into their hearts.
His wonder strike for Wales against Austria was a thing of beauty, and the timing could not have been better as the Liverpool youngster ensured a delicate first touch would allow the impromptu anthem to finish before the rifled the ball into the back of net. The goal resulted in another euphoric scene that has consistently defined this Wales team over the last couple of years, but what was different this time around was that the source of celebration was not one of the established names that have been such a recognisable part of the success enjoyed under the management of Chris Coleman.
No, this was a strike from a teenage debutant, almost mirroring what he had already achieved for Liverpool in front of the Kop last November. Ben Woodburn was one of six uncapped players in Coleman’s squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Moldova, and while his immediate impression made obvious headlines, it was also noticeable that Coleman opted to leave two more experienced players behind for the journey to Moldova rather than any of the remaining untried youngsters. The return of Joe Allen and Neil Taylor from suspension resulted in James Collins and Jonny Williams returning to their respective clubs, while the likes of Ethan Ampadu, Lee Evans and Tom Lockyer remained with the senior squad.
And after the impact of Woodburn, why shouldn’t Coleman have every faith in the next generation? They have been talked about since they enjoyed Victory Shield success in 2015, and having come through the pathway system, they are already well-drilled in what is expected from them when their opportunity in the senior side comes around. There was a different pressure attached to the match against Austria on Saturday, the players knew that there would be no second chance if Wales suffered defeat, and the wrong result could have also decided the future of Coleman himself. As always, the next game is now the biggest game, and while the journey to Moldova will be a very different prospect, the same outcome is required.
Dream come true!!! Proud to get my first international cap and goal😀 team and fans were unreal👏 onto Moldova Tuesday now 🐉 pic.twitter.com/cYWTvJjSIY
— ben woodburn (@BenWoodburn) September 2, 2017
But there is something to be said for the introduction of youthful exuberance in such pressure situations, and while Woodburn has deservedly taken the national headlines, it also overshadowed the positive contribution of Tom Lawrence on his first senior international start. Despite Wales being overrun in the early exchanges to the extent that a tactical switch was required, Lawrence not only worked tirelessly when out of possession, but showed his attacking quality, positive intentions and creativity with the ball to suggest he can also become an important part of this Wales team. Coleman had more experienced options on the bench, but his belief in the youngsters was rewarded, and the confidence behind his own decisions is testament to how much he has won over the critics that questioned his credentials in darker days.
Wales have never been blessed with too many squad options, but as years of calculated youth development come to fruition, it is becoming increasingly likely that certain established players may struggle to find themselves included in the national team squad in the future. Coleman insisted after the success of UEFA EURO 2016 that there was still more to come from this side, and while he may have based this assessment on a handful of youngsters like Lawrence and Emyr Huws establishing themselves in the team, he may not have realised just how quickly some of the other teenage talent would be in a position force their way into contention.
Joe Ledley is an interesting case study in this debate. A key element to qualifying for EURO 2016 was that all of the big players were available, pretty much all of the time. Memorable victories over Belgium, Cyprus, Israel and others were inspired by Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but this campaign has been very different, with injuries and suspensions restricting the already limited player pool and denying Coleman the services of his pivotal players on key occasions. However, while Coleman has spent the majority of the campaign discussing players that are unavailable, he turned the tables in the build-up to the match against Austria to talk about one player who remains a vital part of his team.
The squad for the fixtures against Austria and Moldova included one player listed as ‘unattached’. Ledley turned 30 earlier this year and has been a regular in the Wales squad since making his debut back in 2005. Having come through the ranks at home town club Cardiff City, Ledley represented the Bluebirds before switching to Celtic, and has more recently found himself in and out of favour at Crystal Palace. Still a free agent, Ledley will be short on game time and match fitness, but Coleman was keen to emphasise his surprise at the situation involving his midfield engine.
BEN WOODBURN: 'A dream come true'.
— sgorio (@sgorio) September 2, 2017
“I’m absolutely flabbergasted that Joe’s not with a club,” explained Coleman when he announced his squad. “I really am. If you look at how many games he’s played and how many caps he’s got. It’s not just on the pitch, it’s off the pitch with Joe too, his personality. If he can make it, even though he hasn’t played since Serbia, he will start. He’s been a huge part of everything we’ve done the last few years. He’s a great character and he’s instrumental for us. I know what the rest of the players and my staff think of him.”
Of course, it was Ledley who defied the odds to make himself available for the EURO 2016 finals in France, and his miraculous recovery from a broken leg in such a short space of time will become part of Welsh football folklore in years to come. Ledley was desperate to make it to France, and he dedicated himself to a punishing regime in order to ensure he had every chance of doing so. Coleman believed in him, and while it may have been the sensible option to write off his chances in the circumstances and replace him in the squad, Coleman understood the value of what he brings to the side in the position that he plays.
The formation and system preferred by Coleman has been fine-tuned over the last few years, and Ledley has been central to its success. Meanwhile, Ledley’s commitment and passion for playing for Wales was never more evident than during last summer. However, the opening half against Austria again showed that teams have spent time working out the best way to play against Wales and their tactical shape, when previous scouting reports may just have focused on stopping Gareth Bale. The finals in France confirmed that Wales can beat anyone on their day, and while the system remained trusted throughout the tournament, changes have had to be made to keep Wales in contention during the current campaign as a direct result of that success.
Although he didn’t feature against Austria, Ledley may have a part to play against Moldova on Tuesday night, but he will be one of a number of established senior players excited, but privately concerned, over the emergence of this new generation. The longer Ledley remains without the club the less chance he has of representing Wales, despite Coleman’s character reference, and there are other fringe players who will no longer be taking their place in the squad for granted. Meanwhile, Ben Woodburn is the perfect inspirational figure to every young player in the entire intermediate system, and his incredible moment in Cardiff last Saturday could be the spark that brings through even more talent to the now swelling ranks of the senior side.