A blog on the contribution of Aaron Ramsey in the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
It would prove to be the last action of a defining year in Welsh football history, but as Chris Coleman cut a frustrated expression at the final whistle against Serbia on Saturday, there was no doubt that Wales had exorcised the memory of Novi Sad as a capacity crowd left Cardiff City Stadium disappointed to have been held to a 1-1 draw. An aggregate 9-1 defeat to the same opponents in the last FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign poignantly represents how far Wales have come since that time, rather than how far Serbia have fallen, and with the experience of a successful major tournament under their belt this is a team far removed from the impressionable young group still mourning the loss of their previous manager when they suffered the most humiliating of defeats back in September 2012.
Since that time, Gareth Bale has emerged as the team talisman, and the Real Madrid star has notched four goals in as many games during the current qualifying campaign. Despite this faultless return, his performances have been the subject of debate in certain circles, but his presence alone has caused enough of a distraction to the opposition to ensure others have sufficient space to work in. There are few players more committed to the Welsh cause than Bale, and his influential contribution both on and off the field was never more celebrated than when he charmed the media during the UEFA EURO 2016 finals. But while the summer will live long in the memories of all those that were a part of that incredible experience, Wales have been rushed back to the reality of qualification, and the end of this years fixtures could not have come soon enough as Coleman admitted post-match that his side could do with a break after returning to competitive action so soon after reaching the semi-finals in France.
Still undefeated, Wales remain very much in contention in what is proving to be a very testing group, but a group tight enough to ensure that teams will continue to take points off each other during the remaining six rounds of games. The draw with Georgia is still likely to be the game that Wales will reflect on at the end of the campaign when the final places are decided, and the fine margins that games are decided upon were never more apparent than in the final few minutes of the draw against Serbia. Wales have been left frustrated and disappointed with their return from their last two home games, but Coleman’s side could have just as easily have been sitting pretty at the top of the Group D table, and they will not fear heading to Dublin to take on the current group leaders in March next year. The Republic of Ireland have made an impressive start, but questions remain over their ability to consistently produce at this level in their remaining fixtures, and Wales have the ability and belief to remain on their heels should they eventually slip.
With Ben Davies and James Collins unavailable, a tactical shift was made on Saturday as Coleman reverted to four at the back, and despite ruining a favourite song it proved to be a very constructive change. Although Coleman later explained the rationale was based on the way Serbia play, it is difficult to believe he would have made the same defensive change with everyone available, but it proved effective and offered far more attacking creativity as a direct result. It is unlikely to be used regularly, but it is significant in terms of Coleman’s trust in his players that he can now afford to experiment in such key games without fear, and offers another option and plan that will be utilised again before the end of the current campaign. Coleman spoke before the Serbia match about how his side had lacked focus against Georgia, and it would be interesting to know how much the unexpected change in formation played in refocusing the players in terms of giving them something new to work on in the days leading up to the match.
But there was another key aspect, and the clues had been there before each of the previous three games about the importance of this particular individual. Despite being unavailable through injury for the opening three games of the campaign, Aaron Ramsey was spoken about by Chris Coleman in each and every squad announcement, and there is no doubt about how highly the midfielder is regarded by his manager. That will not come as any surprise to a country with limited resource of world class personnel, but while Bale remains the headline figure in this Wales team, it is Ramsey that makes everything possible and the evidence was there for all to see at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday. As in France, Ramsey once again showed his undeniable talent on and off the ball, and his presence alone offered Bale the freedom to play his own attacking game without feeling the personal responsibility to defend in the absence of the Arsenal midfielder.
It was painfully apparent in the EURO 2016 semi-final defeat to Portugal that Bale cannot be as consistently effective without Ramsey, and it was his suspension that effectively brought Wales’ involvement to an end on that night in Lyon. Joe Allen, like Bale, is another who benefits from the contribution of Ramsey in midfield, and with the trio of headline names combining effectively together the remaining cogs in the wheel work that little bit more in sync. It is impossible to undermine the influence of Bale, and even without Ramsey he has scored crucial goals, but while his individual ability can prove to be the difference in front of goal and his name on the team sheet enough to alter the opposition’s plans it his is presence and commitment that lifts the rest of the team. By comparison, Ramsey offers more a footballing contribution, his midfield role connecting him with defence and attack in equal measure. His ability often making the service he receives look better than what it was.
It will always be a hypothetical question, but if Coleman had to choose between Bale or Ramsey, it would be intriguing to know which way he would go. Bale has been a central figure to all that Wales have achieved, and has scored more crucial goals for Wales than any other player for generations. But, it is the presence of Ramsey that brings out the very best in Bale, and allows him to play in the free attacking role, unshackled by the defensive duty that inevitably comes with Ramsey’s absence. Likewise, there is no better outlet for Ramsey’s exceptional service than Bale, and his own attacking talents would be wasted if he could not work in tandem with the talisman. Coleman has shown this week that he has a belief in the maturity of this team to make significant changes, and that he has the confidence in himself to make big decisions when necessary, but thankfully he is never likely to have to choose between the two.
Disappointment over the manner of the draw against Serbia is only natural, but their celebrations at the equalising goal were again testament to how far Wales have come under Coleman’s leadership. Wales still have it all to do, and will need their best players available and hungry to succeed for the remainder of the campaign if it is to prove to be as successful as the last. Wales are now considered a tough opponent on merit rather than as a pre-match courtesy cliché, and while the journey that Coleman emphasised this group are on at the end of the EURO 2016 campaign may have a taken a slight detour, the destination remains very much the same. The likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will be more than aware of what it would mean to represent Wales at a World Cup finals, and with only a very limited number of opportunities available to achieve such a feat during the course of an international playing career, this campaign is very much far from over.