Even when the Wales players look in the mirror here, they see evidence of an attempt to locate the ghost of 2016.
Five years ago the motto was #samensterker when they were on their way to a semifinal. This time, the players found the message ‘Goray Chwarae Cyd Chwarae’ (‘the best game is team play’) attached to the mirrors of their hotel rooms when they arrived Monday. The words were first sewn into the coat of arms of Wales exactly 70 years ago. “A nice touch when you first come here,” thought Joe Allen. ‘A bit at home. It summarizes what we stand for.’
But for the eight remaining members of that squad there are clearly mixed feelings about 2016. That’s because they know that such a golden summer will be difficult to live up to.
Wales has arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, in search of the spirit of Euro 2016 in France
The Welsh side had a golden summer five years ago when they reached the semi-finals
At the time, they found a Breton base that the Wales team took to heart. Now they find themselves in the sweltering heat of a city in the most remote outpost of the tournament.
Back then, they knew exactly how they would line up – the narrow midfields of Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, for a confident back four, taking the team defensively and confidently into a dynamic Counterattack. Now even interim manager Rob Page seems unsure of his best lineup.
Where Bale is there is hope, although Page has made it an article of faith to stick to a system – with three centre-backs, attacking full-backs and a false nine – that leaves Wales unbalanced and much less safe.
But there are big differences between Chris Coleman’s side and Rob Page’s hopeful people
The young Welsh side is much more unbalanced and less secure at the rear than in 2016
The midfield also looks much less impenetrable, with one of Joe Morrell (who hasn’t been able to get into the Luton Town team) and 20-year-old Ethan Ampadu (loan from Chelsea at Sheffield United last season) anchoring it. Defensively, it also looks a pale imitation of 2016 with Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham the likely central collaboration – albeit Tottenham’s Rodon is a rising star.
And then there’s the question of whether Ramsey, Page’s favorite false nine, can actually hit the heights again. That’s a concern. The best strategic solution looks like the deployment of Bale, Ramsey and Daniel James behind Cardiff’s Kieffer James, a target of immense physical stature. But Page, very much his own man, seems to be against that.
The elephant in the room is Ryan Giggs, who abruptly left the scene to fight allegations of assault against his former partner and her sister, which he denies. The players’ strategy seems to avoid any public discussion about Giggs. When Allen was told that such a dynamic could never be easy for a stand-in like Page, he spoke of unwanted “distractions.”
Aaron Ramsey has operated on false 9, but looks like a shadow of the Euro 2016 player
Wales’ handful of older players know it’s going to be tough to evoke the magic of 2016
But Wales found themselves at this stage five years ago – a few days away from a tournament with no great expectations. The glory of 2016 obscured all memories of the 3-0 warm-up defeat in Sweden six days before the opening game, leaving everyone feeling pretty devastated.
And while Giggs may be absent, he has left an indelible mark on the squad by bleeding so many young members that the squad barely resembles it five years ago. Manchester United’s 20-year-old Dylan Levitt and Manchester City’s 21-year-old Matt Smith have yet to play a single match for those sides, but both gave hints of stunning passing range during the warm-up.
Allen is not the only senior player who thinks the squad is much better creatively than in France because of these young players. “They are fearless. They want to make their mark,” he said. Now might just be the time for Neco Williams, Rodon, Wilson, James or even the teenage wildcard forward Rubin Colwill. Is it too early for them? Like the Bale/Ramsey/Allen generation, bloodied by John Toshack, will they need another five years to cash in on a dividend? We’ll know soon enough.
But in Gareth Bale there is hope, and the Welshman will want to remind Europe of his talent
What Wales lacks technically they make up for in spirit and unity heading into the tournament
Those who may have even more to prove, however, are the old guard of 2016. Neither Ramsey, Allen nor midfielder Jonny Williams have set the world on fire since France. Williams, the gifted former Crystal Palace midfielder known to some fans as ‘Joniesta’ during the 2016 tournament, doesn’t even have a club, having just been released from Cardiff City. Even Bale, marginalized by Jose Mourinho and unsure of what the future holds, will see a memorable tournament with his beloved Wales as a way to re-sign his name across the continent.
It’s not necessarily the swan song for this quartet. Next year there is a World Cup in Qatar, with a promising start to the qualifying campaign for Wales. But the old guard knows that there are no certainties in football. It could be the last chance for the golden generation.
Don’t bet they’ll grab it, even with a tough group ahead and a conceivable round of 16 draw against France or Germany, because what these players feel about Cymru is beyond technical or tactical interpretation. ‘We feel more pride and passion than anyone else,’ Bale recalled in 2016. ‘It’s just one of those things. Maybe it has something to do with the little country thing.’