The Wales team of 2021 is not overly reliant on performances from Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey
When Wales were touring around France in 2016 to the relentless sound of Don’t Take Me Home echoing in their ears, it felt like they were on a once in a lifetime journey.
The Welsh had only previously qualified for the knockout phase of a major international tournament in 1958 and, while any team with a prime Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey certainly ought to have had plenty left, it was still hard to imagine history repeating itself.
Not any more. Not after a second placed finish in Group B which sets up an enticing last-16 tie, most likely against Russia or Finland. And, with Holland and one of the third placed group teams completing their quarter of the draw, an enormous opportunity undoubtedly again looms.
None of this is to underestimate the difficulty of winning even one knockout match but, just a quick scan of the Wales team that started against Italy, was sufficient to understand why plenty of good judges rate this squad above even the semi-final heroes of Euro 2016.
“They’re probably more talented and there’s more strength now,” says Ashley Williams, the Wales captain five years ago. “This is a bigger selection headache, which is a good thing, because there’s so many more good players in each position.”
Ben Davies, Kieffer Moore and Chris Mepham were all at risk of suspension for the round of 16 but, even with all to play for in terms of the final group standings, caretaker manager Rob Page simply rested these key men and overhauled the system.
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And so out went Moore, the striker whose equalising goal against Switzerland was ultimately so pivotal, and in came an extra defender and a false number nine in Ramsey.
Page will likely go back to the team that swept past Turkey for the next match, but it all further added to the sense that Wales have a breadth of options which surpass Chris Coleman’s history makers five years ago.
Coleman basically knew 10 of his 11 preferred starters in France and, while that certainty of selection provided a useful clarity, there is now far less reliance on Bale and Ramsey.
Dan James, David Brooks and Harry Wilson provide energy and alternative creative options while Moore, Cardiff City’s 6ft 5ins striker, is proof that an old school No 9 is still of considerable value.
Moore combined playing football previously for Truro City with his job as a lifeguard and, having arrived at the Euros via Dorchester, Yeovil, Forest Green Rovers and Torquay, there is something in his wider presence which seems to galvanise those around him.
With 20 Championship goals last season, Page clearly knew that Moore could be something of a secret weapon and, having “wrapped him in cotton wool” even before the group phase, did the same against Italy. “He has a great presence and also a great touch,” said Page. “His link up play is very good and he is a willing runner. He gives us more than physicality.”
Crucially, Moore also provides important defensive qualities at set pieces and, for all the resilience Wales showed in limiting Italy to one goal, that is perhaps the biggest question compared to 2016 when Williams, Davies and James Chester formed such an effective partnership. Much, inevitably, will also still depend on Bale and Ramsey. They are both now in their early thirties and, for all the respective uncertainty about their club futures, still seem able to lift themselves on the biggest stage for their country.
And you need only a cursory glance though Welsh football history to appreciate the scale of this achievement. This is only the third time that Wales have qualified for the knockout phase of a major tournament but it is a measure of the progress, and the options running through the squad, that it will count as a major disappointment if this latest journey ends in Amsterdam on Saturday.