In the first knockout game between two Home Nations, the game turned out as expected: cagey, cautious and uncomfortable.
Northern Ireland made one change from the side that lost 1-0 to Germany, with Kyle Lafferty replacing Conor Washington. Wales’ 3-0 win over Russia meant Chris Coleman saw no need to change his side; Gareth Bale played off Sam Vokes with Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor supplying the Welsh width from full-back.
Arguably, the Welsh were deserved winners but it could have easily gone either way. Neither side dominated the game and possession was frequently surrendered to the opposition.
Counter vs Counter
During the tournament so far, Wales have been exemplary in countering their opponents. Coleman is playing to his side's strength: he has solidity in his backline with Ashley Williams, while Taylor and Gunter push up the flanks and offer an option for a direct pass from deep.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland have been operating a 4-5-1 with Corry Evans often being used as a half-back. This gives Norn Iron five at the back, two just ahead and a front three willing to close down the opposition but also work back when the opposition are pressing forward.
British eyes were fixated on this contest when the last 16 knockout draw was finalised, but entertainment was always going to be hard to come by. With both looking for the other to step up and take risks, it was water vs water and a game of patience.
Wales started the game fractured. They knew they were the favourites and it seemed to affect them – Coleman's side constantly gave possession away in the middle of the pitch and failed to supply their attacks with any ammunition, Bale in particular. They might feel more confident of beating Hungary in the last eight, but their style of play might be more effective against Belgium.
Northern Ireland had the better first half and started the second the more expressive of the two sides – but that worked in Wales’ favour. Though the Welsh failed to impress, they had the better chances in the second half. Overall, it was no surprise to see the winner come from an own goal via Gareth McAuley.
Northern Ireland know how to nullify Bale
Slovakia failed, England failed, and Russia – well, they didn’t even attempt to stop Bale. But in every game Wales play, the question is always whether (and how) the opposition can control Bale.
However, whoever faces Wales in the last eight should take note of Northern Ireland’s performance in this respect. The Real Madrid man was constantly having to come three or four yards into his own half to receive the ball, and even switched flanks at the end of the first half to get in possession more.
Despite the own goal coming from a Bale cross, Northern Ireland restrained Wales' star forward to very few chances. He came close with a free-kick after the break but other than that, had a quiet game.
The problem with marking Bale is that he is astonishingly talented in several different roles. His pace makes him an excellent winger, his ability to use either foot makes him versatile when cutting in from the flanks, and his strength allows him to be deployed as a targetman.
So, just as Bale has different qualities, Northern Ireland marked him with different players. Jonny Evans did so when he was up top; Stuart Dallas covered him on the wings and, due to Northern Ireland’s compactness, it was tough for him to cut inside and swing at the ball.
It's something for Coleman to ponder over as he prepares his side for Friday's quarter-final. If Wales are unable to find a breakthrough without their superstar, what's their Plan B?
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