Euro 2016: Why Is Wales Suddenly Better Than England at Football?

Wales winger Gareth Bale.
Gareth Bale of Wales at Stadium Municipal, Toulouse, June 20 2016. Bale's goals have helped Wales finish top of UEFA Euro 2016 Group B. Ian Walton/Getty

Finishing second in Group B was surely not in England manager Roy Hodgson's fantasies, or even his conceptions of reality, before UEFA Euro 2016 began.

Two draws and a win left England on five points by the final whistle against Slovakia in Saint-Etienne—not a bad haul, and one that would have appeared far better but for a pesky near neighbor in the same group.

Yes, Wales, in their first major tournament since 1958, have upset the odds once again to embarrass England by topping Group B. How did they do it? Newsweek has the answers.

World-class talent

It sounds almost too obvious to state, and yet it bears repeating. England's squad, in terms of depth, is far superior to that of Wales.

What England do not have is a genuine, world-class talent to grab games and win them all by himself. Harry Kane may be the closest, but he is not there yet. Wayne Rooney could have been, but somewhere in the past decade that opportunity was lost.

Bale, UEFA Euro 2016's current top scorer, can turn a game—he did it against Slovakia and he almost did the same against England, twice with free-kicks. And when Wales are forced to play on the counter-attack, as they invariably are, his extreme pace and strength provides a break-out option.

England has talent. Wales has one of the world's most talented.

Leadership in defence

Wales have hardly looked back since Chris Coleman, their manager, decided to take the captaincy off Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and place it on Ashley Williams, the giant totem of a central defender.

Whereas England occasionally appears seasick and wayward in defence—the equalizing goal against Russia a case in point — Wales benefits from Williams' commanding leadership.

And that filters through to the rest of the team, as well. This is not to say Wayne Rooney has been anything but a fine England captain because, by all accounts, he has.

But debates over the captain's place in the side cannot help England, and teams are often better when they have strong leadership at the back. Witness the way Williams pulled Wales together, literally in a huddle and in vaguer, more metaphorical terms. They would be rudderless without him.

Taking their chances

Lies, damned lies and statistics, but in this case they are revealing. Wales have taken 37 shots in the tournament so far, with 21 of those on target—comfortably the highest figure of any team in the tournament.

England have attempted 65 shots, a massive 22 per game, with just 15 on target and 26 off.

It has been evident on the pitch, and it plays out in the numbers. Once they get to the final third of the pitch — the most important area—England are simply not clinical enough. Wales have shown far more ruthlessness in front of goal, and it's one reason why they have topped Group B.

Squad cohesion

Choice—manifesting as squad selection in football—is rarely seen as a bad thing. England have strength in depth, and that may have motivated Roy Hodgson into making multiple changes to his side for what was still a momentous game against Slovakia.

In tournament football, though, a lack of it can sometimes prove a blessing. Coleman did not make many changes for the Russia game, not because he did not want to but because he cannot, in order to keep a requisite level of quality on the pitch.

The suspicion was that playing a radically altered side would upset the rhythm that England had gained through the Russia and Wales games, and that proved to be the case in a performance that was full of endeavor but stilted.

As long as they do not pick up too many injuries, Wales' tight-knit unit should serve them well through the tournament

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Sportswriter at Newsweek.

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