Wales defenders battle in their return to the World Cup.
Credit: @Cymru on Twitter.

Five lessons learned for crucial Iran game after Wales’ World Cup opener

Wales finally made their long-awaited return to the FIFA World Cup with a dramatic 1-1 draw against the United States – but what did the game really tell us?

In a true tale of two halves, Wales left the pitch 1-0 down at half-time against the USA shorn of the bravado that had carried them to Qatar.

As is often the case, Gareth Bale somehow salvaged a point with a ferocious 81st minute penalty and, as head coach Rob Page noted afterwards: “It was important we didn’t lose the game.”

Before Monday night, nobody in the Wales camp had experienced the occasion of a World Cup and it is important to take that huge emotional context into consideration.

But the World Cup waits for nobody and with a game against Iran on Friday November 25, Wales must learn quickly if they want a chance at progressing from the group.

So what lessons will Wales take from their first game?

1. Under pressure

Every player who started for Wales last night featured at Euro 2020 last summer, so they have tournament experience.

Captain Gareth Bale has starred in Champions League finals and so there is true big game experience. And yet, for the first 45 minutes of Wales’ World Cup adventure, the occasion seemed to suffocate them.

A young US Men’s National Team looked supremely confident, pinning Wales in a defensive 5-4-1 shape which left them with no way out. The 49-minute first half must have felt like a lifetime defending in the Qatari heat and the Welsh boys would have been glad to see the changing room at half-time.

Wales will need to show they have acclimatised to the heat and the occasion – especially against a side like Iran, who are used to facing the temperatures.

2. More and Moore

It didn’t need a scholar of the game to diagnose Wales’ problem in the first half.

The USMNT blocked Wales’ escape through midfield and on the wings which drew the Wales defenders into punting it long.

The result was a brutal cycle in which the US would collect the ball, pass their way up the pitch and threaten again.

Lucky for Wales, they had a perfect solution sitting on the bench. Page wasted no time in replacing the diminutive Dan James with Kieffer Moore and Wales suddenly had a way up the pitch.

More than just his height, the 6ft 5in striker was able to run the channels, threaten from set-pieces and bring other attackers into the game.

Page effectively took one player off and brought three into the game.

Moore’s second-half showing should have taught Page a valuable lesson: pace is good, but big men are useful, too.

3. Midfield misery

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are the star names in red, but many members of the Red Wall point to midfielder Joe Allen as the most important player for Wales. The Swansea midfielder was included in the squad but not fit enough to contribute in Wales’ opening game.

He is the sort of player who does his job quietly, but his absence is loud.

With the wing-backs battered every time they tried to get up the pitch, Wales sorely needed another way of transitioning from defence into attack. Ethan Ampadu was excellent in breaking up the play and Harry Wilson looked composed, but no one in the squad does it like Joe Allen.

If Joe Allen is fit, he starts.

4. When the going gets tough, Gareth Bale gets going

Gareth Bale only played 384 minutes for Los Angeles FC before the World Cup but his last-gasp equaliser in the MLS Cup final was the perfect summary of the last few years of his career.

If he used to be a steam-powered marathon runner, he is now the final man in a relay – always getting his team across the line.

The product of Whitchurch High School scored all three goals in Wales’ play-off ties against Ukraine and Austria and did it again on the biggest stage. He might not be the player he used to be, but he still has the ability to set the standards, absorb the pressure and make the difference when Wales are praying for something special.

Bale might not play every minute of the tournament, but it will reassure Wales fans everywhere that he still delivers when it matters most.

5. To leave Group B, or not to B?

On the same day that Wales salvaged a draw against the US, England fans had something to celebrate with a 6-2 win against Iran.

Fans had noted that Group B contained four teams inside the top twenty of the FIFA Men’s World Rankings, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that every team looks tough to beat.

England’s stacked squad will be aiming to end their “years of hurt” by lifting the trophy. The USMNT are young, hungry and forged in the most competitive leagues of Europe.

Even Iran, who conceded six, showed they were not shy in front of goal. An expected goals tally of 1.52 should serve as a warning to Wales on Friday. England were clinical, too, with an xG of 2.39 far less brutal than the six that Iran shipped.

Wales fans saw the worst in the first half against the US. If they are to progress from this group, they will have to be at their best.