Euro 2024 qualifying: Wales’ new era begins in Croatia
- By Michael Pearlman
- BBC Sports Wales
Euro 2024 Qualifier – Group D: Croatia – Wales
Venue: Poljud Stadium, Split Date: Saturday March 25th Begin: 19:45 GMT
Cover: Live on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website & app; Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.
Some Wales players have called it a ‘new era’, while boss Robert Page has spoken of ‘restarting and reshaping’.
For Wales this is the new reality, life after Gareth Bale, life after men’s top scorer and greatest modern footballer… life after their leader.
Having qualified for three of the last four major tournaments, having previously only equaled the 1958 World Cup, and enjoying a crescendo of fan interest, Wales’ new era comes at a time when expectations have arguably never been higher.
For Page, following a disappointing World Cup, now is a time when he will be forced to step away from a group of players who have brought Wales unprecedented success.
A tougher start could not have been given as Wales meet World Cup semi-finalists Croatia.
So does Wales face a bright new era or a return to their footballing dark days or anything in between without their record player and star player?
What kind of team will Wales be?
One of the main criticisms of Wales during the World Cup was that they were a side that lacked any obvious style or plan and relied too much on Bale’s waning talent.
Retirements will now force Page to take a different path.
The Welsh manager has promised he will now “make his own mark” and focus on more athleticism.
With a clear penchant for pace, Page appears to be turning Wales into a counterattack team.
“We now have to let the next group of players come through. We’ve seen the athleticism of some teams at the World Cup and we need that to stay at the top,” Page told BBC Sport Wales.
“We need energy and pace in the team. We are already doing what we need to be competitive.”
Former Wales defender Danny Gabbidon expects Page’s side to play in the counter-attack in Split.
“Your game plan against Croatia has to be right, teams better than Wales have struggled,” he explained.
“Wales need to get men behind the ball and kill that space and look for a counter attack because another area Croatia are lacking a bit is pace.
“Wales has to be clinical on the break and defend really well.”
“We’re a normal team again”
Wales can no longer be a team defined by the effectiveness of their greatest player since John Charles.
Bale’s numbers are frankly outrageous and speak to how dependent Wales were on his performance.
During his international career, he averaged every 210 minutes on the pitch and was directly involved in a goal every 137 minutes with 22 assists.
Bale scored a third of the team’s goals during his international career and his overall goal contributions accounted for more than half of the total.
This includes his early international career from 2006 to 2010 when he often played at left-back.
At his peak, from 2011 to 2016, he scored or assisted 65% of Wales goals while on the pitch and from 2016 to 2022 that percentage was still 57%.
With Bale on their team, Wales won 46% of their matches – without him, the win rate almost halved to 27%.
Former Wales captain Ashley Williams, who led Wales at Euro 2016, believes a period of transition is now upon us, similar to when he joined the national team following the retirements of Gary Speed and Robbie Savage.
“Let’s hope these players don’t take as long to get things right as it did for us,” Williams told BBC Sport Wales.
“But it’s a new story now, a new chapter for these guys. It’s time for her to write her part.
“It’s a bit sad, my era is ending with the players I’ve played with, but I’m excited to see what the younger players can bring.
“You can’t replicate the stardust that Gareth Bale brings. We’re a normal team again without an absolute superstar and that’s okay.
“Now this team has to put their own stamp on things. You can take it anywhere.”
Croatian test a strict one
In the inexperienced Wales’ first competitive game, they travel to Split to face a Croatian side with more caps than a hat factory, led by their superb 37-year-old midfielder Luka Modric.
The 2018 World Cup finalists and semi-finalists in Qatar, Croatia are one of the most experienced and consistent sides in world football.
“Croatia have a lot of experience and it will be difficult to play against them,” said former Wales striker Iwan Roberts.
“One can only hope that Father Time will surely catch up with them in one campaign or another, and let’s hope it is this one.”
Gabbidon thinks it’s important that Wales don’t define their new campaign based on their result in Split.
“I’d rather get the toughest game out of the way first, we still have time to catch up,” he said.
“I still think we can finish second in the group.
“I’d rather play the toughest game first because with all the changes we’ve had, the first game is going to be difficult no matter who you play against.”
Croatia gone? Definitely hard.
But life after Bale? Now that’s a real challenge.