Wales continued their Cinderella story on Friday by knocking out Belgium 3-1 in a Euro 2016 quarterfinal. Wales went behind early when a rocket from Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan found the back of the net inside of 13 minutes. Not to be deterred, Wales rallied and registered three unanswered goals to book surprise passage to the semifinals (and a date with Portugal).
While all three Welsh goals were well-worked, the first goal in particular merits inclusion in Master(Set)Piece Theater. Although Ashley Williams was the player who got his name on the scoresheet, it was truly an exercise in teamwork that saw Wales equalize.
As Aaron Ramsey prepares to take a corner for Wales, the sideline official indicates he must wait: the center official has stopped play to deal with the mini-melee happening inside the box.
Four Welsh players (James Chester, Williams, Gareth Bale and Joe Ledley) are attempting to stand in a single file line inside the penalty area. Belgium’s defenders, who opted for man-marking on set pieces, are desperately trying to stay with their assignments, leading to a fair amount of jostling and shoving prior to the delivery of the corner kick. As a result, referee Damir Skomina calls a halt to play and advises against any further contact.
The warning from the official allows the Welsh players to assemble in their, for lack of a better phrase, Tactical Column (from front to back: Chester, Williams, Ledley, Bale). Note that all four Belgian defenders have formed a line in front of the potential attackers. With no easy way to block off the Welsh runs, this approach seemingly represents the simplest way to track the runners.
As Ramsay takes the corner, three of the four Welsh players spring to life. Ledley (#16) sprints towards the near post, Chester (#5) moves towards the back post, and Bale (#11) drifts into the 6-yard box. Only Williams (#6) remains more or less in place.
For their part, the Belgian defenders do their best to stay organized. Denayer tracks Chester and Witsel holds onto Gareth Bale for dear life. The major mistake comes from Meunier and Lukaku, both of whom follow the run of Ledley. The Welsh midfielder was the only attacker to depart the column at full sprint, a fact which may have thrown off Belgium’s outside backs. As a result, no one seems to notice that Williams is unmarked.
As a result of the movement of his teammates, Williams (who remained in place as the corner was delivered) is now wide open.
Denayer is the first (and only) Belgian player to recognize the situation, and moves towards Williams in a vain attempt to intervene. Lukaku tries to head clear, but can’t get close to the ball. As a result, an unencumbered Williams is able to meet the ball and steer it into the back of the net.
In the alternate camera angle, it becomes clear just how open the “Welsh Tactical Column” enabled Williams to be. At the time he heads the ball into the net, Williams’ closest defender (Denayer) hasn’t even managed to get his foot within a yard of the Welsh centerback.
Wales would go on to employ this set piece approach at least three more times in the match, and consistently looked dangerous on set pieces. This trend, combined with the fact that all three goals came from attacking the weakened left side of Belgium, points to considerable preparation from Welsh coach Chris Coleman.