Bale plan doesn't stop Wales
Stop Gareth Bale and you stop Wales? Not exactly. His national team, like his club side, have been branded a one-man team. Scotland took measures to nullify the Tottenham player. Yet they were leading when Bale went off and lost with his replacement Jonathan Williams a pivotal, if indirect, influence on the game's tactics. In a game of two halves, they beat Wales with Bale and lost to them without him.
On his first competitive game in charge, Gordon Strachan had to answer the question that confronts Premier League managers on a weekly basis: how to keep Bale quiet? For Scotland, the task sounded simpler: they only faced the Tottenham player for 45 minutes before an ankle injury forced his withdrawal. Before then, Wales manager Chris Coleman aped Andre Villas-Boas in using the former full-back turned winger in his new role as a No.10 in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Scotland, who played the same shape, wanted to be positive and play in the Welsh half. They also aimed to limit the space available to Bale.
Their chosen approach was to play with the back four pushed up, compressing the area between the lines. Both the central defenders and the central midfielders were detailed to close Bale down quickly when he got the ball, to stop him before a solo run started, which they sometimes did by using illegal methods. It was especially important as none of the four players in question are anything like as fast as Bale. It was perhaps also significant that Charlie Adam, less mobile than Graham Dorrans and James McArthur, began on the bench.
There was a risk in Strachan's tactics, however. Whenever a team looks to commit plenty of players into the opposition's half, they are liable to leave room either in front of, or behind, the defence. By heading for the half-way line to try and nullify Bale, the Scotland back four played a high, 1980s-style offside trap and against a striker, in Craig Bellamy, who was faster than their two central defenders.
It was compounded by other problems Scotland created for themselves, gifting Wales possession with poor passes or being caught in possession in their own half. Their first-half lead came after 45 minutes when the visitors had generally been the stronger.
But, fittingly for a British derby, Scotland adopted a traditional approach and had scored from a set-piece. As is common at corners, centre-half marked centre-half, but with a difference. Sam Ricketts was playing in the middle of the Welsh defence but is mainly a full-back. He was beaten by Grant Hanley for the goal, a match-up where Scotland isolated a taller man because Gary Caldwell made a near-post run to take Ashley Williams out of the way. Their emphasis on the aerial ball was already apparent. It was notable that Scotland's two best chances before then both came from crosses directed at striker Kenny Miller.
When Bale was replaced by Williams and with Scotland ahead, the hosts were content to drop deeper. It reflected the sense that stopping Bellamy was now their priority by giving them greater insurance against his speed but also afforded Williams a freedom Bale was not permitted; indeed, it allowed Wales to assume the ascendancy in the midfield.
The Cardiff forward, meanwhile, who had not played as an orthodox attacker before the break, was still not unconventional thereafter. Even while Bale was on the pitch, he showed a tendency to roam. After the Tottenham man's substitution and with Wales chasing the game, he kept on veering deeper and wider. There was less space behind the Scotland defence but, seeing that, Bellamy looked to make his mark elsewhere.
Indirectly, however, Wales owed their leveller to their fluidity, if not his. Williams had moved to the flank but the Crystal Palace midfielder tended to operate in the inside-right channel. Lacking a natural winger on the side benefited Wales, however, because it permitted right-back Chris Gunter to overlap outside Williams and his driving run brought the penalty for Aaron Ramsey's equaliser. For Hal Robson-Kanu's winner, Williams found Andy King making the run nearer the touchline.
By the time Scotland trailed, the two men starting in the No.10 position had both been relocated: the hurt Bale to the dressing room and Shaun Maloney to the left flank after Robert Snodgrass was sent off. Scotland first went 4-4-1 and then, when Jordan Rhodes came on for Chris Burke, 4-3-2.
When Wales were reduced to 10 men, they mirrored Scotland's first-half failings: Aaron Ramsey was caught on the ball by McArthur and tugged him back. It was too late for Coleman to change shape, however: the final whistle went after the subsequent free kick.