How Wales can cope vs. Portugal without the suspended Aaron Ramsey
UEFA's harsh disciplinary rules for Euro 2016 were always likely to claim unfortunate victims, and it's particularly disappointing one of those suffering this week will be Wales' Aaron Ramsey.
The Arsenal man is a hard-working, talented midfielder for the competition's only remaining underdogs. He had lit up the competition with some decisive contributions in the final third, recording a goal and four assists in his five appearances so far, and is precisely the type of player you want to watch in a major semifinal. Alas, he'll be watching from the stands.
Aside from Gareth Bale, likely to be the main focus because of his clash with Real Madrid teammate and rival Cristiano Ronaldo, Ramsey is the worst player Wales could have lost.
After impressive displays in his first four games, Ramsey's performance in the 3-1 quarterfinal victory over Belgium was truly exceptional. Manager Chris Coleman has used Ramsey in two separate roles in the past couple of years, either as a deep midfielder in a 3-5-1-1 system or in a No. 10 role alongside Bale, which makes the system more 3-4-2-1.
Against Belgium, however, it was difficult to tell which role Ramsey was playing, because he was everywhere: deep when Wales were without possession, and between the lines when Wales had the ball. He continually made dangerous runs into the right-hand channel, partly benefiting from all the attention was on Bale. He created three chances in open play from that right flank, including the pass for Hal Robson-Kanu's superb goal, and three chances from set pieces, including the out-swinging corner that Ashley Williams powered home.
Replacing Ramsey won't be easy. In fact, it's fair to say Wales don't have anyone who can adequately fill that gap in the side, no one who possesses the stamina to play a box-to-box role and support both phases of play so effectively. Coleman's obvious solution, however, will be turning to Jonny Williams.
Williams will, in all probability, never start a game of this enormity ever again. A hugely likeable, creative attacking midfielder, he's (only slightly) ironically dubbed "Joniesta" by fans of his club side, Crystal Palace, because of his low centre of gravity, his ability to slalom past opposition challenges and his penchant for a through-ball.
In truth, he has struggled to make an impact in the Premier League, playing just 12 times in three seasons in the top-flight with Palace, partly because of injury problems. He spent most of last season out on loan to Championship clubs, Nottingham Forest and MK Dons, the latter suffering relegation to England's third tier.
Williams is, however, a wonderfully gifted footballer -- the type who probably belongs outside British football, in a league where the tempo is slower and the fondness for creative midfielders is significantly greater.
In that sense, he shares qualities with England's Adam Lallana and Ireland's Wes Hoolahan, who both excelled at times in this competition, despite frustrating seasons at club level. Euro 2016 matches have generally been slow, with compact defensive blocks requiring talented creators to pick them apart. Williams could be that man on Wednesday in Lyon, France, especially as Portugal aren't likely to know much about him -- and it's not often you say that ahead of a European Championship semifinal.
Williams was impressive when starting in Wales' opening group game, accelerating the play with quick bursts past opponents. Slovakia's inability to halt his mazy dribbles fairly meant Williams was fouled four times, including for the free kick that resulted in the opener -- a trademark swerving Bale free kick. With two free-kick goals in the tournament so far, Bale has managed two more than Ronaldo has in seven international tournaments combined. Don't underestimate the importance of a player like Williams being capable of winning those free kicks in dangerous positions.
Portugal's system could play into Williams' hands too, especially as their primary holding midfielder, William Carvalho, is another who is ruled out after having collected two bookings. In Portugal's quarterfinal match against Poland, which Portugal won on penalties, manager Fernando Santos used a peculiar 4-1-3-2 formation that allowed Joao Mario, Adrien Silva and Renato Sanches to dovetail behind Nani and Ronaldo, but left Carvalho somewhat exposed ahead of the defence. If Santos lines up that way once again, Bale will surely be watched carefully by Portugal's stand-in holding midfielder, probably Danilo, which would open up space for Williams.
Wales must also cope without the suspended left-sided centre-back Ben Davies, who Coleman has described as Wales' best defender in the competition so far. He would have been particularly useful, as a natural left-back, because he would have been up against makeshift centre-forward Nani, a natural right-winger. Instead, Coleman is likely to turn to James Collins, an entirely different type of centre-back who is formidable in the air but somewhat slow on the turn. Wales have backup players capable of coming into the side and doing a job, but both Davies and Ramsey lack proper replacements in their unusual roles.
Wales need to forget about that, however, and ensure the stand-ins are able to play to their strengths. Collins will need to be supported closely by left-wing-back Neil Taylor playing a deeper role than against Belgium, while Williams can be fed in tighter situations than Ramsey, who likes galloping into space.
It's difficult to imagine the disappointment Ramsey and Davies must be feeling, forced to sit out the biggest game in Welsh football history. They'll desperately hope, of course, that Wales will have an even bigger game on Sunday.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.