Currently 116th in the FIFA rankings, their lowest ever, Speed inherits a young squad full of promise but lacking in morale, confidence and leadership. If Gary Speed is to improve Wales lowly status, he will need to mastermind two things that John Toshack never managed to replicate from the Mark Hughes era: a system that best utilises the players at his disposal and a morale boosting victory against significant opposition. Wales beat Germany early in Hughes’ reign and then Italy in a memorable qualifying match at the Millennium Stadium.
John Hartson was the attacking fulcrum of Hughes’ 4-4-2 formation. Toshack often fielded a 5-3-2 formation, with three centre-backs and wing-backs, which offered little going forward and mostly failed to stifle the opposition. With only one friendly showing to go on, a heavy defeat with an under strength squad in Ireland, it looks like Speed will adopt a 4-3-3 formation, with a central striker and two wide attackers. In this fixture, he was forced to use Robert Earnshaw up front with Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu supporting from the flanks, and they were unable to generate any forward momentum. Against England, it is likely Millwall’s Steve Morrison would have led the line with Gareth Bale on the left and Craig Bellamy on the right, a significant upgrade from the previous game and also the forward line favoured in Toshack’s final fixture, although Bale’s hamstring injury may force Speed to shuffle the pack.
In many respects, the current pool of players is as talented as Wales have had since the Hughes vintage of almost a decade ago, all of which residing within the top two divisions and with two exceptional young talents in Bale and the returning Aaron Ramsey. The likes of Wayne Hennessey, Joe Ledley and Chris Gunter are young but already experienced at this level. Adam Matthews, Church and Robson-Kanu belong to the next batch of promising Brian Flynn graduates, complimented by a core of established senior players like Bellamy and James Collins. The clear weakness appears to be up front, where the available options are Ched Evans, Sam Vokes, Freddy Eastwood, Morrison and Earnshaw, and goals have been and look likely to continue to be a problem.
Speed was a wonderful servant for the national side as a player and led by example as captain. He will have the respect of the squad and the fans when Wales face England in front of a full house in Cardiff on Saturday, and will need to find his feet quickly or that respect may soon dissipate. Not much is expected from the game – a solid showing and promise for the future would probably suffice, but a result of any kind would be received in a delirious manner and would certainly propel the team forward. However, as low as expectations are, a severe beating could cause irrevocable damage to both his reputation and future prospects.