The key Wales players lacking minutes ahead of USA clash

For Rob Page and his Wales team, preparation for this World Cup will have felt like a whirlwind. Only seven days separated competitive club matches and the onset of football’s showpiece event.

Over recent weeks, Page and his staff will have been monitoring their players moment by moment, play by play, exhaustively pondering their fitness.

But by Tuesday night, when Wales arrived in Qatar and settled into their Al Sadd Sports Club training base, there was very little he and his staff could do about about any fitness problems.

As the table below shows, several key players have lacked minutes in their respective leagues due to injury or limited selection as they head into their match against United States today.

Wales World Cup squad league minutes

Player

  

Minutes

  

Caps

  

Sorba Thomas

1564

6

Ben Cabango

1496

5

Chris Gunter

1485

109

Tom Lockyer

1409

14

Connor Roberts

1374

41

Danny Ward

1350

26

Chris Mepham

1252

33

Jonny Williams

1205

33

Brennan Johnson

1188

15

Dylan Levitt

1134

13

Mark Harris

1084

5

Neco Williams

1078

23

Ben Davies

995

74

Ethan Ampadu

838

37

Matt Smith

829

19

Joe Rodon

808

30

Kieffer Moore

747

28

Aaron Ramsey

574

75

Dan James

503

38

Joe Allen

493

72

Gareth Bale

370

108

Joe Morrell

352

30

Adam Davies

270

4

Harry Wilson

267

39

Rubin Colwill

258

7

Wayne Hennessey

0

106

One of those lacking minutes due to injury is Fulham winger Harry Wilson, who suffered a knee problem in a behind-closed-doors friendly before the Premier League season began, keeping him on the sidelines for around two months. However, he has been building up his minutes ahead of the tournament, featuring in seven league matches and starting three of Fulham’s last four. In those games, he averaged around an hour of play.

Joe Allen is in a different situation. He suffered a hamstring injury during Swansea’s Championship clash with Hull City on September 17. He has not played since, but returned to training this week in Qatar.

Others have not been selected as regularly as Page would probably like. Dan James, who has featured in every competitive Wales game since his debut four years ago, has featured 12 times for Fulham this season but last started a game on October 9, against West Ham United.

Aaron Ramsey started Nice’s final two games before the World Cup pause, playing 90 minutes in each, but had started just three of 10 league games before that.

Kieffer Moore has a bit of momentum, having started Bournemouth’s last three Premier League games, but those matches, along with a 0-0 draw with Brentford, are his only starts since the beginning of September.

The good news is that all of the above are training before the first game of the tournament, but with so much talk about players being overloaded being an issue at this World Cup, might the opposite be true for Wales?

“There’s probably two fronts on which a lack of minutes limits you,” says Professor Mike Loosemore, consultant physician in sport and exercise medicine.

“One is your fitness, and there is being fit and then there is being match-fit. It is very difficult to achieve match fitness in training. There is something different about playing a game, and the extra effort that you put in during that circumstance, that means you’ve really got to have been playing to be match fit.

“The other issue is sharpening of skills. If you’re a very experienced player, like the Gareth Bale level of player, then you probably do not need very much match time, because they have been doing it for a long time. They know exactly what they’re doing. But for perhaps more junior players, having the time to sharpen your skills, to get your timing right, all those little things that change you from being very good to being excellent, you can only do that with training time and match time.”

Bale, as Wales supporters know, is the master of timing his fitness to perfection for his country and regardless of minutes under his belt, he is still able to be a gamechanger. He showed this again recently for LAFC: despite making only two starts for his new club and managing only five minutes in the space of five weeks beforehand, he stepped off the bench in the MLS Cup final to score a vital equaliser, deep into stoppage time, against the Philadelphia Union. LAFC went on to win the match via a penalty shootout.

The nub of the issue for Wales though concerns depth, particularly in midfield. Joe Morrell has only started three league games for third-tier Portsmouth this season. Matt Smith of MK Dons last started a league game on October 11. Rubin Colwill of Cardiff, 20, has only made one start this season.

Wales training


Wales players training in Doha yesterday (Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Without consistent minutes, there are risks, even to those who are not carrying knocks.

“It does increase the risk of injury,” says Professor Loosemore. “It’s three things: basic strength, because you haven’t been able to do enough training and may not be strong enough to resist injury; a lack of endurance, so you get fatigued, and when you get fatigued, you get injured; and three, that sharpness and timing — if you slightly miss a tackle, or miss a landing from a header, you can easily do a cruciate, or twist an ankle.

“It’s a bit like when you step off a curb and you’re not expecting it, and you mistime the step by a centimetre, you get this massive jar through your body. It’s a similar sort of thing when you’re playing sport — if you’re timing slightly out, it can have quite major consequences.”

For Page and lead physio Sean Connelly, there is not much they can do at this stage to alter the landscape.

There are some helpful factors, such as the longest distance between two stadiums being 35 miles. That lack of extra travel all but removes travel fatigue as a consideration.

Also, the turnaround times between Wales’ group stage matches should be enough to enable a full recovery from game to game too.

“As long as they don’t get injured, they should be able to make a full recovery from that,” says Professor Loosemore. “You’re essentially trying to build up your glycogen stores again, and that takes around 48 hours.”

One factor that has had to be considered for training is temperature — Wales have moved their training sessions to 4.30pm instead of 1.30pm to avoid the greatest heat.

“What I’m sure they’re concentrating on is doing higher-quality work, rather than large quantities of work,” says Professor Loosemore. “So that is concentrating on things that they really need to get right. Rather than spending a lot of time doing shuttle runs etc. They’ll work on high-quality, high-skill work, rather than just general fitness work.

“It’s a very difficult position for coaches to be in, because they’ve just been given the players as they are and then they have got to try and produce a training session on: one, to implement team tactics, and two, not to damage them. You can’t get them fitter now, it’s too late to get fitter.

“The physios and doctors are going to have to try and get them through the tournament. So it must be incredibly difficult for all the coaches out there, because they all have the same issues.”

Wales will certainly not be alone in having to carefully manage their squad. Several key players from many countries, including Sardar Azmoun of Iran and Weston McKennie of the United States have had doubts hanging over them heading into the tournament. But that careful management will be an important part of Wales’ success in the tournament, considering the nature of their squad.

As this team have shown time and again, though, overcoming adversity is not unfamiliar territory.

(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)