Wales have just returned from this World Cup and it’s time to reflect on the lessons that have been learned for future campaigns, more than what could have been done differently in Qatar.
We need to focus on the next big final – the 2024 European Championship – and decide which direction we will take to get there.
That’s the goal now and I’m 100% sure that Rob Page is the man to take us to Germany.
He brought us to this World Cup, and he knows the team and the work that needs to be done for us to qualify, some of which has been shown in this tournament.
Wales must find an identity
The first thing we need to do is establish a clear identity, like my Wales team did when we reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016. We were a bit naughty and very hard to beat .
With our strongest team, we probably had nine seasoned pros who had seen it all and weren’t impressed with anything, be it top teams or a hostile atmosphere.
We would keep a clean sheet and always knew we had one of the best players in the world to rely on in Gareth Bale to get us something at the other end.
It’s a different scenario for Page now, as Bale is getting older.
In Qatar, we felt like we were thinking about the new approach, but hoping that the old one would still work for us.
That’s good, but now is the time to look to the future. Page needs to move away from what worked before and find out what is going to be the new thing for Wales to fall back on.
So, will they try to outmaneuver people, fight them…or do a bit of both?
The good news is that we have some time to breathe before the next Euro qualifying campaign, which starts in March.
We have Croatia, Armenia, Turkey and Latvia in our group, and the top two qualify automatically, with further places available through the Nations League play-offs.
Getting through that is totally doable and we have to think we can get to Germany, but at the same time Page has to decide what kind of team he wants us to be and make us that team along the way.
Bale can bow out whenever he wants
It looks like Bale will be part of this Euro 2024 campaign after saying he will play for Wales for as long as he can and as long as he is wanted.
This is great news for us. We haven’t seen the Bale from, say, Euro 2016 at this tournament but he still provided a massive moment as he stepped up to score our penalty against USA.
I’m glad he has a World Cup goal to add to his legacy for Wales, which was huge anyway.
I was an England game pundit with Ian Rush, another Welsh legend, but I wanted to say on air that he’s the greatest Welsh player of all time – and I’ll say it again here.
On the way to the game, we had a chat with Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand about whether Bale was also the greatest British player of all time. Everyone had a different opinion on who it really was, but the fact that Bale was in the conversation shows the extent of his accomplishments.
He has always given his all for Wales and it hasn’t been easy for him. I saw him play despite his injuries and nothing ever stopped him from joining the team, no matter where we played.
If he decided to retire now, no one could complain about his commitment or his contribution to the national cause.
He led those boys to a World Cup so any time he wants to retire is fine with me. He mentioned that the Euros are just around the corner, so we might see him again. I hope.
A new nucleus on the Wales side
Hopefully we can make plans involving Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen too, but the core squad for the Euros, and certainly beyond, will have to come from elsewhere.
What is positive is that we have good young players, and they all already have a lot of caps.
I’m talking about Ethan Ampadu, Harry Wilson, Dan James, Joe Rodon and Brennan Johnson, most of whom have 40 caps and at least one major final experience.
I think it’s time for them to see where Page wants us to go and move this team forward now, whether Gaz, Aaron and Joe are there or not.
I was really impressed with Ampadu’s performance in Qatar, he is going to be a very important player for us in the next few years.
It’s difficult for him because his versatility is so useful to us, but the fact that he can play in so many positions means he hasn’t found a single one.
That could change if Page decides on a stable formation when he implements his plan.
We’ve been swinging between three and four in defense too much lately, and that’s not helping the players when they come into the team.
If the team always plays with a fixed form and in a certain way, it is much clearer what to do.
This must change in this next qualifying campaign. Back-to-back tournaments were our goal after Euro 2016 – and it didn’t happen. But Page has already achieved that. Now we need to do three in a row.
From 2008, when I made my debut for Wales, until the 2014 World Cup, we never even had a conversation between the players about the possibility of playing in a final, our approach was simply to do our best and stay in contention as long as possible.
We’ve come a long way in a short time and had a fantastic time along the way, but now a new journey begins. Page and his team have to work hard to make sure we get to the next party.
Ashley Williams was talking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar.