Wales and Scotland both recorded their first Euro 2020 qualifying wins on Sunday after seeing off Slovakia and San Marino respectively.
Wales kicked off the afternoon with a tense 1-0 win over Slovakia at the Cardiff City Stadium courtesy of a Daniel James goal in the fifth minute, taking the nation to second in Group E after just one game.
Scotland were up next and Alex McLeish saw his side bounce back from humiliation in Kazakhstan with a relatively relaxed 2-0 victory over San Marino, thanks to goals from Kenny McLean and Johnny Russell.
And so, after an encouraging afternoon for the home nations in their Euro 2020 qualifying matches, what did we learn?
1. James opens Wales account
Daniel James is off the mark for the Dragons after netting a scorching effort on his first start for the nation, pinching the ball off Peter Pekarik before rifling a right-footed shot past a hapless Martin Dubravka, sending the Wales faithful into raptures.
The Swansea speedster has attracted plenty of admiration and revering glances from the football world this season for his explosive exploits at the Liberty Stadium, notably his terrorising performance against Man City in the FA Cup earlier this month, and that attention has only increased twofold after Sunday.
In the Welsh capital, the 21-year-old showcased his worth in scintillating style, playing with a vim and vigour that left Pekarik all at sea for most of the match.
He was able to repay the faith shown in him by his left wing predecessor, and current Wales head coach Ryan Giggs, with his opening goal, incidentally, the earliest goal scored in a competitive fixture for the nation since Giggs himself netted after just three minutes against San Marino in 2007.
Leeds United had agreed a £1.5m fee for James in January rising to £7m if they were promoted, but the move collapsed; and so, given his current form for both club and country, that price, as well as his stock, has significantly skyrocketed – Marcelo Bielsa will certainly be lamenting that failed transfer now.
2. Giggs’ young gun philosophy pays dividends
Over the years we have long been accustomed to the familiar faces of Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu spearheading the Wales attack, but on Sunday afternoon there was a freshness and vibrancy to the nation with Harry Wilson, James and David Brooks all injecting a vigorous and youthful impetus.
The average age of the Wales squad is just 23, with Wayne Hennessey the only player over the age of 30, and so on evidence of Sunday’s performance, the future is certainly bright under the stewardship of Giggs, who has demonstrated no misgivings in trusting younger players, and deploying a more inexperienced starting XI for recent outings.
And that approach proved profitable as his young guns caused Slovakia a myriad of problems and got their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign off to a flyer – there was an energy and fluidity about Wales’ approach, with James in particular, playing with a reminiscence of his international manager.
The talented winger will reap the rewards of learning under the guidance of Giggs, as will Brooks and Wilson. But it wasn’t just the attacking starlets who caught the eye; Matthew Smith was an exceptional buffer in a double pivot with Joe Allen, while Chris Mepham was impenetrable at the back.
3. A new reliance on Bale
Wales have long been reliant on the goalscoring and talismanic exploits of their prodigiously gifted forward Gareth Bale, and while he will still be the main man the Welsh nation turns to in terms of his threat in the final third, there is perhaps a new role the Real Madrid man has taken on since Giggs took the helm.
The 29-year-old didn’t have his best day at the office, but his involvement stretched far beyond freakish free-kicks and thunderbolt strikes – his deployment through the middle gave his younger attacking outlets room to thrive as the Slovakian defence were often overly occupied in trying to contain the fleet-footed forward.
And this will generally be the pattern of play for most matches as Bale is aptly seen as the most significant threat. The likes of James, Wilson and Brooks will be given carte blanche to operate more freely in the final third with Bale keeping opposition defences busy.
But it is not just his new positional role that will benefit the team, as Bale was also skippering the side for the second time in his career, taking on the senior mantle, giving his fledgling teammates advice and encouragement throughout the 90 minutes. This will prove pivotal in the development of James, Wilson, Brooks et al as a figure of Bale’s esteem can help them learn, taking them under his wing and nurturing their talents.
4. Fraser’s fine form goes on
Ryan Fraser has continued his fine form for Scotland, providing four assists in his previous three international matches after setting up Kenny McLean with a delectable delivery in the fourth minute.
The Bournemouth winger registered a goal and three assists during Scotland’s Nations League campaign, and he stepped up again in San Marino, providing the goods that were so desperately needed in Kazakhstan on Thursday.
Fraser was absent for that 3-0 drubbing at the Astana Arena after Bournemouth withdrew him over concerns regarding the artificial pitch, much to the dismay of Scotland. And his performance against San Marino on Sunday showed just how vital a cog he is for Alex McLeish, but that has largely been the story of the season for the diminutive winger, who has proven equally indispensable at club level.
The 25-year-old has come of age for the Cherries this term, scoring six goals and registering 10 league assists under the guidance of Eddie Howe. If Scotland are to make it out of Group I then they will need Fraser starting every game.
5. McLeish unsure of his best system
With the attacking trident of Oliver McBurnie, Oliver Burke and James Forrest proving ineffectual against Kazakhstan, McLeish shuffled the pack and made wholesale changes against San Marino, including a system alteration which saw the deployment of a target man through the middle, with Callum Paterson given the task of spearheading the attack – another man missing against Kazakhstan due to the artificial pitch.
Paterson’s aggression and hold-up play brought a different dimension to Scotland’s play with the Cardiff City man able to ruffle a few feathers, but he lasted just 37 minutes after coming off through injury.
And that meant Marc McNulty entered the fray, meaning McLeish has now used seven different forward players in just two matches. Against Kazakhstan he used the aforementioned trident in a 4-3-3, while against San Marino he opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Stuart Armstrong pushed from central midfield to the No 10 role.
With pressure increasingly mounting on the shoulders of McLeish, he will need to quickly establish his best system and best starting XI to create some form of consistency and cohesion in his squad.