Better than Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and John Stones (for now)? Yes, says Daniel Storey, who is very impressed with Wales’ Mr Consistency…
John Terry is 34, and you worry about Gary Cahill if he gets turned around. Phil Jagielka is still prone to the odd lapse in concentration, while Chris Smalling is improving but not yet fully cured. Phil Jones retains the whiff of calamity and John Stones is still learning. Nobody from Scotland or Northern Ireland even merits honourable mention, so the question is a valid one: Is Ashley Williams Britain’s best central defender?
Watching Wales vs Israel on Sunday, an uninitiated observer would be forgiven for assuming that Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were their country’s only competent players. There was a buzz from the crowd and fervour from the commentators whenever either player got the ball, but this was an indicator of reputation rather than performance. Bale ended the match with five shots (one on target); Ramsey managed an extra shot on goal from his five efforts, but also missed more presentable chances. He also gave away a quarter of his passes in the Israel half, (forgivably) guilty of trying a little too hard to force the chance needed to secure qualification.
Anyone who thinks Wales are led purely by Ramsey and Bale are guilty of badly misjudging the situation. Of the 52 other countries involved in UEFA qualifying, 25 have scored more goals than Wales, despite the fact that 35 have played at least one fewer game. The Welsh may lead their qualifying group, but they have scored fewer goals than any other home nation.
Instead, it is Chris Coleman’s defence that has facilitated this extraordinary run. Only one team in qualifying has conceded fewer goals than Wales’ two, and they have yet to concede from open play in the entire campaign. They are also unbeaten competitively since October 2013, despite scoring just 11 goals in 10 matches.
The turnaround for Wales is remarkable. During qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Wales were ranked 47 out of Europe’s 53 participating countries in terms of goals conceded. Now, they are ranked second.
It is impossible to overestimate Williams’ influence on that improvement. He replaced Ramsey as captain of the side in October 2012 after Wales had lost five straight matches, conceding 13 goals in the process and scoring just twice. When Williams took over the armband, Wales were ranked 57 in the world; they are now inside the top ten.
“The great thing about Ashley is he never misses games for club or country,” said Coleman of his ever-present captain. “He trains with injuries, plays through injections. Players want to follow him.”
None of Williams’ peers match him for fitness and reliability. It’s a statistic that I have used recently, but bears repeating ad infinitum. Since the start of 2008/09, Swansea have played 26,730 league minutes – Williams has been present for 26,002 of those. He’s been on the pitch for 97.3% of league minutes over a period of seven years. Terry – England’s most consistent defensive performer over that period – boasts 81.1%. No other outfield player in the top flight comes close.
That record is even more impressive given that it began following Swansea’s promotion from League One to the Championship. Five months earlier Williams made his Wales debut, two days before moving on loan to south Wales from League Two Stockport County. Still playing in the bottom tier of the Football League when almost 24, seven years later Williams is one of Europe’s most consistent centre-backs. To have kept his place in Swansea’s side throughout that run is one thing; to have stayed injury, fatigue and suspension-free is another entirely.
If that praise seems over-zealous, perhaps Williams suffers for his understated air. He is not a headline-maker. Preferring to sweep behind his central defensive partner, he relies on pace and positioning far more than tackling ability. Last season in the Premier League, Neil Taylor (79), Angel Rangel (54) and Federico Fernandez (53) all attempted more tackles than Williams’ 43. Taylor played 300 minutes fewer than his team-mates, and Rangel and Fernandez both around 1,000 fewer. His passing statistics make him the perfect lynchpin of Swansea’s style.
Williams’ reliability extends to his personality and demeanour. Released by West Brom at 16, he worked as a waiter while playing for Hednesford Town for two years. He is humble and reserved, joking that he gets stick from his Swansea colleagues for enjoying reading books on the coach to away matches. Williams has also embraced the effect of sports psychology, not just on him but also those under his captaincy.
“Being the captain permanently, I have worked on changing my style a little bit in terms of leadership,” Williams says. “It’s something I’ve worked on a lot with Ian Mitchell our sports psychologist this season. I try to push the right buttons to get the best out of every player, and I feel like I know them well and look after them.”
That sense that Swansea is a club where players and coaches care for each other is hugely endearing. Every summer Williams is mooted for a move away from the Liberty Stadium, but the captain has never shown any indication of inclination to move on. Whereas once Arsenal and Liverpool were mentioned, this summer Crystal Palace were made the most likely suitors, a reflection of Williams’ age rather than drop in performance.
If a reported £25m price tag seemed ludicrous, it shouldn’t – Swansea have no reason to sell. The fees discussed (and paid) for other defenders in the last two years only adds to the price tag. Recent evidence also shows how difficult it can be to hit the ground running in English football when arriving from abroad.
As far as his international manager is concerned, Williams is as good as any of his Premier League peers. “Certain players get overlooked,” Coleman says. “I see some teams signing centre-backs for a lot of money and I think ‘how has that happened?’. Because I have seen Ash do it week in week out for club and country and he is one of the best in the Premier League and that is one of the best leagues in the world.”
Coleman has reason for bias, but it’s hard to argue with that assessment. The term ‘model professional’ has become hackneyed through its overuse, but it’s a label Williams emphatically deserves.
It is also no coincidence that Williams has played such a vital role in the sustainable rise of both Swansea and Wales. British football’s Mr Dependable is at the heart of two extraordinary football success stories.