20 year old Ethan Ampadu is ready to set the standard for Wales’ youngsters are Euro 2020.
When Wales reached the semi-final of the 2016 European Championship Chris Coleman’s side was very much a squad at the peak of its powers.
Gareth Bale was 26 and had just won his second of four Champions League titles. Aaron Ramsey’s injury problems had not yet fully impacted his Wales career and captain Ashley Williams career was starting to wind down.
This time around Wales’ squad is characterised by youth. They have the third youngest squad in the competition (average age of 25.5), two years younger than their previous Euros squad . Only group A rivals Turkey (24.9) and neighbours England (25.2) have more youthful sides.
Whilst surprise call up Rubin Colwill may be the youngest at just 19, it’s Ethan Ampadu who best represents Wales’ faith in young players. Ampadu was just 15 when the Red Dragons enjoyed a fairy-tale summer in France. However, he was a part of the senior team training camp before the tournament.
Out of the 12 players 23 and under in the squad, Ampadu is the most experienced.
Only 20, he has already won 22 Wales caps since making his debut as a 17-year-old against the World Champions too be France in 2017. Since then the Chelsea defender has matured into one of the most important players in Rob Page’s side.
The turning point
It was in September 2018 that Ampadu truly announced himself on the international stage. He bossed the midfield as Wales trashed the Republic of Ireland 4-1 in the Nations League.
At 17-years-old Ampadu looked like an already established midfielder.
That game was also the turning point for the whole national team. New manager Giggs bedded in some new talent. He gave starts to Chris Mepham, David Brooks and Connor Roberts and subbed on Matt Smith and Tyler Roberts. All five players have become established players for Wales in the years since.
Playing in a deep-lying role alongside Joe Allen in a 4-2-3-1 Ampadu was faultless. On the ball he was composed and he was strong in the tackle. Those skills were best encapsulated for Wales’ third goal that night.
Having pinched the ball just inside of the Welsh attacking half Ampadu drove forward through the Irish midfield before playing in Ramsey with a cutting pass before he smashed the ball home at the near post.
The youngster also gave the members of the Red Wall a flavour of his fantastic passing range. A sweeping ball from the centre circle out to Roberts started the build-up play for the game’s opener, scored by Tom Lawrence.
Ampadu could have had a second assist when a perfectly wated long pass found Gareth Bale who had made his run a split second too soon.
Since that fantastic night at the Cardiff City Stadium Ampadu has established himself in the Wales team. In the 28 games since, he has featured in 20, starting 17.
He was the only player to play every single minute of Wales successful 2020/21 Nations League campaign. They topped group B4 to gain promotion to the League A. Not only that but Wales won the most points in League B.
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More than just a midfielder
The only worry during Ethan Ampadu’s early Wales career was his lack of minutes at club level. After joining Chelsea from Exeter in 2017 he played just four league games between then and the start of the 2020/21 season. During that time he won 15 international caps.
After an uneventful season on loan at RB Leipzig in 2019/20, his only highlight a fantastic performance against Tottenham in the Champions League, he joined Sheffield United for the 2020/21 season.
This was his first taste of consistent minutes in senior football. He played 29 times for the Blades last season. In 21 of those games he played as one of three centre-backs in a back three.
Ampadu’s versatility has been seen on the international stage too. In that Nations League Nations League campaign, he played three out of six games in defence. In the absence of Joe Rodon, and later Mepham, he started as a centre-back.
A change of system
Since Rob Page took over from Giggs in November 2020 Wales have had a change of system. In Page’s second game in charge against the Republic of Ireland Wales have switched from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3.
Whilst Ethan Ampadu initially kept his place in the midfield the recent form of Joe Morrell could force a permanent move to defence. That is where he started in Wales final friendly – a 0-0 draw with Albania – before the Euros.
Ampadu is already accustomed to playing in a back three following his loan spells at Sheffield United and RB Leipzig.
This season for the Blades Ampadu has averaged 15.47 pressures per 90 (via Fbref) which puts him in the 98th percentile when compared with centre backs. He’s also a strong tackler with 2.67 per 90 which is higher than the average of 1.56.
He can also create from defence with 0.65 shot creating actions per 90. Whilst that number is low for a midfielder it puts him in the 70th percentile for centre-backs. Those long balls could be crucial for Wales as they look to break using the pace of Dan James and Gareth Bale.
Wales look likely to deploy Aaron Ramsey as a false nine at Euro 2020. That would leave two midfield spaces to be filled by Joe Allen and one of either Morrell or Ampadu.
Morrell has been fantastic in recent games for Wales but has had very limited minutes with Luton, only playing 452 minutes in the Championship this season. He didn’t play a single game between his 90 minutes against Czech Republic in March and his start against France last week.
That lack of game time could see Morrell struggle to play three group games in eight days. Ampadu is more than capable of stepping back into midfield. It was the dynamic between him and Allen that got Wales to the tournament in the first place.
What ever role Ethan Ampadu is given this summer he is sure to deliver. He has done since he was 17-years-old.
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