Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughIreland: An Improvement of Sorts - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Ireland: An Improvement of Sorts - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Ireland: An Improvement of Sorts

Ireland managed to hold out against Russia on Tuesday night to leave  themselves with a  good chance of qualifying for Euro 2012. What the 0-0 result doesn’t say is that Ireland were outclassed, out thought and outplayed for the better part of the game. They allowed Russia to control 63% of possession and to get 26 shots away at goal.  Ireland managed just one attempt on target in comparison to Russia’s eight. While the defense coped admirably with the task at hand, and have done so for the most part of Giovanni Trappatoni’s reign, the question of whether they can continue to keep Ireland in games remains. They rightly gathered all the plaudits after a magnificent performance on Tuesday night. However a fair slice of fortune was also a factor, with Roman Shirokov missing the sort of chance that goes in nine times out of ten. This was  an example of the sort of chance that a top international side would bury. Against more testing opposition, Ireland look to lack the attacking thrust necessary to win games. What has also gone unnoticed is the fact that the Russian defense were able to do their job with minimal fuss against the Irish attackers. Ireland’s defending may have been heroic, but Russia’s was equally as solid and they were able to combine it with cohesive attacking play, something Ireland could not do.

On Friday night, Ireland had no plan B when Kevin Doyle was substituted in the 60th minute. The Wolves striker has, for the past few years, been the focal point of the team, doing the hard work to allow Keane to get into scoring positions. Ireland’s style of play has reflected a dependency on this type of target man being available. Against Russia, Ireland employed the same tactic of lumping the ball forward to Robbie Keane, in the hope that he would be able to perform the same role as Doyle. However, all this did was cause the Republic to lose possession, as Robbie Keane is about as far from an aerial target man as it gets. Keane was reduced to chasing the ball when it eventually landed, meaning Ireland made no beneficial use of their most potent goalscorer.

While four clean sheets from eight in a campaign that sees Ireland in with a good chance of topping their group is a good return, the lack of positives in other areas of the field is startling. The Republic have scored just 11 goals in 8 games,  an average of 1.3 goals per game. The argument that Ireland are a boring team is one that holds water. While many fans might accept boredom in return for a place in Ukraine and Poland, the fact is that Ireland will not be able to progress past the group stage if they continue to grind out 0-0 draws, unless other results swing their way. The general line of reasoning is that this is all Ireland can reasonably expect. If this is the case, then the lack of ambition shown by supporters is, if nothing else, depressing. It’s little wonder that Roy Keane decried the lack of ambition and almost clownish nature of the Ireland set up in 2002, when he said the team turned up to have a bit of a laugh and reveled in the role of gallant losers.To lack the competitive streak in such a massive way is unforgivable at the highest level.

This fatalism is reflected in the way that Trappatoni sets up his team, with Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews anchoring the midfield and McGeady and Duff providing attacking options from the wings. Doyle and Keane give the “little and large” combination so often seen in striking partnerships. Whelan and Andrews are there primarily to provide defensive screening for the back four. This leaves the attacking onus on Duff and McGeady. Duff’s footballing brain is as sharp as ever, but he no longer has the pace to beat his man and get the crosses in for Doyle and Keane. McGeady has yet to find real consistency of form on the international stage, despite his immense ability. Part of this seems to stem from the fact that he is required to spend most of the game mired in his own half as part of a defensive set up. For the rest of the game, the ball bypasses him as it sails through the air from the back four to the front two. Ireland lack imagination going forward and their midfield serves as nothing more than an extension of their back line or as onlookers in the aerial bombardment of opposition defenders.

There must be a change in the system to allow the same defensive strength to complement an augmenting of the system going forward. This requires a break from Trappatoni’s favoured 4-4-2 formation to a more progressive 4-5-1. James McCarthy is the real loser when Ireland continue with their dour 4-4-2 defensive system. The Wigan man has the sort of ability that the current Ireland set up lack. He can unlock a defense with a pass or create the space with his movement to free up room for other players to get forward. Deployed at the spear point f a 4-5-1 formation, Mc Carthy could provide the sort of incisive passes that Keane, Doyle or Long have been crying out for. Even the much maligned Stephen Ireland, if he finds his form again, would be a marvellous addition to the 4-5-1 system. Whelan and Andrews could remain in their screening positions, while Duff and McGeady would have a player in-field to exchange one-two passes with, allowing them to get down the wings more as Ireland’s current system lacks width. Duff is the kind of player who has been on the international stage long enough now to be smart enough to slot into the role of attacking midfielder as well, allowing Stephen Hunt to ply his trade down Ireland’s left flank.

Talk of Robbie Keane’s demise as a striking force and as Ireland’s most important player has been much exaggerated. The system that Ireland play at the minute does not allow a player of Keane’s calibre to flourish. That he has maintained his magnificent goal-scoring form for his country is in spite of, not because of, Ireland’s tactics. Keane has always had a good sense of positional play and his finishing can usually be relied on. If he were to receive passes played along the ground in front of him, from an attacking midfield playmaker like Duff, McGeady or even Ireland,  Keane could expect to fill his boots. He may have lost a yard of his pace, but he retains the football savvy to get himself in scoring positions. It is the responsibility of the Ireland coach to unlock this ability and exploit it to it’s utmost extent. The Republic also have fantastic back-up to call on in the form of Shane Long, who with every game he plays, looks more and more like becoming as influential a player as Keane for Ireland over the coming years. His pace, pressing and finishing all require a better mode of service than the long ball.

Unfortunately, if Ireland are to change their system and method of distribution, then Kevin Doyle looks set to lose out. Although Doyle has been a magnificent servant for Ireland, the new system would not really tailor to his style of play. The only way it would work is if Ireland wished to play the 4-5-1 system proposed with an aerial target man, which basically forgoes the reasoning behind changing the formation. Doyle would have to reinvent himself or rediscover the goalscoring form that he lit up the Premiership with at Reading in 2006-07, which saw a return of 13 goals. This total that would have been much higher had his season not been ended two months early by a bad hamstring injury.

The fact remains that if Ireland want to do more than simply “have a good time” and “enjoy themselves”at a major international competition, then they need to change both their style of play and their mentality. It should not be the case where the squad go to the competition with the mere aim of making up the numbers. The current Ireland set-up cannot even hide behind the excuse of being “gallant losers”, Russia being a case in point. If Russia had taken one of the numerous chances they created, then the game would have been remembered as a national low-point, the day Ireland were trounced by the Russians and came home with nothing.

Instead, we were treated to the sadde
st indictment of Irish football’s current mentality. John Delaney, the FAI chief, was seen after the game running to the traveling supporters and throwing his tie into their enclosure. This exuberant celebration coming after Ireland had just been outplayed in every area of the pitch and had been extremely fortunate to emerge with a point. Surely such a show of gloating, without any particular premise for doing so, is something Irish supporters should be embarrassed about. Delaney’s intentions may have been good, but it reveals a worrying lack of ambition at the very top levels of the FAI.

As galling as Roy Keane’s decision to leave the 2002 World Cup squad was, he had a point about the Irish mentality. The Republic have come a long way since then, showing a greater degree of ambition and professionalism in securing Trappatoni’s signature, but it seems the same mentality that it’s acceptable, even expected, to lose against the bigger teams, is very much the prevalent ideology within Ireland. This must change, if Ireland are to change their fortunes on the international stage.

Damien Edgar



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