Players’ uncertainty may stem from manager
Those lucky buggers Down Under don’t know how good they have it. At least, they’re still getting glorious defeats to watch and then moan about. Back up in Euro-world Ireland will head into the history books as one of the poorest team in the competition’s history if they don’t manage to reverse what has been a dreadful run of form when they face Italy tomorrow.
In fact, Ireland will officially be the worst, on paper, if they succumb to a 3-0 defeat in Poznan, and let’s face it, the way things have been going, that could very easily happen.
Nobody had the heart to bring that little nugget of statistical gold to the attention of Richard Dunne yesterday when he stopped for some journalists after training in Gdynia. The Aston Villa defender was generous with his time, and considered every questions and answer, as he and the huddle tried to pick apart the reasons for brittle performances in Poznan and Gdansk this last week.
He had the look of someone who stayed up all night thinking about it, and all he could come up with was that it was a “coincidence”. Two early goals in games in which seven were shipped overall were, he said, down to nothing more than chance.
So, that’s it? Shit happens?
Well, it does sometimes, but maybe not in this instance.
Dunne suggested things have been the same, that they have prepared as they always have done and that there is no explanation for silly mistakes and below par performances. But Trapattoni has referred to some “psychological problems” and has talked to the players about this perceived anxiety and uncertainty.
He never proffered his own explanation, other than they lack tournament experience. That is fact, but it’s not really an excuse for a team like the one that took to the field against Croatia, for instance, which had 689 caps on the mantelpiece
The manager may be better off asking himself the cause. The Italian’s tenure has been defined by certainty. He is a creature of habit, yet prior to this tournament and during it, there has been constant uncharacteristic indecision.
Taking Paul McShane instead of Kevin Foley, having named the latter in his squad, was understandable considering worrying niggles with all four of his centre back options, but it was unlike him to row back on such an important decision involving a loyal, although peripheral, squad member.
It was also odd when, before arriving in Montecatini for the training camp, he named Sean St Ledger in the side to face Bosnia but started the next day with Darren O’Dea instead. Again, not a mistake, but another unusual change of heart considering St Ledger was fit enough to come off the bench.
The uncertainty spread further, to his formation, in Hungary. After a fairly limp 0-0 draw with their hosts Trapattoni said he would have to consider bringing a striker back into midfield in order to counter certain opposition. This is where things may have become problematic because Trapattoni’s system has always been paramount, yet here he was talking about changing it. Not a massive adjustment but a significant one nonetheless.
He has never failed to remind people of the limitations of his players and the importance of the system, the details and intricacies of which he has been drilling into the players for four years now.
The fact he would need another man in midfield on occasion, especially in this group, has been obvious for some time but it’s irrelevant. With a tournament a week away he had no time plan for it.
After defeat to Croatia, in which his decision to introduce Simon Cox was on the left wing was bizarre considering the options he had on the bench, he broke with tradition by waiting until matchday to name his team to face Spain, something he had not done for four years. A couple of hours before kick-off it was revealed Cox would start in a withdrawn role behind Keane.
Trapattoni had no reason to think it would work because he never made any meaningful plan for it and because he put Cox on the pitch to stifle Xabi Alonso, a third or fourth-choice striker at West Brom up against the dynamism, vision and savvy of Real Madrid’s elegant midfielder.
When that didn’t work (and Cox did better than he should have done) the manager changed his mind again and brought Jonathan Walters on – another uncharacteristic decision so early in a game and another example of a hitherto unflappable manager being unsure of himself, his tactics and his players.
Is it not possible, then, that the anxiety Trapattoni sees in the players is in fact inherited from him? The same way, say, highly strung kids belong to highly strung parents.
Trapattoni’s club record is unimpeachable but his international resumé is relatively ordinary. Getting Ireland to this tournament was about as good as it got for him on the national scene and it’s quite obvious he was desperate to do well in Poland and to finally add a footnote of worth to his international CV.
One former international in Poland has strongly suggested on this trip that the team has been over-trained, while Aiden McGeady intimated it after the game in Budapest and Cox was tweeting about it before he left Malahide last month.
Intensive preparation for a tournament like this after a nine-month season is simply not necessary and even counter-productive.
Coupled with his unusual changes of heart throughout the build-up and the tournament, it would suggest the manager himself was anxious and was determined to leave absolutely nothing to chance in Poland.
In doing so, he may have undermined the core strengths of his team – their “mentality”, their “psychology”, their “rhythm” and their trust in his plan.