Ireland playing stone-age football puts us in the lap of the gods

Inability to change when needed has severely damaged World Cup hopes

Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Jon Walters with Per Nilsson of Sweden. Photograph: Inpho

Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Jon Walters with Per Nilsson of Sweden. Photograph: Inpho

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 11:56

We were found out as a one-stroke football team last night. No complaints. Beaten fair and square by a slightly inventive Swedish side. The players effort cannot be questioned but they were simply not good enough. What hurt the most was our inability to change when the game demanded we do so.

Sometimes in a sporting contest, usually boxing, the best laid plans are forgotten when an early punch spills blood on the canvass. Tactical considerations get shelved. It becomes instinctive. It becomes a brawl.

In the early rounds, the Aviva felt like the roof had been torn off the national stadium last night as we went toe to toe with the Swedes. The stadium needed this sort of contest but it will be forgotten as it contributed little to our aspirations of going to Brazil.

Winning in Vienna is an absolute must now.

Why? Well, we never got the ball down and played football through our technically proficient players.

When Sweden did just that, through their elegant Paris St Germain striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they did enough to earn the three points.

That was the difference.

I was enthused by our energy from the kick off. Maybe the return of Richard Dunne to the heart of the defence helped. The minding of the cartoon villain on the night, Ibrahimovic, started encouragingly but Richard was booked before half-time for kicking him. Twice.

Key block
Marc Wilson also got a key block on Sweden’s one world-class player in the opening 15 minutes but as Zlatan dropped into The Hole the Irish back four seemed too frightened to go in after him. It was an understandable fear being humiliated.

It became a game that would be decided by a moment of quality. Glenn Whelan went as close to Ibrahimovic as he could but that opened gaps elsewhere.

My main concern was Jon Walters. As the Swedish midfield began to gel he looked every inch a centre forward operating wide on the right. He was exposed. Marc Wilson, who started really well, was also not interested in being caught in No Man’s Land when Sebastian Larsson drifted inside. It was a familiar problem as our almost fluid opponents went about exposing our rigidity.

No Irish player shirked their responsibility last night. The evidence was there with Whelan ripping off an early shot. Robbie Keane was like a dying wasp, looking for that killer sting. Crucially, everyone seemed switched on.

It is so rare to see two international teams adopting 4-4-2 formations. Initially, I hoped we would be fine playing stone-age football. No tactics, just banging it up the middle and in fairness we were getting on most of the second balls.

And then Robbie Keane delivered, as he has done on so many occasions, exposing what we already knew to be a rickety Swedish defence. It was pure Robbie of old: springing to life like a Jack in the Box when his initial scuffed shot hit the post.

It came off a route-one ball and a flick on by Shane Long.

The Swedes were having all sorts of problems with James McClean’s deliveries and especially the physicality of Shane Long and Walters. It was raining and we were lashing ball down on our struggling visitors.

Madness embraced
Anders Svensson, the old man of Sweden’s midfield, was in all sorts of trouble, and James McCarthy knew it, robbing him to send Long thundering down on goal once again. It was madness but we all embraced it.

We were playing without subtlety. Séamus Coleman’s darting runs were never utilised and worst of all the team wasn’t willing to trust McCarthy. Everything was sent over their heads.

McCarthy was forced to push on and hunt for scraps. Maybe he should have insisted on being the team leader. Maybe he should have demanded the ball and tried to play it through Sweden.

It wasn’t long before a whipping cross by Mikael Lustig found Elmander dashing in front of Dunne. It was a brilliant goal.

Back to square one. Actually back further than that. The Swedes came alive with Dunne scrambling to save us from another in-swinger from the right.

The second half was more of the same. Blood and guts. Blow for blow.

It was going to be decided by a special moment. By a player who stood head and shoulders above the others. Ibrahimovic created another chance for Larsson, which Forde saved, before he sent Svensson through on goal for the killer second goal.

Finally, Ireland tried to pass the ball, like they do for their clubs every Saturday, but it is awfully difficult to switch mindset after an hour of ping pong. The ball refuses to stick. The manager reacted with Simon Cox and Anthony Pilkington (already a favourite, I fear). A refusal to alter archaic methods.

I feel like we are the only nation playing like this. When it really mattered, boot and bollick was all we had to offer.

We are in the lap of the football gods now.

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