Martin O’Neill needs to tell Shane Long he’s the main man

Playing Robbie Keane as the lone striker has rarely worked

Ireland’s Shane Long  celebrates his late strike against Latvia.

Ireland’s Shane Long celebrates his late strike against Latvia.


Friday’s performance was certainly encouraging. The intent was what warmed the cockles of many an Irish football heart. The style of Martin O’Neill, both on the field by his team and the man off it, was impressive. More because of the contrast in his approach to Giovanni Trapattoni than anything else.

Remember when the national team used to sell out the national stadium? More of the enthusiasm adopted by Ireland against Latvia will keep the crowd streaming back.

Keiren Westwood endeavoured to play it out from the back and our midfield trio could dip into space for a pass because the back four opened up high and wide (whether David Forde will be afforded the same luxury this evening seems unlikely).

And do you think Trap would have even considered playing a front four of Robbie Keane, Aiden McGeady, James McClean and Wes Hoolahan? No, nay, never.

Too small, too light for the Italian and still these were the men who gave the crowd back their voice. The confidence of McClean, McGeady and Keane goals, allied by Hoolahan’s touch, was what made us start believing again.

Yes, Latvia were dire and it is early days but we all needed a perestroika and glasnost moment. The new management immediately offered us such hope. With the visitors clogging the middle, pathways were created for decent service up to McGeady, McClean and Keane.

This is how the game should be played more often than not. Especially against lesser opponents. Now, it will be interesting to see if this trio can be employed against stronger opposition, against teams ranked above us.

Attack the best
Are we really willing to go out and attack the best, to let Séamus Coleman and whoever secures the left-back role raid forward when the moment demands it? I don’t think such an attacking formation can be accommodated on the road.

This brings us to the first major conundrum of the new era. Robbie Keane and the system he is played in. If he is played at all. Keane’s attitude on the pitch and desire to represent his country remains obvious even if his number of goals against major nations deserves further scrutiny.

His goal at home to Sweden in the 2-1 defeat last September was the only strike in six games against our three Group C rivals. That is not enough. Playing Keane as the lone striker has rarely worked. But it is the way O’Neill has regularly set up his club teams.

Kevin Doyle and Shane Long deserve further examination attacking through the middle, and I expect one of them to become the main target for crosses.

O’Neill played behind and then coached players like Billy Hamilton, Gerry Armstrong, Emile Heskey and John Hartson; big, bustling target men.

Like Long.

The WBA striker looked like he was cracking up in Ireland camp over the last year. He was picking up yellow cards when lashing out during the brief cameos offered to him. Then Noel King didn’t use him and he had a go.

Just like McClean last Friday, all that can change tonight by telling Shane he is the main man. Just go out there and justify the faith we are placing in you. The team have been too dependent on route one and set-piece goals, but I feel that is set to change.

Analysing an away formation is the main value of tonight. Poland are actually ranked nine places below us (69th) and we played them already this year, so it begs the question: what are we doing back in (a cold and damp) Poznan? It will be different though as both nations are under new management.

O’Neill is mindful of the need to keep fluid communication channels open with club managers. That means trying not to flog any player over 180 minutes. Still, I feel John O’Shea needs to be retained at the heart of the defence.

I also expect to see Paul Green as a holding midfielder. He performed adequately when given a chance against Sweden, Austria and against Poland last February.

Poland will provide the necessary technical and tactical challenge so obviously missing in the Latvia game. There won’t be anywhere near the same time to pass from the back. So we will need to scrap for possession. That will tell O’Neill and Roy Keane something more about their soldiers.

Tonight we also have the opportunity to address the embarrassment of the Euros when our statistics were the worst on show. Over our three group games we completed 725 passes to a green jersey. Spain racked up 3,915. A stat somewhere in the middle would do us just fine.

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