Ireland’s rigid 4-4-2 formation will be exposed by England
Trapattoni fails to take another opportunity to experiment before some vital World Cup qualifiers
Robbie Keane (right) and John O’Shea talk during a training session at Wembley Stadium
As a manager I never did get the chance to take on England at senior level but memories of a few underage victories remain etched in the memory, like the 3-2 in Iceland when an Andy Reid goal direct from the tip-off, after Jermain Defoe had just equalised, won the Nordic Cup in 1998.
Another 3-2 win in the last group game at the Uefa under-19 finals of 2002 in Norway was even more memorable. England led 2-0 at half-time but we turned it around with a brilliant second-half show and goals from Jon Daly, just signed for Glasgow Rangers, and Paddy McCarthy, the Crystal Palace club captain, evened it up. And Stephen Kelly’s late headed winner sent us back to Oslo delirious.
Along the way we had some defeats too, but only in the friendlies – at least that’s my claim. Never mind the 5-0 defeat in Tolka one night.
The reason for the outstanding performances by Irish teams in so many sports when they take on the English are obvious and need little elaboration. But in soccer, particularly, the fact that our youngest and best reside and work among their often arrogant and teasing English team-mates incites a desire to show another side to Irish friendliness.
For Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli it may not mean much personally, but when the Irish team emerges at Wembley tonight they’ll be surprised by the support and passion that greets them.
Much has been said and written about the sad scenes in our last game against England at Lansdowne Road, it was the last in a set of five, after Euro 88, Italia 90 and two qualifiers in 1991. That none was lost was an indication of the strength and quality available to Jack through that era – Bonner, Moran, McGrath, Whelan, Houghton and a young Roy Keane, to name but a few. That type of quality and depth is not available to Trapattoni now, although the expectation levels live on.
While his term as the boss seems to be dragging along to a conclusion at the end of the current campaign, the stubbornness of the old fox will ensure he will fight tooth and nail to confound his critics with at least a play-off place by October next.
Of course, the Faroes home game on Friday week should be a relative doddle, but tonight’s game and the other friendlies give the manager a chance to continue with the rebuilding of the team and its morale after the Euro 2012 experience and that 6-1 home hammering by Germany.
Choice of teams
While Trapattoni’s choice of teams and tactics have, rightly, often been criticised, the change in personnel since that 6-1 have been remarkable. Just two competitive games later and only four of the starting team from that debacle – Séamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Jonathan Walters and James McCarthy – started against Sweden and Austria.
The loss of Ciarán Clarke and Marc Wilson breaks up a defensive unit that showed some promise in those games, but Seán St Ledger and Stephen Kelly have rarely let us down in the past.
Paul Green’s absence means Glenn Whelan features once again with the very promising McCarthy in a central role. Which brings us to the tactical crux once again. While Trap has suggested that had Anthony Pilkington been available he would have changed to a different formation, we did not get a clear picture of what he meant – but he hinted that would have allowed him include Wes Hoolahan in a number 10 role, as a second-striker-come-auxilliary-midfielder.
Perhaps the penny has finally dropped that we get outplayed in midfield too frequently against teams using three central players. Against Austria last time, the freedom afforded to David Alaba, the Bayern Munich star, in their three-man midfield finally punished us at the death. But just how much the energetic, inexperienced Pilkington would bring to the new show we won’t know now.
Ideal time to trial
The coach suggested that Pilkington’s goal-getting would be superior to Damien Duff or Aiden McGeady’s contribution in the past, but not in a 4-4-2 playing in Trap’s style, it wouldn’t.
Now is an ideal time to trial a new formation in these friendlies – 4-2-4 should be fine against the Faroes, but the other games should be used to try out and practice an alternative shape. The slapdash attempt to play 4-3-3 against Germany was a disaster, for the current Irish players clarity of roles and organisation is critical.
The return of Robbie Keane, while surprising given his US schedule, at least brings his partnership with Shane Long back together, although at the expense, possibly, of Hoolahan. The problem is neither, unlike Hoolahan, plays the number 10 role effectively enough against the better teams. Robbie did a good job against Sweden, but they were playing 4-4-2 so it was no bother.
The outcome of tonight’s game may have little impact on our qualification chances but the establishment of an alternative shape should have been paramount at this stage.
While Irish fans always crave a result against the old enemy, part of the coach’s role is to prepare for future challenges. The England squad does not at all look frightening and the absence of Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard certainly lessens the threat, but they still have enough ability and pace to cause us some problems. We can also be sure that Frank Lampard will be capable of providing some tactical and positional conundrums to leave a rigid 4-4-2 exposed.
Despite this missed opportunity, to test a formation suitable for the big away games against Germany and Austria, I expect our players, individually, to play above their current club status and perform effectively against a more vaunted but probably overrated opposition.