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Ken Early: John O’Shea’s Ireland on-trend with a healthy nod to Bayer Leverkusen

From the interim manager’s point of view, this might have been just a winning goal short of perfection

“A boring game, not a good one, slow rhythm, slow passes, no sharpness ...” Belgium’s coach, Domenico Tedesco, could hardly have been more withering about the game, and a fair few of the 38,000 in attendance probably agreed.

At half-time, I met an Ireland fan on his way out the gate with his family, headed for home. Four months ago, at the last Ireland game, I had been standing in the same place when I met the same Ireland fan on his way home at half-time.

We laughed at the coincidence. You must really hate these games, I said. He said he thought this time they were actually playing quite well, it was just too cold to sit there for another hour.

For many, the finger-numbing cold combined with the 0-0 scoreline added up to the archetypal meaningless friendly. For John O’Shea, leading Ireland in his first senior game as a manager it meant quite a bit more.


The O’Shea who came bounding into the press room afterward was conspicuously more adrenalised than the midweek or MD-1 press conference version, buzzing with enthusiasm and full of thoughts about the performance he had just overseen.

It was not easy for the players, there were no spaces between the lines

—  Domenico Tedesco

He was surprised to hear of Tedesco’s scathing review. “No sharpness from his team, or ... ?” From O’Shea’s point of view, this might have been just a winning goal short of perfection.

Belgium had found it impossible to play through his team. “It was not easy for the players, there were no spaces between the lines,” Tedesco had said. The fourth-ranked team in the world had created only one big chance in more than 90 minutes, when Caoimhín Kelleher saved from Thomas Meunier.

Ireland, for their part, had created three big chances and a couple of smaller ones. The clearest of those was the penalty missed by Evan Ferguson in the 28th minute. The Brighton striker’s standing foot had slipped slightly as he struck the penalty, resulting in a scuffed shot straight at Matz Sels.

Ferguson should also have scored when Robbie Brady’s cross found him six yards out in the first minute of the second half, but he seemed to jump a fraction too early and headed over.

Still, there was enough quality from the 19-year-old to show that his perplexing 21-game goalless run can’t possibly go on for much longer.

He was an effective part of an Irish press that worked energetically through the first half, timing their moments to close down as a team and forcing several turnovers.

O’Shea had set the team up in a 3-4-3, with Josh Cullen and Will Smallbone as a double-pivot in midfield and Ferguson leading a narrow front three with Sammie Szmodics to the left and Chiedozie Ogbene to the right.

When Ireland had possession, the wing backs pushed high and wide while Cullen and Smallbone stayed close to the three spread-out centre backs and worked to find passing angles to release the players further forward. A move in this pattern led to the foul on Ogbene that produced the free-kick from which Ireland won the penalty.

O’Shea talked afterwards about the critical importance to the system of that central partnership.

“That six position, the pivot in midfield, that’s the connection we just felt was gonna be key in terms of protecting the team, but also a huge chance for us to exploit on the counterattack with their passing ability. To connect the team, either with short passing, combining themselves, different angles, to find the pockets of Sammie and Chieo. That was the key thing for me, that’s what we were looking for.”

Defensively, Ireland hardly put a foot wrong all game, which is not something we’re used to saying.

The risk of this kind of system is that when it goes wrong the balance can tilt too far towards defence – that you end up defending with seven players and attacking with three, and struggling to create or score.

If you’re going to play with a double-pivot and three centre backs, your wing backs have to be able to make the difference in attack.

O’Shea alluded afterwards to this issue, talking about the importance of the central defenders “being able to swing round into a four with the wing backs pushed high like a winger”.

“In the first half we got locked in a few times. We spoke about: don’t have three players holding five of us back. We can’t have it, because it’s gonna be too hard for our front three, they were gonna have to work too hard. So they needed to fix that a bit quicker in terms of communication ... and when they fixed that at times it was brilliant, we were up the pitch, we were pressing higher, forcing Belgium back and picking up better positions for us when we won the ball back.”

The overall shape, with the laterally swinging back five, the attacking wing backs, and the emphasis on the central double-pivot suggests that O’Shea has been paying attention to the success of Bayer Leverkusen, whose incredible form in a similar system has made Xabi Alonso the most sought-after young coach in Europe.

We talked about it at half-time, quickly at the reset, get at Belgium as quick as we can, we worked a nice little kick-off

—  John O'Shea

Leverkusen have had no problems finding the right balance between defence and attack; their record is 38 games, no defeats, 103 goals scored, 30 conceded. They have scored at least twice in 32 of 38 matches, and failed to score just once.

They could not have done this without exceptional contributions from their wing backs. They usually line up with the playmaker-creator-scorer Alex Grimaldo on the left, and the lightning-fast Jeremie Frimpong on the right. The pair’s huge attacking impact is evident in the numbers. They are Leverkusen’s joint-second top scorers with 11 goals each, while in the assists table Grimaldo is second and Frimpong third. Séamus Coleman and Robbie Brady played well on Saturday, but it’s asking a lot to expect them to have that kind of influence.

The only Leverkusen player with more assists than Grimaldo or Frimpong is Florian Wirtz, who plays in the Ogbene-Szmodics position behind the main striker. On Saturday night, he scored a brilliant goal for Germany just seven seconds into their 2-0 win away to France.

It would have been the quickest-ever goal in international football – had Christoph Baumgartner not scored for Austria just six seconds into their match against Slovakia earlier the same day.

Both goals seemed to be prescripted plays: the set piece-ification of football now extends even to kick-offs – and Ireland have noticed.

O’Shea: “We talked about it at half-time, quickly at the reset, get at Belgium as quick as we can, we worked a nice little kick-off ...”

The kick-off move went Szmodics-Cullen-Szmodics-Brady-Ferguson and it should have led to a goal 11 seconds into the second half. It’s nice to be on-trend.