Brian Kerr: Ireland should take leaf out of Leicester’s book
Our long-ball game was enough to make it to Euros, but won’t be enough to survive there
In last Friday night’s friendly international against Switzerland, Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph’s brief was clear: pump the ball up to Kevin Doyle, then Daryl Murphy. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
An old yet familiar concern festers in the mind. I went back through the Republic of Ireland’s qualification campaign and remain unconvinced we have evolved, at a suitable enough pace, to avoid a repeat of the uncompetitive showing four years ago in Poland.
Ireland remain a long-ball team. In the last four matches against Germany (twice), Poland and Bosnia & Herzegovina we averaged only 35 per cent of possession. We completed 178 passes per game in comparison to the 415 average of the opposition yet managed to go unbeaten in three games, only losing 2-1 in Poland.
That was enough to make it to France but won’t be enough to survive over there.
In the modern game many teams win on less possession but that’s because they maximise their own qualities. Take the ultimate success story this season. Leicester City defend deep, pass quickly through midfield with Drinkwater and Kante using the pace of Vardy, Okazaki and Mahrez.
My point is Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and James McCarthy are equally efficient passers of the ball. Why must we do all the tracking back?
There is a nice balance to Martin O’Neill’s team now, enough to upset teams through our physical presence, so why not also use our quality midfielders, with Séamus Coleman and Robbie Brady, further enhancing this more creative approach?
When chasing a goal and a point in Germany they showed they can produce a combination of precise passing, physical effort and aerial combat. It started to happen when Wes came on. Remember when Poland went 1-0 up over there? Wes arrived and we started to pass the ball with sharpness and really should have scored.
Contrast that with the 2012 Euros and all the headless running Irish players did without the ball. Giovanni Trapattoni was unbending in his out-of-date formation.
Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady were flogged wingers trying to support Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane, while our central midfielders, Keith Andrews and Whelan, were outnumbered before being outplayed by Croatia, Spain and Italy’s technically superior players. When we had it Shay Given kicked it, God guided it, and the opposition came at us again, and again.
Nobody wants to see that happen against Sweden, Belgium and Italy this summer. Especially Sweden, as we possess superior players. I’m confident O’Neill won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Martin and his staff learned through the qualification process that adaptability and varying systems are necessary at the highest level. In the first game away to Georgia, Robbie Keane was the main striker, with Stephen Quinn as his supporting midfielder, in a 4-3-3 system.
That was quickly identified as ineffective and both men were benched.
The campaign ended with Daryl Murphy and Hoolahan in these roles, but most importantly Jon Walters as the outside right/auxiliary attacker.
A big man up front makes room for Hoolahan and gives Ireland a creativity we have not had for a very long time.
So Keane had to go, along with wingers McGeady and James McClean (who remains a key option off the bench) in order for Wes to shine.
Jeff Hendrick and Brady cover the left effectively and while it is not pretty to look at, it works. Especially with the guile of Walters and Hendrick.
But a general lack of intent to pass the ball continues to deny this Ireland team reaching their full potential.
Last Friday’s not so good 1-0 win over Switzerland saw O’Neill revert to 4-4-2. A mundane game, the result would have kept morale high among this huge squad. More fringe players will be buzzing with the prospect of playing tonight against Slovakia. Probably a debut for Wolves full back Matt Doherty, with Stephen Gleeson getting a third cap after years in the wilderness and Newcastle United's Rob Elliot also picking up a third.
Hopefully O’Neill abandons the 4-4-2 because we must, for our very salvation, start adapting a more progressive style of play. Otherwise, nothing much will change at a major tournament.
On Friday last, Randolph’s brief was clear: pump it up to Kevin Doyle then Daryl Murphy. Neither David Meyler nor Quinn possessed the nous or imposing presence to get hold of midfield. We had to wait until Hoolahan’s arrival before seeing some combination play with McCarthy and Eunan O’Kane.
At least O’Neill knows his best team. Nor are Ireland a one-trick pony. McCarthy, Hoolahan, Whelan and Harry Arter are all regular midfield starters in the Premier League. They can pass and retain possession under pressure.
Time to trust them as more than scrappers and second ball merchants.
Belgium and Italy will allow us build from the back as neither are high pressing teams. It might be riskier but after Poland in 2012 the Irish soccer public would forgive error if it came from adventure. There is enough time, enough training days, to get the process in motion and for Ireland to be a genuine threat at the Euros.