Ken Early: Ireland’s clean sheet comes at a crippling cost
Even Messi needs three chances to score a goal, Ireland seldom create three in a match
Cyrus Christie challenges Thomas Delaney during Ireland's goalless draw with Denmark. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty
The first minute of Ireland v Denmark on Saturday night was the most interesting minute of the match as we got to watch how the mysterious list of names on the Ireland team-sheet would assemble into the shape Martin O’Neill had in mind.
It looked like an Antonio Conte-style 3-5-1-1, with Jeff Hendrick in the Eden Hazard role. Three at the back was as expected, with Matt Doherty as the right wing-back, which was no great surprise either. Presumably that meant Cyrus Christie must be on the left – except, no, James McClean had taken up that position. So where was Christie? Ah, there he was in central midfield, tucked in to the right of the defensive midfielder Harry Arter, with Doherty outside him. Now that was a surprise.
I messaged a friend: “hmm, looks like Cyrus Christie is playing as a number 8. Denmark definitely wouldn’t have anticipated this.”
The reply came: “And until 15 minutes ago neither did Cyrus Christie.”
After the match Christie confirmed that he had found out for sure that he would be playing in midfield “when we got to the stadium”.
“Obviously I was playing in an unfamiliar position,” he said. “I think the last time I played there I was about 14, something like that, in the academy. The manager just wanted me to go out there and do a job. Try and get on the ball and drive with it, and help Matt out with Sisto, he’s obviously a good player. And I just wanted to get out there and put a shift in and work hard.”
Christie ended up winning man of the match, which must have been because he had Ireland’s only shot on target, a sweetly struck right-footed drive that didn’t have quite enough venom to beat Kasper Schmeichel from 20 yards. Otherwise he was mainly jogging about, like all the other Ireland midfielders, as Lasse Schöne and Thomas Delaney monopolised possession.
Christie, Hendrick, Arter and Callum O’Dowda finished the game with 84 passes between them, Schöne alone had 95.
If you want to get the ball off players like Schöne and Delaney you need a system. Pressing is an 11-man game, and it’s hard to co-ordinate all the individual and collective decisions of when to stay and when to press when your midfielders have never played together before.
It’s harder still when one of them hasn’t played in midfield since he was a child. O’Neill gave some insight into why he had picked Christie when he praised his exceptional physical condition, but you can’t dominate international midfielders with energy alone.
Then again Ireland did not go into the game to dominate; the aim was not really to compete for the ball and for the points. After losing the last two competitive matches by an aggregate score of 9-2, the aim was simply to survive.
That meant Ireland’s aims dovetailed neatly with those of Denmark, who were content to go home with a draw in the absence of Christian Eriksen. Their coach Åge Hareide said afterwards he expected Ireland to draw with Wales on Tuesday, which would leave Denmark top of the group with a game in hand.
And if Ireland go into the Wales match with the same safety-at-all-costs approach they showed against Denmark then there must be a decent chance of another 0-0.
If it did work out like that it could be said Ireland had “steadied the ship” with a couple of consecutive clean sheets. It would also mean Ireland would have to win in Denmark next month to have any chance of avoiding relegation to the third level of the Nations League.
Say what you like about ships that have come to rest on the sea bed, they are generally steady enough. The defensive solidity that Ireland showed against Denmark was clearly an improvement over conceding four or five goals, but if it comes at such crippling cost to the attacking potential then you have to wonder: what was the point?
Weight in gold
Afterwards O’Neill praised the team for keeping a clean sheet but agreed that Ireland need to show more of a goal threat. “That’s extremely difficult. It’s very difficult. We haven’t possessed a natural scorer since Robbie Keane retired. And they’re worth their weight in gold.”
The Robbie Keane line is getting old at this stage. There are a couple of obvious objections to the logic. The first is that it’s hard to understand why people talk about “natural scorers” as though goalscoring was a sort of magical gift accessible only to a tiny elect of born predators, rather than the scoring of goals being something that any team can do if they create enough chances. Ireland were not set up to create chances, and it’s hard to see how any striker, however “natural” a scorer, could look good in a team like this.
What difference could a young Robbie Keane have made on Saturday night, wrestling defenders as he tried to control chest-high balls that had been thrashed at him from 40 yards away?
Lionel Messi would have struggled if he was asked to do the job Shane Long had to do on Saturday night. Even Messi needs three chances to score a goal, and Ireland seldom create as many as three chances in a match.
You might argue: but of course you wouldn’t play Robbie Keane as the lone striker, he was never effective in that role. If you had a young Robbie you’d change the team to accommodate him, maybe partner him with a more physical forward. In that case you’re admitting that even the “natural” scorers need to be surrounded by a team structure that is designed to play to their strengths or their “natural” gifts mysteriously disappear.
If we would try to provide a “natural” scorer like Robbie Keane with a tactical set-up that would give him the best chance of getting close to goal and scoring, then it doesn’t seem very helpful not to do the same for the less natural scorers who are apparently all we have left to work with.
The second objection is that even if you take O’Neill at his word and grant that there are certain “natural” scorers who alone are ordained to perform the arcane rites of goalscoring, it’s pretty clear by now that Shane Long is not one of them, so why is he still in the team? This is a striker who has scored two goals in his last 64 matches for club and country.
As usual Long worked hard in his thankless role, but if what the team really needs is a “natural scorer” then surely it’s time to try somebody else. Players like Callum Robinson, Scott Hogan and Aiden O’Brien might turn out not to be good enough either, but at least they haven’t proved it yet. Even the natural scorers don’t score a lot from the bench.