Ken Early: Switzerland exploit flaws in McCarthy’s grand plan
Ireland looked like a side trying out a new idea in pre-season against Switzerland
Shane Duffy reacts after conceding the second goal against Switzerland. Photograph: EPA
Turns out Peter Schmeichel called it about right. “Switzerland will win against Ireland. I have seen Ireland play and they are so bad.” He was so withering he sounded almost like an Ireland fan, and a painful night in Geneva will have done little to change his mind.
Ireland did not create a single scoring chance, lost Séamus Coleman to a red card that will keep him out of the final qualifier next month, and only some great goalkeeping by Darren Randolph and a series of desperate last-ditch blocks and interceptions prevented the 2-0 defeat from being an absolute rout.
The defining image of the night was the sight of Shane Duffy lying face down across the goal line with his head in his hands as the final whistle blew. He had slid into that position after stretching to try to block Edmilson Fernandes’s shot for Switzerland’s second goal in the 92nd minute. Duffy had given it everything but in the end his defence was overwhelmed. Apparently taking pity, the referee blew it up to spare Ireland having to restart.
In fairness to Mick McCarthy, at least he had come into this game determined to try something new. Clearly recognising that a repeat of the performance in Tbilisi could only end very badly for Ireland, he opted for what by his standards was radical change, with Aaron Connolly, Alan Browne and Enda Stevens coming in for Callum Robinson, Conor Hourihane and Matt Doherty.
McCarthy confirmed before the match that the shape would be 3-5-2, with Connolly up front, Stevens on the left of a back three and James McClean at left wing-back.
The selection of McClean at wing-back meant one of the best wing-backs in the Premier League was being left on the bench and another was being played out of position in the centre. The wing-backs are arguably the most important players in the 3-5-2, and McClean seemed a strange choice for the role when there were two specialists available.
But the logic of the new system was evidently to use Connolly in the central areas where he could be most dangerous, with Collins acting as his minder – McCarthy having expressed doubts as to whether the 19-year old could be a “lone runner” up front. Unfortunately, it was better in theory than in practice. Ireland looked a bit like a side trying out a new idea in pre-season. They were leaving huge gaps between the lines and the Swiss were playing through them easily. Connolly was chasing across the field after the ball, with no hope of getting it as he was the only one pressing, and at this rate of pointless energy expenditure he already looked a likely candidate for an early substitution.
Soon after that Connolly latched onto a pass over the top and smashed a hard low ball through his marker and across goal – to nobody. James Collins, who had been following up the play, shouted at Connolly, seeming to suggest he should have turned and knocked it back to him. Connolly shouted back, seeming to suggest that Collins should have been trying harder to catch up and get himself into the middle. The new partnership was off to an uneasy start.
There followed a pretty inept spell in which Irish players took turns to pass the ball off the pitch, and before long Ireland fans were reduced to applauding the splenetic outbursts of Connolly at various team-mates, the 19-year-old channelling the general frustration they felt watching Ireland try to string moves together.
Connolly himself was not immune from the general sloppiness, squandering a good chance to make something happen when he received the ball in space after a Swiss corner, but failed to get it under control and ended up slithering into an opponent and unsuccessfully appealing for a foul.
McCarthy abandoned the 3-5-2 experiment after less than 30 minutes and switched to 4-3-3, with Connolly on the left and McClean on the right, though it was at times hard to work out what Ireland were trying to do, with Collins frequently wandering around in halfway.
The striker did not reappear for the second half and Connolly was now the lone runner McCarthy had said he couldn’t be, with Callum O’Dowda introduced on the right and McClean on the left.
The 15 minutes after half-time were Ireland’s best spell of the game, as the Swiss, who now had everything to lose, seemed a little nervous. Glenn Whelan was an unexpectedly influential figure in this period, helping Ireland to stay on the front foot with some energetic tackling and following-up.
But the goal didn’t come and when McCarthy replaced Connolly with Scott Hogan on 70 minutes the initiative seemed to come back to Switzerland.
Hogan was about as threatening to the space behind the Swiss defence as a fridge, and they knew it, pushing up in search of the goal that would make the game safe. After Coleman’s sending-off the waves of attack became a flood and the overdue clincher was fully deserved.
“If you’d told me at the start of it that we would be in position to qualify by winning one of our last two games, I’d have taken it,” was Mick McCarthy’s line going into the match against Switzerland. Ireland’s position now is that they will qualify if they win their last match against Denmark, and presumably McCarthy would have taken that too if you’d offered it to him at the start of the group.
The one silver lining of having lost to Switzerland is that if Ireland do beat Denmark next month, they will qualify along with Switzerland at Denmark’s expense.
Maybe Peter Schmeichel won’t end up having the last laugh, though it seems unlikely he’s losing any sleep over it.