Spain are susceptible at the back . . . honestly they are
But we may never find out. Our Italian think tank will not make the giant leap from their trusted philosophy, writes BRIAN KERR
AS OUR morning train meandered along the tracks from Wroclaw to Poznan, through flat, well-tended fields for almost three hours, my thoughts turned to Irish battles with Spain when I was youth team manager.
We got deep under their skin during those heady days. They were annual meetings for a while, and increasingly spicy due to the results. On the eve of tomorrow’s seemingly impossible task, I thought about the tactics that delivered four victories over the Spaniards from under-16 to under-20.
Sure, we lost a couple – the third place play-off in Reykjavik in 1997 sticks in my mind – 3-2 it finished. They kicked Damien Duff around the pitch, scoring the winner when he was off receiving treatment.
But from then on we had the edge on them. They hated meeting us but were forced to respect us.
Tonight though we are seen as a mere speed bump by this great side. Damien would have been part of the victory in Malaysia while John O’Shea would have been part of the 2-0 win in Scotland in 1998 and maybe, just maybe, talking about those successes will have proved of some use these past few days.
When they did beat us they generally went on to win the tournament. Their phenomenal success at underage has ensured a stream of creative talent is constantly flowing into the national squad.
How did we beat them? Always with a 4-3-3 system, much like they have set up for decades now. We were never out-numbered in midfield and there was always a player close at hand to pass to once we regained possession.
But it was our counter-attacking nous that always caught Spain. It was paramount to have a well-made, grafter up front allied by clever wingers in support.
In the present squad that would be Shane Long assisted by Duffer and Aiden McGeady. To me anyway. On underage teams we had Duffer, Andy Reid and the likes of Trevor Molloy and the dashing Richie Partridge, now a physio at Liverpool.
Two of the three central midfielders would support the attackers as early as possible to ensure there was five in the box. After that it was about concentration, discipline and massive work-rate.
Would it work against the current Spanish team? I’ve no doubt it could.
Our Italian think tank will not make the giant leap from their trusted philosophy. Drilled into the current team, the conservative version of 4-4-2 is the gospel according to Trapattoni.
It all but guarantees we’ll be given the runaround tonight.
Sadly our creative pair, the aforementioned wingers, are instructed to be defenders first in the current shape. It means their naturally unpredictable imaginations are diminished.
I was reminded recently about Duffer being allowed to use his brains by previous managers. The man will never be a robotic footballer. Shame as it makes him, just like the rest of the team, far too one-dimensional.
Spain dipped below their exceptionally high standards against Italy but one has to admire the courage of Vicente Del Bosque for selecting a front four of Silva, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. Perhaps the tiniest attacking force ever seen from a major nation at a major tournament, it is the most skilful.
The touch and mesmerising movement to find space to receive the ball was evident throughout. But it could have cost them. No established striker like Torres, Llorente or Negredo played into the Italians hands.
Cesare Prandelli may be a student of Trap yet he sent out a 3-5-2 line-up that worked. But this was down to their steely concentration and clever physicality along with De Rossi’s inspired switch to defence. Their wing backs never stopped motoring while the central midfield trio ensured an extra boot was always there to break the Spanish passing rhythm.
Essentially it was an eight-man defensive unit with Cassano, and later Di Natale, proving hugely dangerous on the counter.
But Spain still had eight shots on target. Shay Given must produce a performance this evening to match the great Gianluigi Buffon and banish the memory of Sunday night.
We’re going to set up differently to Italy. It will be two defensive blocks of four. And it won’t be enough because at least two of them – Duff and McGeady – are natural attackers.
A gung-ho approach will not work either. Spain will just play it out and around us, exposing us further up the field. Torres, if picked, would be given buckets of chances to rediscover form.
We must stay compact, pressuring them when we have numbers. The back four can’t survive camped on the edge of the box but 30 yards from goal is sufficient.
Jonathan Walters would be best suited to the proposed switch to 4-4-1-1 as he plays in behind the striker when Stoke are playing the Premiership heavy hitters. He wouldn’t be the most mobile against these nippy little Spaniards but he’ll do the job.
Maybe we’ll surprise everyone, and ourselves, by Shay passing it short to his back four, rather than the diagonal long ball every opposing defender knows will be rained down upon them against the Irish.
Spain are the best team I have seen up close. They like to play a high pressing game, but if you get through that initial group, they are susceptible at the back.
Honestly, there are.
We may never find out. If Switzerland can do it, Ireland can do it.
I hope Trap has a new plan.