Martin O’Neill draws inspiration from ‘great competition’ in Brazil
Republic of Ireland manager looking forward to playing World champions
German captain Philipp Lahm in action in the World Cup final. Martin O’Neill says Lahm’s move back into defence was key to Germany’s triumph. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.
Ireland may not quite get to test that old theory about it being a good thing to catch World Cup winners off guard in their next competitive game. That dubious honour will be Scotland’s, but Martin O’Neill sounded like a man who could happily wait the extra few weeks after watching Germany sweep through the competition from his base in Brazil.
The Republic of Ireland boss had already suspected, of course, that Ireland’s Group D campaign might boil down to doing battle with the Poles and Scots (the latter yesterday confirmed that their game against Ireland on November 14th will be at Celtic Park) for second place but he has still been impressed with the way Joachim Löw and his men handled themselves here over the past month. The manager for the way he changed tactics and personnel mid tournament, the players for the way they raised their game when it became clear they would have to do so if they were not to come up short again.
“I think as the competition wore on they tightened up defensively,” he said. “(Philipp) Lahm went to right back although unwillingly – I think he sees himself as a midfield player – but they had to do that. They were holding a high line with maybe not the quickest defence at the time and I think they learned from that.
All the better, he says, for Löw’s various interventions with the coach tinkering as his team progressed through the tournament amid calls for changes and criticism back home. Whether all of that influenced the coach, O’Neill admits, he simply can’t be sure.
“I think he thought ‘I’m going to upset some people but I have to do it to help the side,’ maybe (Per) Mertesacker had to be sacrificed and Lahm had to go in there but whether it was pressure from other quarters, I don’t know. But I actually think that has given them a bit of stability.”
The setting for October’s game will be rather different, he acknowledges. “This is under tournament rules here and things happen to you on a daily basis where you have to make these sorts of changes. But Germany are coming out of this tournament with their confidence intact. Playing Germany in Germany will be a totally different thing but, well, they’re not in decline anyway.”
The revival by the Dutch of a three-man central defence was welcome to a man who had used the system himself to good effect at Leicester and Celtic while the success of a side like Costa Rica, who Ireland had played in Philadelphia in the lead up to the tournament, was a reminder of how good organisation and strong team spirit can still sometimes help to tip the scales in an unexpected way.
“ I don’t think that any of us would have thought on the basis of that first-half performance (in the 1-1 draw with his own team) that Costa Rica would have caused serious problems for the other teams in the group, never mind be as successful as they were.
“But I think that we all felt that there were teams here in this competition with not the greatest natural ability but who had a great spirit. Algeria for instance, and the USA found energy that you wouldn’t believe in the game against Belgium. You see these things, you come back and you think that was motivational, that was really good.”
As for the shifting of the tactical tides, he says he was happy to see a system make a return from the dead at this level but suggests that without the time to work day in day out with his players, a major change in the Irish team’s direction is probably out of the question.
“You don’t just do something because you think ‘ah well, I’ve seen it work there’. You try to do a bit of work with it, even to walk it through, as long as the centre backs are comfortable coming out of their comfort zone.
“These are things to look at but it’s actually about getting that time. We might spend one day, though, just one day, where we might say, ‘listen lads, for want of a better thing, this is a plan B, this is what we’ll go to,’ but it depends on the personnel on the field at the time.”
He returns to a slightly changed working landscape with Roy Keane, his assistant, having taken up his new role at Aston Villa but it remains, he insists, something he is entirely comfortable with. He spoke to Paul Lambert at the time to see how his opposite number felt things would pan out and he’ll catch up with Keane over the coming days but he is more than happy with the assurances he has received from both men.
“Paul said that he gives the players, the senior players who are not involved at international level, a lot of time off anyway during that time (the international breaks) and even if they did come back for a day or two, they could cope with that if Roy was heading off with the Republic.”
For O’Neill himself the immediate future involves a return to Ireland today and a trip to Oriel Park on Thursday night for the Hajduk Split Europa League tie. After that, he hopes to take in a league game and look after a few bits and pieces out at the association.
The Dundalk game will bring back memories of his own earliest European football days with Distillery when he scored against Barcelona. Still, he suggests, something that makes his list of career highlights.
He last saw a Stephen Kenny side play when Derry City drew with PSG at the Brandywell a few seasons back and he is looking forward, he says, to see how the team gets on. If anyone catches the eye, though, he’ll check them out again for European club football, like a World Cup he says, can be a poor enough indication of a player’s ability to produce on a more day-to-day basis.
“Yeah, I’d like to see a bit more of him in that case,” he says. “Sometimes, I know if I’m involved in that sort of game I will want to play to my very best and maybe beyond my best. Maybe there might an element that sometimes seeing a player in his own environment for a couple of weeks is better rather than seeing him stepping up in a game where you know that he is going to be at it from start to finish. It’s maybe like choosing a player from a World Cup. I think it’s hard to do.”