COMPROMISE. NOT A word or a concept one would usually associate with Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
One of the most glaring features of the Italian’s regime to date has been his complete intransigence when it comes to questions regarding his team selection or tactical set-up.
A surprise then when the side selected for last night’s friendly with Serbia lined out in a 4-5-1, with most convinced the preferred 4-4-2 would be retained.
Whether it was pragmatism, experimentation or the belated realisation that the previous system was hopelessly outdated, the switch will have been gleefully received from supporters weary of seeing Ireland’s midfield overrun. If the sight of James McCarthy and James McClean in the starting 11 had fans hoping of a brave new era, the presence of Paul McShane and Glenn Whelan will have quickly brought the realisation that any transition is likely to be a slow one — painstaking even.
A 0-0 draw in Belgrade is no bad way to begin the re-building process. Indeed there were plenty of positives for the manager to take from this encounter, although many of the more pertinent questions remain unanswered. First the positives, and the surprise insertion of McClean into one of the three central midfield slots offered verve early on, and despite being in unfamiliar territory he showed impressive appetite for the task.
Having the extra man in the middle also gave the team a more cohesive shape. Possession was not surrendered as profligately as we have come to expect, with more options when Ireland regained the ball. McCarthy also grew in confidence in the centre as the game progressed and Whelan may even prove to be a decent bet as one of three midfielders going into the qualifiers.
In goal Kieren Westwood can be pleased with an assured performance while Darren O’Dea reaffirmed that he is ready for this stage if required. Jonathon Walters gave an excellent display as the lone front man, although his energy levels understandably sagged as the night wore on. It must be noted however, that the remnants of the Polish debacle remain. In spite of the tweak in system it appears that not much of real substance has changed. Unfortunately Ireland’s preferred route to goal continues to be the long ball-flick-on tactic deployed throughout the Trapattoni era.
Team shape remains paramount; with Ireland unwilling to get ahead of the ball for fear of being caught on the counter. Little work appears to have been done to improve the speed of transition from defence to attack- a spurned counter opportunity in the first half suggests none has been done at all. As the night wore on, despite the apparent compromise, it felt like we’d seen it all before.
The Italian appears resolute in his desire to play percentages, but Ireland desperately need to find some impetus in possession if they are to trouble the best sides. The problem with the percentage approach is that it necessitates that the team do not fall behind. If that happens, the temptation and inclination to go long becomes more prounounced. At this level, that simply isn’t enough.
Another question is why the manager persists with players patently not up to the standard of international football. Paul McShane was his usual blend of occasional diligence and slapstick while Stephen Kelly propagated the befuddled confusion which now seems a prerequisite at left back.
A mixed night all in all, and no doubt the manager will accentuate the positives in the weeks ahead. For those awaiting a transformation to a fluid and more expansive style the wait goes on- most likely indefinitely. The “qualification at all costs” mantra was exposed as something of a sham at the European Championships in June, and supporters will be hoping that the manager can provide them with something more to believe in in the months ahead.
His future may depend on it.
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