IT WILL SURPRISE nobody when we say that international friendlies get a very bad rap.
Unusually enough, we’re actually looking forward to tonight’s game against Uruguay – and that’s not just our inner sadist talking. We’re actually hoping to learn a little bit about the current state of the Irish team and what the remainder of the Trapattoni era may hold for Irish football fans.
Here are the five main areas that we’ll be keeping an eye on tonight.
The formation experiment
Trap’s seemingly dogmatic adherence to 4-4-2 has been the source of much discussion among fans and the media alike, leaving the Italian open to criticism when his traditionalist mindset doesn’t yield results.
Last October against Russia, Ireland played 4-4-2 for 50 minutes and found themselves three goals in arrears. It was only when the manager was forced into changes and hastily rejigged to a makeshift 4-5-1 that Ireland began to get a little bit more joy in their opponent’s half of the field, very nearly swindling a draw in the process.
Speaking ahead of the Macedonia game, Trapattoni told reporters that his biblical reliance on 4-4-2 was a myth, explaining that he has experimented with any number of formations in his 27-year managerial career. As if to prove a point, he will send Ireland out in a 4-2-3-1 line-up tonight, with Keogh and Lawrence out wide while McCarthy plays in behind Long.
This evening’s game may only be a friendly and it is great to see the manager use it as such. One can only hope that if it doesn’t go according to plan, further experimentation won’t be shelved for the foreseeable future.
Anybody who was at Lansdowne on Saturday evening – hell, anyone who was within a 100-mile radius of the stadium – couldn’t help but notice the rousing welcome which James McCarthy received when he appeared to make his competitive debut for the country.
McCarthy’s presence is at the root of any excitement or optimism which Irish fans still harbour. The 20-year-old is one of the most exciting young prospects on display in the Premiership at the moment and it is little surprise that both Kenny Dalglish and Carlo Ancelotti have been rumoured to be sniffing about in recent weeks.
McCarthy may not be man of the match this evening, nor should we expect him to be. What it would be nice to see is a young player at ease, playing the game the way he knows how in a system which allows him to flourish and thrive.
Playing off a lone striker may not be his ideal position, that remains to be seen. But at least we should have some sort of indication come half past nine tonight.
The Irish midfield is another area which has come in for some criticism of late, particularly in relation to the regularity with which some of our “international standard” footballers appear to be giving the ball away.
Darron Gibson was the chief culprit on Saturday night, finding his target only when he attempted short-distance passes either sideways or backwards. The Macedonian goal was ultimately caused by a long ball hoofed out of defence by Kevin Kilbane – though this deflection of criticism is probably overly kind to Richard Dunne whose lack of match fitness was starkly exposed.
On the other hand, the moments when Ireland did keep the ball were like a breath of fresh air. As the clock wound down and Ireland sought to take the sting out of the Macedonia attack, the midfield played some neat little possession triangles as if they were enjoying a training ground kick-about. It worked.
It goes without saying that against quality opposition, Ireland need to keep possession as a much as possible if only to limit their opponents’ ability to do damage with the ball. Though the competitive edge will be lacking from tonight’s game, it would be nice to see a step taken in this direction.
On Saturday night, winger Aiden McGeady was Ireland’s most effective threat. Yes, a winger.
Although McGeady won’t start tonight’s game, the logic still applies – Ireland can be dangerous when working down the flanks. In this respect, it will not only be interesting to see how Lawrence and Keogh get on this evening but also how much freedom Clark and Foley have to push on in support of them.
Last week, Trapattoni made the point to reporters that he has never instructed a full-back to act solely as a defender. His advice is merely that they should be calculated in their risks. Criticised for the inclusion of Foley whom some saw to be overly defensive, Trap defended his player, explaining that he was eminently capable of providing an attacking threat.
The system and the mentality to allow Ireland to use the flanks appears to be in place. It will be interesting to see how things transpire.
Clark v. Kilbane
When Trap announced his starting 11 last Friday, there were very few voices in complete agreement though everybody seemed to have their own particular gripe.
The one complaint which seemed most common was the decision to favour Kevin Kilbane over Ciaran Clark at left-full. In the manager’s defence, the unexpected absence of Sean St. Ledger at centre-half meant that the squad had to be reshuffled, but Clark will have the opportunity to state his case this evening.
He may not be everybody’s cup of tea but Kilbane has been the model servant and, on the balance of it, has probably contributed more good things than bad. At 34, however, he is not getting any younger. The door is already ajar for Clark – a good performance tonight could see him wedge it open a little bit further.
Join us this evening for our minute-by-minute coverage of Ireland vs. Uruguay live from the Aviva Stadium >