Opinion: O'Neill's tactical tinkering lays groundwork for Italian job
Even as Ireland edged towards yet another early elimination on a frantic, balmy night in Lille, few could argue that Martin O’Neill had not put his team in a favourable position to overturn Italy.
Ireland had produced a robust dose of Charlton-esque belligerence and subdued a wily, but admittedly indifferent makeshift Italy side but, with six minutes left on the clock, all signs pointed to their French odyssey ending.
Wes Hoolahan, following a horrendous miss, then intervened with a moment of genius. With a sniper’s precision he picked out the booming Robbie Brady and he headed Ireland into a knockout date with France on Sunday.
O’Neill had promised fresh legs and faces and acted accordingly, if a little drastic for some.
With victory the only option for continuing in the competition, a new shape and personnel were expected after the chastening loss to Belgium, and O’Neill duly made four changes in total.
Superficially at least, the Derryman opted for a crude, but refreshingly simple, 4-4-2 formation. The selection comprised of three unfamiliar parings through the spine of the side.
Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy came in for Ciaran Clark and John O’Shea at the heart of the defence, while Jeff Hendrick, at the expense of Glenn Whelan, was moved into central midfield alongside James McCarthy.
In 20 international appearances Daryl Murphy hadn’t managed a single goal, but O’Neill previously started the Ipswich striker in pivotal games, notably the home win over Germany during qualification.
However, it was his replacement that night, Shane Long, who netted the decisive strike and, unexpectedly, the manager decided to pair them for the most vital contest of his tenure.
As a statement of intent, the team-sheet was without ambiguity. O’Neill was banking on a biting, direct assault from his imposing side in a last ditch bid to ensure a meeting with France in the knockout stages.
As rolls of the dice go, it proved liberating. Duffy had a shaky start as he needlessly headed a tame cross out for a corner when Randolph had claimed the ball.
Subsequently, little was asked of the Irish defence in the opening stanza and it was two minutes from the break when Ciro Immobile registered the Italian’s first effort on goal. The group winners were understandably sedate for long stretches.
The Irish midfield, though technically limited, was dynamic and fluid. Not for the first time, James McCarthy was a better player in Glenn Whelan’s absence.
Stationed at the base of midfield, the Everton man, as he did against Germany at the Aviva Stadium, proved decisive and formidable.
Jeff Hendrick’s unfettered brio was the highlight of a feral but potent Irish performance in the first half. The Derby man motored from box to box, driving forward in possession and rattling those in blue when without it.
After 10 minutes he sumptuously jinked by Thiago Motta before uncorking a left-footed drive that narrowly missed the target.
On the flanks, James McClean and Robbie Brady were in perpetual motion, marauding with purpose and ever willing recipients.
McClean, a suffocating presence, unnerved the Italians and as he bounded into their box with two minutes to the break, he was blatantly bundled over by Federico Bernardeschi.
Murphy, by sheer dint of his presence, made a Ireland a far more onerous undertaking than against Belgium. He assumed his share of the grunt work Long had so dutifully undertaken alone in Bordeaux.
Murphy as muscular and unforgiving as ever, relentlessly wrestled the clumsy Angelo Ogbonna. After 20 minutes he forced a fine save from Sirigu when redirecting Brady’s corner with a fizzing header.
Ogbonna roughed the Waterford man up time and again, and Ireland should have had least one penalty awarded before McClean was ran over and referee Ovidiu Haţegan waved play on .
At the break, Ireland had enjoyed 50% possession and their tails were up. Italy got their act together thereafter but aside from a sniping effort from Insigne, they rarely troubled Daren Randolph.
Ireland’s beautifully boisterous fans were beginning to lament the end of their time in France when the Norwich City duo combined and conjured pure, Celtic pandemonium.
In and of itself, the goal was a manifestation of improvisation and nous but it was the manager’s initial intervention that facilitated an unforgettable evening.