Tuesday 26 September 2017

Green gives O'Neill some real food for thought

Much-derided Leeds man answers his critics as Whelan hails 'fresh ideas' of new management

Paul Green heads the ball clear as Robert Lewandowski ducks for cover
Paul Green heads the ball clear as Robert Lewandowski ducks for cover

Garry Doyle

FOR a man intrigued by criminology, it was somewhat fitting that Martin O'Neill should return to the scene of another crime last night.

This time it was a sporting one, Poznan's Municipal Stadium serving as a reminder of last year's depressing summer, when the hopes and dreams of a nation were quickly punctured.

Back then, we had Giovanni Trapattoni to blame, a once-great coach whose shameless adherence to a tactical strategy drawn up in the Stone Age was shown up for all its flaws.

"I don't want to give too much disrespect to the old manager and what he's done because he was great for myself," said Glenn Whelan after last night's game.

"But I think it comes to a time when change is probably best and fresh ideas and new ideas give the lads a boost.

"I think we've seen that over the last 10 days. It's been different. There's much more input now because there isn't that language barrier that maybe people talked about.

"If they see something that needs fixing, they're not afraid to let you know."

While Whelan's argument is valid, pointing the finger at Trapattoni for the technical limitations of Ireland's players is as worthwhile as lamenting the fact we live in a country that suffers from regular rainfall. It's something we just have to put up with.

Whether O'Neill and Roy Keane can tolerate every one of the players Trapattoni invested so much faith in, though, remains to be seen.

Last night, Paul Green and Sean St Ledger, men who owed their air miles to the Italian's undying loyalty, had the chance to prove they have an international future as well as a past.

While injury brought a premature end to St Ledger's evening, Green can reflect on a successful audition.

Handed the specific job spec of policing the area in front of his back four, the midfielder was positive any time he was on the ball and a courageous, effective challenger whenever Poland had possession.

Yet, with such a low profile, Green has a thankless task trying to win over the man on the street, who finds both Wes Hoolahan and Andy Reid easier on the eye.

O'Neill, however, is the one who needs convincing. And, given Green's crucial role within the framework of this side, we may be seeing an awful lot more of him.

So far in the new regime, the selection of just one designated holding midfielder – as opposed to the two that Trapattoni insisted upon – has provided Ireland with more fluency in possession than we saw under the Italian.

FLAWS

Flaws remain, yet, from the high vantage point of Poznan's East Stand, it was fascinating last night to observe how the new manager is broadening his vision by narrowing his side's shape, placing his two wingers under orders to come infield and make the middle of the park claustrophobic with additional bodies.

While this served the primary purpose of spoiling Poland's plan to build the play through midfield, it also had the additional benefit of providing space for Ireland's two full-backs, Stephen Kelly and Stephen Ward, to push forward.

On another night, with another player – Seamus Coleman – the tactic may have found more reward.

Last night, however, there was little joy, which makes us wonder that if O'Neill is to produce a team worth watching, he desperately needs to construct it around three or four players who have the vision to infiltrate the solid defensive lines European teams are noted for. In this regard, James McCarthy is the Great White Hope.

Rarely used under Trapattoni, he has the opportunity now to mature into a playmaker with the imagination to see and exploit openings.

Time will tell if he has the confidence, as well as the class to do so. For now, he cannot be called a reliable delivery man. Last night proved that.

It proved other things too, namely that a coach, with his organisational skills, can control large parts of a game, particularly at set-pieces, which, from an Irish perspective, were highly impressive last night.

Defensively, O'Neill placed clear demands on all 11 of his players to crowd the Irish penalty area, clearly believing there is safety in numbers. And there was.

Then, from attacking corners, the clever movement of Ireland's players posed a constant threat to the Poles, who nearly paid the price for poor marking in the first half, only for Kelly to place his header over the bar.

Had that goal gone in, we may have had a more entertaining evening. Instead, this was a game lacking much in the way of pattern.

O'Neill can be pleased with the shift his men put in – but from an attacking perspective, lies cannot be told.

Ireland, quite simply, just couldn't get enough of the ball in the places that mattered.

To his credit, O'Neill tried to change this, with the number of substitutions he made in the second half, Hoolahan's introduction on 73 minutes offering the team an option it had, up to that point, lacked.

He couldn't make an impact, though.

By the time of his arrival, Ireland were camped in their own half, engaging in trench warfare.

It's a place they are well used to, having soldiered for five years under a general who loved this kind of fight.

Irish Independent

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