Saturday 24 June 2017

Stephen Hunt: Why Wes Hoolahan should start on the bench against Austria

'For this game, I think I'd go for someone else other than Hoolahan and maybe use him as a potential sucker-punch late on.' Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
'For this game, I think I'd go for someone else other than Hoolahan and maybe use him as a potential sucker-punch late on.' Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There is a single team selection that will tell us what Martin O'Neill really wants and thinks he can get from the Austria game, and you can probably guess who it revolves around. If O'Neill picks Wes Hoolahan, he fancies he can beat them man for man and win the match. If he doesn't pick Wes, you can tell he'll be trying to get a result in a more calculated way - and that he respects Austria.

For this game, I think I'd go for someone else other than Hoolahan and maybe use him as a potential sucker-punch late on.

Click to enlarge the image
Click to enlarge the image

It's actually a fixture of unique importance, and not just because it's away to Austria or where it could leave us in the group. There's also the fact it's the last match before Christmas, and that's always a big one in a qualifying campaign. After it, there's by far the longest break between fixtures. Over four months. We don't play again until Wales at home near the end of March. So, it will either be feel-good, or a sense of doom. If we win, it's a great start to the group, and a good solid one if we draw. If we lose, though, we're on the back foot with a long time to reflect on it and allow doubts to grow. It can be amazing how one result can really cost you, especially when there's that big a gap. It's not like you have a match next week to get it out of your system.

I don't think Ireland will be fearful of them, even though the players will know it's a tough game. The pressure is on Austria after their Euro 2016 group-stage exit, and the defeat to Serbia in the last round of fixtures. I think that can help us, and we're better when the onus is on the opposition.

I do think it's important the game is in front of us, as we can be vulnerable in behind, but that is complicated by the absence of the get-out ball that the injured Shane Long provides. We don't have anyone to hurt them on the break like he can, with that running.

We might have to play higher up the pitch, then, and try to squeeze the play. I suppose the question is whether we're good enough to keep control of the ball in away games. That again brings us back to the Hoolahan issue, although I'm not sure we're able to do that just yet. With Wes, too, you need to get him on that ball. If you can't, he's not that effective. His value, of course, is that he knows how to get you on the ball. When you're a winger playing with him, say, you know you have to be that bit more tactically rigid but you also know that when you do release he is certain to find you. You know he's seen your run.

I think O'Neill might be tempted to play James McClean through the middle, for his energy and willingness.

In front of him, the injury to Long - and to Daryl Murphy - does make the No 9 position up for grabs. O'Neill can spring a surprise, and I know he likes David McGoldrick. Kevin Doyle has been as loyal as they come, though, especially in trekking over. You could never question his desire for Ireland, but Colorado Rapids could question why he's going over in the middle of the MLS play-offs. They play LA Galaxy tonight. O'Neill's decision could come down to a gut feeling, the mood given off in training, or if one of them suddenly starts hitting a few goals in the sessions.

The midfield will depend on Stephen Ward's fitness. If he can play, I think Robbie Brady will stay in the centre, at the expense of James McCarthy. Glenn Whelan should be in because of his value away from home, and if he does play McClean on the left rather than the centre, you probably need a presser in front - like Jeff Hendrick. Brady would then complete the three. If Ward isn't fit, though, Brady will drop to left-back. David Meyler should also be in contention because he's played a lot of games for Hull City and that has to be respected.

With recent injuries to the likes of John O'Shea, there are a few fitness issues, and there might be an opportunity for Daryl Horgan. He comes into the squad with his Dundalk team-mate Andy Boyle and it was the one notable thing about the selection other than the fact O'Neill has strangely gone for five goalkeepers. Darren Randolph is clearly number one, but they'll be chuckling they have their own five-a-side team.

Anyway, while it's pleasing the two Dundalk boys are in, they shouldn't be going in there wide-eyed at it or looking to make friends. It does take time to adjust to international football and you should enjoy it, but they should be trying to be number one. It helps, of course, that Horgan will likely make the move to England some time soon. That's unfortunate for the League of Ireland but it's just what it is.

O'Neill could well use him for 10 to 15 minutes and, if he does, I hope it's in his best role, as a right-footer on the left wing. Otherwise, he might not give his best account. You'd be amazed how much wingers struggle going from left to right. It's just a totally different angle of attack, a different approach to defenders, and not even your body shape feels right. It was something I struggled with, and I remember Matt Jarvis at Wolves was almost a completely different player depending on the wing he was on. If you look at it, too, not even Leo Messi really comes in from the left.

If you want to get the best out Horgan, play him in his position.

This is an opportunity to get in a strong position in the group, especially with Wales playing Serbia at home. I think Wales will win, and we'll get a 1-1. That would put us in a promising situation, ahead of the long wait.

* * * * *

I predicted at the start of the season Tottenham Hotspur wouldn't get into the top four, and now reckon they could finish as low as sixth. Today will tell a lot, what their response is like. They have a good manager, and talented players, but it's a big ask to get a young squad to go again like that, especially when you're playing in the Champions League. Unless they get more experience in, I can't see it.

It's down to youth, and not having that history, that knowledge of going from game to game and competition to competition like Chelsea and Arsenal do. They're struggling to mix both, although I think playing at Wembley is a disaster for them, no matter what Mauricio Pochettino says. You're getting away from what you're used to, what comes so comfortably to you.

Spurs are now a world away from the performance in the 2-0 win over Manchester City, and Pochettino went on last week about how the international break straight after then affected them. I don't buy it. It gives managers the excuse they've always wanted. Sure, it's not ideal, but the break isn't an explanation for this. Managers like him tend to have their philosophy well drilled, and it's almost the flick of a button to get back into it when players come back.

Harry Kane has been a big loss. He runs around like a mad man to set the tempo for the team, and still has the energy to go again. Vincent Janssen doesn't do that. In fact, I'm not sure what he does. I fail to see his strengths.

I haven't seen him hold anyone off yet, I haven't seen him run in behind . . . You need to bring something to the table if you don't fit, but we don't know what it is yet.

It particularly affects Spurs because they're a team that thrive off winning the ball back in the final third. If you don't have the energy to do that, and get back into the box, you will struggle there.

Arsenal are also at a different level this year, and not just in comparison to Spurs, but also in their work without the ball. When they don't have it, they work much better as a team than they used to. Alexis Sanchez is superb at leading the line there and setting the whole side off.

I think Jurgen Klopp has had a huge influence here, even on Arsene Wenger. The German has improved the image of playing without the ball, and a lot of teams seem to be replicating that style of having a player like Adam Lallana as a trigger point.

I think Arsenal are playing much higher up the pitch, and we've seen Chelsea do it too. The only side that don't really do it are Manchester United. That's not Jose Mourinho's style. He's more restrained; don't come out of the space, but then spring from there with power and pace.

They've only one win from the last seven in the league, but I think they'll beat Swansea City today. By the law of averages, they will pick up results sooner or later. It's not like they weren't creating chances against Burnley.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is also playing well, even if he's not scoring goals.

I wouldn't be worried about that. It's not long since he was being tipped to be top scorer, and strikers go through these patches.

Suddenly they're scoring again, and all is right. I think he'll get a goal today, and United will win to end their worries, but Spurs could continue with a defeat.

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