Saturday 27 May 2017

Is Trapattoni still good for Ireland

Manager restored team’s pride but Russia debacle left him under fire for his tacrics, and here two of our top writers debate the key issues

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni speaking at yesterday's press conference. Photo: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni speaking at yesterday's press conference. Photo: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile

Daniel McDonnell and David Kelly

YES - Soccer correspondent Daniel McDonnell says now is not the time to abandon trust

TO deliver an overall perspective on Giovanni Trapattoni's performance as manager of Ireland, you simply have to consider the situation he inherited.

Are we a better team now than when the 71-year-old took over midway through 2008? Absolutely.

The definition of a crisis in this regime is a discussion about tactics, ruminations about how Ireland can progress from play-off contenders to group winners. From respectability to excellence. When Trapattoni rolled into town, there was no respect for this Irish team.

They were a laughing stock, toiling against the minnows of European football, with their flailing efforts juxtaposed against the exploits of their rugby counterparts.

It was only when the World Cup qualification tilt ended with tears in Paris that revisionists decreed that Ireland, the third seeds, should in fact have topped their group and never required a play-off in the first place. The theory was that, on reflection, Italy and Bulgaria should have been brushed aside.

Similarly, when February's Euro 2012 draw produced a less daunting set of opponents, there was genuine anticipation that Ireland -- again the third seeds -- could qualify automatically. Where did this confidence come from?

The raising of the bar in terms of expectation is drawn from the improvement which Trapattoni instigated.

He took charge of a group devoid of belief, who had shipped five in Cyprus, fluked an injury-time win in San Marino and picked up just four points from a possible 15 on their travels in the Euro 2008 campaign, and moulded them into a unit that could do more than occasionally rattling the big guns.

Ireland are genuine candidates to qualify for a major tournament again and, having fallen narrowly short last time, it's natural that debate will revolve around what is missing, with the conclusion drawn that a more expansive style of play is the answer. (When has Ireland ever had this tradition?) But there was a serious amount of rebuilding work to be done before this group could even think about crossing the threshold.

Ok, the Staunton era was so desperate, that it was probably always going to reflect well on the successor. Brian Kerr's record was considerably better than Staunton's, but he failed to build on his early momentum, with his tenure eventually and regrettably dominated by his discomfort with the attention that comes with the territory. And his team didn't exactly play champagne football either.

One of Trapattoni's strengths is that he refuses to get worn down by criticism and, by extension, presides over a dressing-room that is quite relaxed. There were rumblings after the loss to Russia, but they regrouped and came away from Slovakia with a point that might have been three. Panic averted.

Inappropriate

The senior players have performed well under Trapattoni. It seems inappropriate to bring it up now given his horror show on Tuesday but, over the two and a half years, Robbie Keane has been a revelation in this regime compared to his abject displays under the previous two managers.

Richard Dunne never hit it off with Kerr and was central to the Cypriot debacle that finished Staunton, along with John O'Shea. Both have thrived in the current set-up. Aiden McGeady is developing, having being forced to work on the defensive side of his game; the last time Ireland lost an away match, in Prague back in September of 2007, the Spartak winger was hopelessly exposed.

One terrible display against Russia doesn't change all of that. It should serve as a wake-up call, and Trapattoni's decisions in the next six months are crucial. Ireland play six consecutive games in Dublin before the tricky trip to Macedonia next June. Five of those are friendly matches, with the home qualifier against the Macedonians the exception. It is time for this team to perform at home with the assurance they do on their travels.

More ambition is necessary and Trapattoni hinted yesterday that experimentation will take place.

He's made similar proclamations before, though. There's no denying that he can be maddeningly inflexible when it comes to players who don't strike him as ideal for his system.

On Tuesday, the Irish bench was devoid of players with game-changing quality. James McCarthy should be in the mix, a fit Andy Reid deserves a place in the squad, and the qualities of Jonathan Walters should have been identified before he got a Premier League move.

The hope is that, after spending 11 months since Paris confident in his game plan, Trapattoni finally realised last Friday that he needs to develop a coherent Plan B. Essentially, the players, now empowered by their collective improvement, have told him as much.

A World Cup that featured 4-4-2 formations being decimated should have dropped a hint and you can't help but think that Glenn Whelan was correct when he stated that the Russian exercise was a 'kick up the backside'.

Il Capo has always insisted that he knows best, that his experience in the game has prepared him for every eventuality. Going unbeaten through the last campaign proper convinced him that he was on the right track.

His response to the Aviva loss will shape his legacy, and determine the success or failure of his regime.

After all, he was appointed to qualify for major tournaments. The exorbitant salary, reduced from €2m a year to €1.8m a year for this campaign, reflected that. He is a highly paid employee, and acutely aware that he operates in a results-orientated business.

Buying drink for fans on a train won't make him popular. Results will.

He has been good for the Irish team. To suggest otherwise is way offside, to forget the chaos that went before. Miss Piggy wouldn't dare show up at training these days. His crime is to assess a team with the technical shortcomings that are inherent on these islands, and create a system to compensate for that.

It worked until last Friday, his second competitive defeat in 16 matches. Really, with this group of players, could anyone else do better? Now, his task is to bring Ireland to the next level. It is not the time to abandon trust. Otherwise, we'll find out again what a real crisis is.

No - Ireland are caught in a Trap. However, few managers could offer a guaranteed upgrade on the Italian -- fewer still would be available and affordable.

That does not mean the Italian's management should not remain untouched by reasonable analysis; mercifully, much of the discussion has involved intelligent punditry, not puppetry as happened during his predecessor's reign.

Happily, the 71-year-old is not offended by criticism and remains naturally unperturbed by verbal slings and arrows; indeed, the Italian could give some of his Irish compatriots a lesson in humility under pressure.

Has Trapattoni been good for Ireland? Predominantly, the answer must be yes. But he is he still good for Ireland? That remains open to conjecture, as Ireland struggle to convince tactically and a worryingly large list of players remains excluded from the side.

Can Trapattoni be good for Ireland? Only if he changes his stubborn ways, both in tactical terms and in his assessment of personnel.

The most damning aspect of Tuesday night's visit to Zilina was the paucity of options that remained on the bench as Ireland sought to claim a victory against moderate opposition; only one striker (Andy Keogh), rarely rated amongst Ireland's top five by many Irish supporters, occupied a bench alongside a slew of defenders and one midfielder.

That Ireland were placed in a situation where they needed to chase a win on Tuesday night, a situation they looked increasingly uncomfortable with, was only because they flopped so spectacularly against Russia four days earlier.

The flaws of this management cannot merely be swept under the carpet thanks to the acquisition of another 'moral victory' away from home.

Those who wearily refer to Trapattoni's managerial genius -- how can genius be derived from mere competence? -- and his reputation are wallowing in historical irrelevance. In the harsh land of logic analysis, history is bunk.

Robbie Keane has played 14 years of top-flight football but history cannot inure him to criticism of his efforts on Tuesday, and justified examination of his automatic right to a starting place.

In his short reign, Trapattoni has forged a reputation for delivering a hard-working, disciplined and brave team. He has devised a rigid system wherein players are shoe-horned successfully into a myopic way of playing, sufficient to ensure limited ambition and maximum effort.

It was the least expected of someone earning close to €2m per annum and succeeding the sorry reign of Steve Staunton. We've yet to see the most that can be expected. Ireland still haven't beaten an international team of any note. There have been undistinguished draws and opportunities missed against former world powers with fading reputations, such as Italy and France.

Fear

Fear has supplanted freedom under Trapattoni. Now some of his players are recognising that, led by the fearless Richard Dunne and buoyed by Glenn Whelan and Aiden McGeady.

Even in the dark days under the witless Staunton, no player possessed the gall to break ranks and criticise Stan. That Trap is feeling the heat from within indicates that discontent is simmering. McGeady's barbed comments don't refer by name to Paul Green but they reflect the ongoing bafflement at the persistence with a player palpably under-qualified to play at this level.

"What helped in the second half was Darron Gibson coming on as well," reflected McGeady after Tuesday's game. "He sees the game, he likes to pass the ball, he likes to control the play and give me the ball."

McGeady's reference to Gibson shines a light upon the series of contradictions that undermine Trapattoni's apparently rigid adherence to the "systema" and his now almost folkloric clarion call for "mentality".

Trapattoni has repeatedly asserted that Gibson is hampered by being on the Old Trafford bench yet surely he remains a better option than Green, operating at a level below and performing like it.

Ireland's captain is not playing regularly, yet his defenders, ignoring the present and cleaving to comfortable, irrelevant history, maintain his regular substitute appearances this season should eliminate discussion about his exclusion from the starting line-up.

It is an argument rooted in fantasy, not logic. So too Trapattoni's extraordinary exclusion of a variety of playing options, particularly given his insistence that he cannot alter his system because there are not enough alternatives available to divert him from his excessive conservatism.

Marc Wilson. Andy Reid. Stephen Ward. Seamus Coleman. James McCarthy. Jon Walters. Anthony Stokes. These are just seven names who represent the possibility of a more vibrant approach, particularly in the forthcoming sequence where four of the next five matches are friendlies, than the clearly limited methods currently deployed.

But the manager is unlikely to alter a philosophy that maintains the system's primacy, rather than seeking to place the emphasis on the best players available.

"There are lads in the squad now who play in the Championship," insisted Walters, that most rare of Irish strikers, a Premier League goalscorer this season. "So I don't see why it shouldn't be me if I'm playing well."

Great coaches need to adapt or wither away into irrelevance. Trapattoni's unwillingness to change is hampering both his team and his reputation. The exorbitant expense of the exercise means that there would not even have been the faintest chance of him being forced out, even if his side had lost on Tuesday.

Tuesday's draw will procrastinate the debate, perhaps even for a year until Ireland once more face the top two teams in this qualification group. Yet there remains the nagging feeling that Trapattoni has reached a glass ceiling in terms of his methodology, his supposed alchemy undone by persistent adherence to prehistoric tactics and stubborn ignorance of available talent.

For this writer, the feeling that it could be so much better still tugs at my sleeve. For now though, we're caught in this Trap. And we can't walk out.

Irish Independent

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