Sport World Cup

Friday 24 February 2017

Brian Kerr: Ireland in shipshape position as O'Neill finds his formation

Brian Kerr

Hoolahan (p) found the space in midfield and Meyler promptly found his team-mate. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Hoolahan (p) found the space in midfield and Meyler promptly found his team-mate. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

A good night in Vienna. How good will only be determined in the new year, but before then it is certain that the manager will have a very happy Christmas with those 10 points in the bag. For now, the accumulation of away points has contributed to a remarkably positive start to the qualification campaign.

It is important to enter a notable caveat, however.

Anyone who tuned in to the subsequent clash between our chief World Cup rivals, Wales and Serbia, might have needed some convincing that all four of these teams were actually in the same league.

There was a different quality on offer in Cardiff, with two sides trying to get the ball down, pass and have a positive outcome on the game; there was always a sense of rhythm to the play.

In the home of classical music, there were too many bum notes in terms of the quality of the play and there were rare enough signs of any creative vision from either side until Wes Hoolahan produced his conductor's baton with precision timing.

Had Marc Janko not stooped to conquer, and instead thrown his foot at that last-minute chance, there would have been a different mood on the flight home.

Ireland didn't sit back completely, but neither did they take the game by the scruff of the neck. They were solid and compact, more than enough to withstand a diminishing Austrian attack.

Janko, though, had three decent chances in the game - one of them gifted by a poor Shane Duffy header - and didn't do enough with any of them. Would a Welsh or Serbia attacker be so profligate if given so much licence in front of our goal?

Ireland didn't need to be outstandingly brilliant to withstand any Austrian attacking threat, which is probably just as well because our defence is not outstandingly brilliant. However, Duffy and Ciaran Clark remain a partnership in progress.

There were several key battles which determined how the confidence of the Austrians slowly dissipated.

The primary one was that of our captain, Seamus Coleman, against their danger man Marko Arnautovic.

Aside from his early success with a dribble, when Austria managed to secure a solid, if unspectacular, early foothold in the game, Coleman largely limited the mercurial Stoke City man's impact.

Predominantly, the captain ensnared him in a vice-like grip.

That considerably unnerved the Austrians. Without the influence of their talisman, the rest of the team seemed to suffer and their midfield control weakened the longer the game went on. David Alaba, prominent early on, also saw his influence on the game evaporate.

On the other side, Ireland's midfield managed to get to grips with their opposition, or at least frustrate them without ever threatening to become dominant themselves. They were solid and energetic and benefited from a significant alteration in formation during the first-half.

Once again, whether it is the ongoing and baffling lack of detailed pre-match instructions or the last-minute delay in naming the starting XI, Ireland seemed to be utterly confused by their shape during the first quarter.

James McClean, a left-sided attacker, was particularly disorientated about his defensive role. Was he to look after right-back Florian Klein or not?

On the same side, Harry Arter was also in a quandary. Should he go out to the advancing Klein himself or stay inside and mark a midfield player?

It was reminiscent of the home game in the last campaign against Scotland. Then, the lack of clarity cost us a goal; here it was amended in time without any damage being caused.

With Glenn Whelan's departure, however, things changed, although it took a couple of minutes. Arter shifted from the left to the right of substitute David Meyler in the central area and now, as well as renewed energy and aggression, Ireland had a shape.

Arter plays his club football here and he noticeably grew into the game the longer it went on, while Meyler offered a reminder of that wonderful performance in Stuttgart when Ireland drew with the Germans.

He snapped into tackles and was a constant menace and it was no surprise that Ireland's goal began with his influence in that manner, profiting from another Coleman victory in the right-back corner before finding Hoolahan.

I sensed at the break that just one moment of quality would break the deadlock.

Once again, Wes was the composer.

A Hoolahan back-heel as the second-half began was a bright opening; we had little idea how bright it would be.

The goal was exquisite, from its inception to its decisive finish, as the incision from Hoolahan knitted the wonderful tapestry together. Meyler had done really well to launch the attack from the right-back position after he and Coleman had stemmed a brief flurry from Arnautovic and Alaba.

Hoolahan (pictured) found the space in midfield and Meyler promptly found his team-mate, who used that space, and the time afforded him ample opportunity to thread through the most inviting of passes.

Hoolahan was clever enough to realise that he could put enough weight on his delivery to allow for McClean's searing pace to take him beyond the retreating Klein.

That he did, and the Derryman's emerging prolific streak imbued him with the necessary confidence to make the most of his opportunity.

It was the fourth successive Irish goal which originated from Hoolahan's creativity - a valid response, if necessary, to any debate surrounding his place in Martin O'Neill's starting XI.

Austria's morale visibly drained before our eyes after the concession of the goal, as a lack of confidence in certain parts of their play became obviously manifest.

Ireland's new shape didn't directly lead to their goal - although McClean may not have previously be in such a wide position earlier to receive Hoolahan's pass - but it certainly helped them consolidate it.

Beforehand, I thought a draw would be an excellent result, a win would be sensational; especially considering the ramifications it would have for one of our chief rivals.

Influence

Austria are out of contention now, I feel, although they must still play Moldova twice. They may influence first and second positions, but they won't fill them.

The next two games will be key and it still remains a huge battle to qualify. Ireland were fortunate to emerge from Belgrade with a draw after being dominated for 70pc of the game and the Serbs continue to improve.

Wales have drawn three of their games and will be eager to take out their frustration against us in the next match.

Ireland haven't been a superior force at home since the second leg of the Euro play-off against Bosnia. We frustrate sides and bring them down to our level because we simply don't have the quality to compete.

We create scraps whether we play Germany or Georgia at home. Unless it is Gibraltar, we don't dominate and the next two ties are likely to resemble those against Scotland and Poland from the last campaign.

However, there is a resilience about this group and at least they didn't have to go behind to demonstrate it.

And the quest for new blood must continue relentlessly, as Saturday demonstrated the need for viable options. With Daryl Murphy, John O'Shea, Whelan and Jonathan Walters ageing, we need constant renewal.

A lot of work has already been completed in this group, but the hardest jobs remain ahead for O'Neill.

However, it is a long time since the Irish hordes travelled home from afar in such joyous and optimistic mood.

Irish Independent

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