Thursday 23 October 2014

O'Neill takes heart from spirit of World Cup underdogs

German test looms large but Ireland manager in upbeat mood

Published 15/07/2014 | 02:30

Germany's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer challenges Algeria's Islam Slimani in one of the games that the eventual champions looked vulnerable which may give Ireland some hope. Photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/Files
Germany's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer challenges Algeria's Islam Slimani in one of the games that the eventual champions looked vulnerable which may give Ireland some hope. Photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/Files

FOR Martin O'Neill, the mission for the next three months is to make the transition from observing the best team in the world to figuring out a way to stop them.

The Ireland boss watched Germany win the World Cup from his seat in an ITV studio on the edge of Copacabana and it merely confirmed the difficulty of the task that lies ahead with the serious business of his job finally visible over the horizon.

October's trip to Gelsenkirchen for the hardest Euro 2016 qualifier on the schedule was always going to be a daunting challenge regardless of whether Joachim Loew's charges prevailed here or not.

Still, the opportunity to face the reigning world champions in a competitive encounter provides a nice focus for the rest of the summer, with the conclusion of affairs in Brazil really starting the countdown towards a new phase of the international calendar.

Sunday was the fourth time in five World Cups that O'Neill was present in the city where the final was staged.

He just hasn't managed to make it to a stadium yet, with ITV duty bringing pundits into the same geographical area of the action without getting them inside the door.

That's why the Derryman would like to study footage in more detail when he gets home, a comment that extends beyond German analysis – their strengths are already well known – and is more relevant to studying the factors that helped smaller nations to cause a few upsets.

Algeria, USA and Costa Rica all turned heads in different ways, and the switch towards a 3-5-2 formation by nations such as Holland intrigued the Irish boss.

Germany didn't really offer shock value, with O'Neill subscribing to the belief that a reshuffle before the quarter-finals was central to their successful title tilt.

"Well, they're not in decline anyway," smiled the 62-year-old, with a nod to the star turn of a group which, fortunately, offers a second automatic qualifying position for the enlarged Euro 2016.

That said, he has no inclination to be defeatist about the head-to-heads with the top seeds. The manner in which a well-organised side like Algeria put it up to Die Mannschaft has at least given the Irish manager one formula to analyse

Ultimately though, he concedes that the circumstances of tournament football are so radically different from the regulation qualifiers dotted inside the club season that it is dangerous to read too much into the lessons of Brazil.

CONFIDENCE

"Germany coming off this tournament will have confidence, so it's not as if to say they have to make major changes to things for a couple of months on.

"In a tournament, things happen on a daily basis where you have to make changes, the Philipp Lahm (to right-back) sort of change," he observed.

"Algeria did give them some really tough moments, and I thought they looked a wee bit tired against France but nothing really happened in the match.

"As the competition wore on, they tried to tighten up defensively.

"Germany were holding a high line with maybe not the quickest defence and they learned from that. Per Mertesacker, he's a decent player, but maybe he had to be sacrificed (before the quarter-final). That gave them a bit of stability with (Jerome) Boateng at centre-half and also the fact Lahm can attack from right-full and get a certain distance up the field.

"What also happened through the tournament is that their good players found a bit of form.

"Kroos came into form, Thomas Mueller had a really decent tournament. (Mesut) Ozil's been – for his own ability – a bit in and out.

"Then they went to Mirosloav Klose. I know they were handed some goals against Brazil but they were probably back to their best.

"All the sides that have been involved have deficiencies, but it's a matter of how you cover them up."

In that context, he was impressed by a Costa Rica team that came from a goal down and a man down to draw with Ireland in Philadelphia in June.

"On the basis of the first half of that game, I don't think any of us would have thought they would have caused serious problems for the teams in the group, never mind be as successful as they were," said O'Neill.

"I think there were teams in the competition without the greatest natural ability, but they had a great spirit. Algeria for instance.

"USA found energy that you wouldn't believe in the game against Belgium – these things you see and you come back and think, 'that was motivational, that was really good'."

Holland's conversion to a system with three central defenders pricked O'Neill's curiosity because it's a system he preferred with Leicester and Celtic.

"The idea of three at the back seems to have come into vogue a little bit again whereas it was considered just dead and buried a decade ago," he said.

"Teams have used it here in this competition and used it pretty successfully."

Does he have the personnel in the Irish camp to adopt a similar strategy? That question must be considered in tandem with the restricted window for implementing such a change on the training ground.

"These are things to look at. You might spend one day where we might say this is a Plan B but it depends on the personnel on the field at the time," he mused.

"You can try and do a bit of work with it, even to walk through it, as long as centre-halves are comfortable coming out of their comfort zone.

"But very few centre-halves like going out wide, I don't care how good they are; they really don't like leaving that space.

"But sometimes you look at personnel and think they might be suited better. Ron Vlaar was terrific but I think maybe he's been helped by having a centre-half either side of him. So, yeah, these systems are the things you look at."

Next on the Irish list is September's friendly with Oman ahead of a crucial trip to Georgia in a quirky double-header. O'Neill viewed the summer gathering as a fruitful exercise in terms of familiarising himself with the available options. He accepts that it won't all click into place overnight, chuckling at the memory of the versatile Stephen Quinn taking up the wrong position on the post with Ireland colours on because he was thinking of his Hull habits.

Fatigue from club exertions remained a live concern. "I was conscious of that fact and to do two sessions a day would have been murderous for them," he explained, "Honestly, they would have lost their desire."

Social media behaviour would indicate that his squad have watched a fair bit of events in South America and taken encouragement from the resolution of the underdogs.

Seven weeks from now, they will gather to embark on a long road built towards enjoying similar days in the sun.

Irish Independent

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