Friday 15 December 2017

Aidan O'Hara: How can Robbie touch the ball only twice in 35 minutes?

Captain's lack of influence sums up Trap's 'Lottery Football'

Robbie Keane shows his frustration at the final whistle
Robbie Keane shows his frustration at the final whistle
All 20 outfield players wait in a small area for a David Forde goal-kick
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

OVER the years, Ireland have played a brand of lottery football which has resulted in some of their greatest moments. Ray Houghton's goal against England in Stuttgart came from a long ball into the corner, a hooked cross, a sliced clearance and a header.

Two years later, Ireland scored just two goals in five games at the World Cup, both of which came from hoofed clearances from Packie Bonner which, seconds later, fell to Kevin Sheedy and Niall Quinn and sent the country into raptures. In Giants Stadium in 1994, a ball launched from the right-back position put Italy on the back foot and two defensive headers later, the ball landed at Houghton's foot and nobody was complaining about route one.

The problem with lottery football is that when the numbers don't come up, you end up with a situation like Friday night when Ireland's greatest goalscorer can't get a kick when his team most need it.

Well, not getting a kick isn't quite accurate. Excluding the tip-off to restart the game, Robbie Keane, to this eye, got two kicks of the ball from the moment when Sweden scored their second goal in the 57th minute until the final whistle.

Ireland's greatest ever goalscorer who notched his 60th on Friday night; the man who has 27 more goals than the combined total of the other 19 outfield players in the squad; the only one left who knows what it feels like to play in a World Cup. And we managed to get the ball to him twice.

It's not that there weren't plenty of runs made. Several spins off the final defender demanded passes which neither Marc Wilson nor James McCarthy could provide.

They were difficult passes without a guarantee of a goal but at least they might have engineered a chance. Instead the ball went sideways, was launched into the box and the lottery began again.

There was the moment in the 73rd minute when Keane screamed for a pass from Shane Long as he broke down the right wing after Sweden had given the ball away and presented Ireland with a rare moment to play instinctive football.

Instead, Long took two touches then he looked up, and saw a frustrated Keane marked by three players.

That incident came 16 minutes after Anders Svensson had put Sweden in front and – other than the kick-off to restart the game – Keane hadn't touched the ball in the intervening period.

In the final half-hour, Keane's face appeared on the big screen cajoling his team-mates but his irritated post-match comments of "that's the way we play" summed up his frustration.

His first moment to influence the game finally arrived in the 84th minute, a full 27 minutes after Svensson's goal, when from a Sweden corner, Ireland broke and Keane had the ball on the left wing, he then passed it back to Wilson, who launched a 70-yard pass to Long, and as Keane tried to get involved again, the ball was given back to Sweden.

Keane's next touch came relatively quickly, four minutes later but only after Wilson mis-hit a cross which was meant to be flung into the penalty box.

Keane recycled possession and, from the resulting cross, almost got on the end of Long's knock-down before forcing Andreas Isaksson to take evasive action following a sliding tackle.

And that was it: 36 minutes, two touches for Ireland's most important goal threat.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic apart, Sweden aren't much better than Ireland but they, at least, managed to get their key player on the ball often enough in the second half for him to influence the game.

While Keane attempted to cajole through words, Ibrahimovic was pulling the strings to the point where he was a step ahead of everyone, looking like a professional who'd turned up to play at the local five-a-side.

Keane's first-half goal came around as a result of the moment when lottery football numbers come up and a couple of headers fall into your path. Throwing money on six numbers every Wednesday and Saturday isn't a foundation for future financial security and, in football terms, launching passes and looking for flick-ons falls into a similar category.

A picture (below) taken from the press-box during the first half summed up the approach perfectly. It shows an Ireland goal-kick during the first half with all 20 players bunched in a tight area as if they were trying to keep the cold out.


Rather than dropping short to give David Forde an option of a short pass, both full-backs have their backs to the ball, presumably awaiting a 10-second countdown before yet another launch over their heads.

The two central midfielders, similarly, have no interest and are facing away, waiting for some form of breaking ball as though they were playing in Croke Park.

If it was U-9s, a coach would try to explain to them that the whole point of having possession is that you are the ones in control of the ball and, consequently, should be in a position to make things easier for yourself and more difficult for the opposition.

If a nine-year-old is intelligent enough, he or she will realise that having 100pc control of the ball and then turning it into a 50-50 and a game of pinball makes no sense.

It's an approach that will take a team so far but, in this case, not to a World Cup. It also creates a scenario where your best goalscorer can have more touches from tip-offs in the course of a game than he does in the final 35 minutes.

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