Wednesday 11 December 2019

Brian Kerr: Keep the ball, keep our cool - and we can keep our hopes alive

Ireland have a chance of snatching victory if O'Neill can devise coherent counter-attacking strategy

Wes Hoolahan celebrates Ireland's only goal of the tournament so far
Wes Hoolahan celebrates Ireland's only goal of the tournament so far
Italy coach Antonio Conte attending a walk-around session at the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Lille last night. Photo: AP

Brian Kerr

Thomas Morgan is livid. Noel O'Reilly has just blown the final whistle. The last act of our last training session before facing Spain in a World Cup quarter-final.

Captain Morgan's face is puce and not just from the Malaysian furnace. "Ten more minutes! Come on!" Noel shakes his head.

After four games we're conscious that we need to retain our energy and composure for the task ahead.

That World U-20 Championships in 1997 was like Euro 2016: 24 teams, reduced to 16 for the knock-outs. Four points got us through then, too after losing to Ghana then beating the USA, before drawing with China. Spain would be different, though.

We needed a plan. The training was light enough. Lots of stretching, building up to intensity. Then the plan. Shadow-play and shape work in which we tried to replicate what was to be expected from the Spanish team.

Trouble was, we only had 17 fit players by this stage. With only five staff, we struggled to put out a team so it was a bit bockety.

Now, I'm the first to admit I was no Iniesta or Busquets but I had to direct the midfield for Spain and coach counter-attacks simultaneously.

There were a couple of basics. We knew we had to take them on in midfield and retain possession, mainly through Thomas, with Niall Inman and Alan Kirby either side in our 4-3-3.

We knew in the debilitating conditions the importance of keeping the ball as much as possible. We also knew we'd be forced to drop deep frequently. And that's where the plan would be launched most effectively.

A counter-attack strategy. Get it wide early to an 18-year-old fella called Damien Duff and a street-wise Trevor Molloy. And we had Neale Fenn as the hold-up guy. That was the plan.

At any level, it cannot be stressed how important it is not just to have a strategy in advance of facing a world power, but to know every intricate detail of its application.

It is a universal approach: the most critical part of our training was the 20 minutes spent working on the idea. We may not have loads of ball but when we do get it, feed the little fast fellas. Duffer, Billy Boy and Fenn.


We must have our own counter-attack plan. Has that been done this week? Have we a counter-attacking strategy with the players all knowing their roles in their relative positions? Or any strategy to upset the Italians?

Even a long ball strategy has to be planned. Have the players been given an opportunity to work on it?

You can see from the best teams, the way they can release from defending a corner for example, certain players make definitive passes, then players flood into one area, not another.

It doesn't happen on the hoof. It is meticulously planned. That's why the finish can be so devastating.

Before the strategy comes basic precepts. We need to be composed in possession, avoid the constant route one up to the big man.

We need to mix our game up, with ball retention vital, particularly if Wes Hoolahan plays. It will be hot again and we were worn out the other day chasing the ball.

Keep the ball and keep your cool.

We need to be patient. We don't need to chase a goal early. We can open up with more players risking attacking runs later.

Remember, the Italians are the kings of defence and counter-attack. And Belgium destroyed us with counter-attacking when both our full-backs were out of position, too far ahead of the ball.

We must remain compact and solid for as long as possible. Against Belgium, we were forced to defend very deep in a 4-5-1 shape with our midfield too far detached from our lone striker.

Our defence can risk a higher defensive line now, one that suits us more, against a less pacy Italian attack.

Our midfield needs to be more in touch with Shane Long and the service from back to front needs to be more accurate. I still feel Long should start, as the options are scarce.

The team does need to be freshened up though. Ciaran Clark was at fault for the Sweden own goal and then absent and foolish for the second and third concessions last Saturday.

From the choice of Shane Duffy or Richard Keogh, I'd plump for Keogh's experience. He played well latterly in qualifying and he will also give us a better set-piece threat.

I mentioned James McCarthy's troubles previously but Glenn Whelan looked worn-out too. Stephen Quinn and David Meyler may be inferior players but they would at least give us energy in that area. Harry Arter's absence is now looking like the deep loss we felt it might be at the time.

James McClean, although ineffective as a sub so far, would certainly add vigour too as a wide man - with Robbie Brady going back to full-back - or as a second striker, where Martin O'Neill has used him in some games.

The biggest question is does Wes have another game in him? I'd love to see him on the pitch, being influential as he was against Sweden, but possible a third start is too much.

Italy are truly a world power but it's not as if we should be running scared. They're not a team we can't handle if we can get it right on the day. Euro 2012 was an exception; then again, so was that campaign.

Take tour last meeting. A Craven Cottage friendly two years ago early in O'Neill's reign. Italy had a strong team featuring several of tonight's mooted starters. Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea and Stephen Ward all played well in a 0-0 draw.

In midfield, Meyler, Jeff Hendrick and Wes gave us an edge with quick tackling, good ball retrieval and sharp passing.

That could the recipe to snatch a win tonight.

I point out that Irish team as an indicator that it is possible to gain parity in midfield with a hard-working fit personnel. Rather than loyalty, the key thing should be about fitness and freshness in that key midfield area.

Because Italy will be. Antonio Conte, it seems, follows Giovanni Trapattoni in one respect with his attitude to preparation. Frequent, high-intensity sessions. Twice a day. No flash hotels. A semi-spartan existence.

They will make considerable changes but will this hinder or help us? Well, the freshness of the team with players wanting to push as starters for the next phase won't help.

Some of the personnel to come in, like the inconsistent striker Ciro Immobile, wouldn't put fear of God into the Irish team. I often think when I watch him, he lives up to his name. Lacking in movement and agility.

Others, though, like PSG man Thiago Motta, Juventus duo Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza, not to mention Stephan El Shaarawy are all Champions League regulars. Italy have no stiffs in their stiffs.

Whoever they play in defence, their effectiveness will be judged on how successful our attack can be. And how successfully it has been planned.

"Come on! We want to be keep playing!" And still Noel shakes his head.

We're done here. We've done our work. The players have done their work. Keep it for the match, Noel says.

Thomas' sandy features break out in a smile. He looks at me, winks and says "I know what yiz mean".

The next day, Clever Trevor Molloy lures a Spanish leg, tempting the rash tackle. The Spaniard swallows the bait. Billy Boy despatches the penalty. We have the edge now.

A happy ending. Knowing the work was done. Here's hoping for the same in Lille tonight.

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