Monday 22 January 2018

Brian Kerr: Six ways Ireland can beat the Swedes

Sweden's Kim Kallstrom Picture: PA
Sweden's Kim Kallstrom Picture: PA

Brian Kerr

Have a good Plan B. Three times we scored last-gasp goals in the qualifiers: Aiden McGeady in Georgia; John O'Shea in Germany; and Shane Long at home against Poland.

The key thing here is that whereas the system and the team during the Trapattoni regime were overly rigid, now there is greater flexibility. We have seen him alter his shape from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 to 4-5-1 and also, on occasion, to a midfield diamond. Chasing the game against Poland, he briefly went with three at the back.

Yet while I have been impressed by his willingness to experiment, I am still not sure the players fully understand the roles they are asked to perform within the framework of these systems.

In the diamond formation, in particular, uncertainty exists as to who should close down the full-backs.

The draw against Germany - and late surge against Poland in Warsaw - largely stemmed from Wes Hoolahan's introduction from the bench.

Still, I'd rather he be part of Plan A than Plan B.

Pick the right side

Perhaps O’Neill may reflect on the two games against Sweden, back in 2013, when Ciaran Clark, in particular, did very well in Stockholm, using his mobility and alertness to shut out Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The system that night saw the much-maligned Paul Green sit as a protective shield alongside James McCarthy in front of the back four. And it worked.

So did the Clark-Richard Keogh combination against Bosnia in the play-offs.

What hasn’t worked so well is the use of Robbie Brady at left-back, where his positional sense is not as impressive as Stephen Ward’s. Selecting Ward affords us greater solidity in defence and also allows us to use Brady in left midfield, with Jon Walters on the right; then a trio of Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and a floating Wes Hoolahan would keep things congested in that central area while also allowing us to keep the ball.

Up front, Shane Long has to start. If that team is picked, the balance between physicality, a compact shape and the ability of players to play a bit of football would be there.

Crowd out Ibrahimovic

When Sweden won in Dublin in 2013, effectively bringing an end to both our qualification hopes and Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign, Zlatan Ibrahimovic changed the game, dropping deeper into midfield to find space and pick his passes, and setting up two goals.

In Stockholm six months earlier, though, he was marshalled closely, which is a big reason why I’d favour Ciaran Clark getting the nod on Monday.

And it’s also a big reason why I would prefer to see Wes Hoolahan rather than Jeff Hendrick selected, as he has the ability to drop back at the appropriate time and scrap for possession and also the class to keep the ball, which was the essence of our problems in Euro 2012.

That said, if Jon Walters does not make it, Hendrick would be a more than adequate replacement to come in.

Yet whoever plays, the key thing is to crowd Zlatan whenever he gets the ball – an Irish soccer version of the ‘puke football’ approach Tyrone used against Kerry in 2003.

Plus, when we are on the attack, it’s vital that a careful defensive eye is always kept on Ibrahimovic. He can be at his most dangerous when you least expect him to be.

Get set plays spot on

While Neil Lennon made the point on last week’s Off the Ball roadshow that O’Neill never once practised set-pieces in the ten years he worked under him, the evidence of the recent friendlies suggests a plan is certainly in place for this Irish team.

You’d hope there is because at this level, you can’t be leaving things to chance and be relying on players to do things off the cuff.

One of the things that impressed me in the qualifying campaign was the equalising goal against Poland at home, when Wes Hoolahan peeled off his marker at the back post from where he headed the ball back across goal for Shane Long to bundle it in. Given that Wesley is the smallest player on the team, it seems strange that he should be identified as the go-to guy for a header. Deliberate or not, the ploy worked.

In recent games, no matter who has been selected at centre-half – Duffy, Keogh, Clark or O’Shea – a threat has always been there because the movement, and the blocking, have created space for Brady to get the ball into the danger zone. Brady’s deliveries impressed against the Dutch and this area is definitely one Ireland can profit from – and you’d hope they’ve practised them.

Plus, inventive free-kicks have been a rarity at recent championships. Can we buck that trend?

Select the starting team earlier

When Giovanni Trapattoni was Ireland’s manager, I always felt he gave the opposition an edge by naming his team too early. Now I fear Martin O’Neill may be gifting his rivals an advantage by naming it too late. My fear is that if – as has been stated by a few of the Ireland players – the starting XI is not named until the players arrive in the stadium, an hour and a bit before kick-off,  that we  are leaving things to chance.

Whatever about keeping the Swedes on their toes, I don’t think it is a good idea to keep your own team guessing so close to kick-off. And when you think back to the two games Ireland lost in the qualifiers, to Poland and Scotland, they were the only two games when they conceded goals from set-plays.

Defending set-pieces requires organisation and clearly defined instructions and if the players were to only find out an hour or so before kick-off that they are starting, then the time to impart information about their roles will be limited. Sweden have some big men – Mikael Lustig, Andreas Granqvist, Zlatan and Marcus Berg – to aim for. Detailed roles will be needed to deal with them and the earlier the players find out, the better.

Put ’em under pressure

Sustaining high pressure is difficult in the modern game, and given that Sweden’s defenders are quite comfortable playing the ball out from the back, it is important that this Irish team picks the right moment to get stuck in to them with the verve that they showed against Bosnia in the second leg of the play-off last November.

Should they do so then they can be rewarded, as Robbie Keane was in the 2013 game between Ireland and Sweden at the Aviva, when he pounced on a mistake to score the opening goal of that game.

It is vital that whenever Kim Källström (left) gets possession that he is hustled and harried. If this doesn’t happen – and he gets the time to create passes for Zlatan Ibrahimovic – we’ll be in trouble.

However if we go with an approach where we apply high pressure at times, but retain a compact midfield and a vigilant defence at all times, then we can win the day.

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