Sunday 18 February 2018

Miguel Delaney: With Euros looming, defensive lapses a concern in a fundamentally defensive Ireland team

‘Shane Duffy’s performance was generally solid and encouraging but it can’t be denied that he tends to have a big error in him every few games’ Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
‘Shane Duffy’s performance was generally solid and encouraging but it can’t be denied that he tends to have a big error in him every few games’ Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

This was shadow-boxing, at least, with a little bit of a punch. Pre-tournament friendlies are notoriously difficult to judge from, but Ireland's 1-1 draw with the Netherlands offered crucial preparation in one regard.

After the surprisingly open March matches against Switzerland and Slovakia, it will have reminded the side what it's like to shape your game around the other team having possession for the majority of a match. That is going to be the case for at least two of the Euro 2016 group games, and perhaps all three depending on the mood Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in, so a talented Dutch side were the perfect opposition in that sense.

The biggest question from the game is how much of a concern Luuk de Jong's goal should be, and how much any of this will condition O'Neill's squad selection on Tuesday.

If the chasmic gap between John O'Shea and Shane Duffy was just the kind of thing that happens in games of no consequence, and was the sort of problem that only needs working a bit of muscle memory to be minimised, it is fine. Better that such moments happen now rather than in France.

If it was a sign of something a bit more ingrained when the side are threatened by a talented team, then there is more to be worried about. Martin O'Neill did drop a cryptic comment after the game along those lines, when he hinted at players "feeling the pressure" of a friendly, and how that will not do much good amid the pressure of a proper tournament.

It is a bit odd being a fundamentally defensive team based on players who make defensive errors, but needs must. It's also worth pointing out that it was much the same in one of our most famous wins against the Dutch, when a backline featuring Steve Staunton and Ian Harte held on in the 2001 1-0 win despite looking so shaky, and it's not like these errors were a feature of qualification this time.

Then again, this wasn't the defence that featured regularly in qualification either. Marc Wilson's injury and Duffy's form mean the Blackburn Rovers defender is almost certain to be part of the squad over Paul McShane, and the 24-year-old's performance was generally solid and encouraging, but it can't be denied that he tends to have a big error in him every few games.

That's arguably a feature of all O'Neill's defenders, though, including first-choice Richard Keogh. The key will be deepening the cohesion before then so it isn't so much of an issue, as did happen in qualifying.

Harry Arter's play will help with that, and the Bournemouth midfielder's performance was one of the positives of the Dutch game. The 26-year-old offers an alternative to Wes Hoolahan when the team needs a bit more craft in midfield, so he should go ahead of one of the array of interchangeable defensive midfielders like David Meyler and Stephen Quinn.

The draw - and Irish goal - did re-emphasise the importance of Shane Long, not least when his first-half fall caused eyes to widen all over the pitch. That status is fitting given he is the Irish player who finished highest in the Premier League this season, at sixth with Southampton, and it is a reminder of the general level of the team.

It also makes it all the more remarkable that Long was regularly left out at the beginning of this campaign. That has changed - although he has also changed as a player. O'Neill spoke after the game about how Long has added much more to his game than energy, and those at Southampton say that he has really benefited under the management of Ronald Koeman, who has been educating him on the timing of his runs.

One of the biggest questions regarding Tuesday's announcement, though, is about the alternative for Long.

David McGoldrick played adequately, linked the attack well and offered good bursts on the break, but O'Neill did conspicuously mention his fitness afterwards. Some close to the squad think Kevin Doyle may have moved ahead based on the last week's work, and the manager promised he would play against Belarus on Tuesday.

That will likely tell us even less than the Dutch game, before O'Neill finally tells all.

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