Wednesday 21 February 2018

Stephen Hunt: We weren't quick enough or cynical enough against Belgium but we can still beat Italy

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne gets away from Ireland's James McCarthy during the Euro 2016 match in Bordeaux. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne gets away from Ireland's James McCarthy during the Euro 2016 match in Bordeaux. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

As bad as the whole day felt yesterday and as crushing as the defeat was, I still think the scale of it comes down to a few individual failings rather than any collective issue - and there is still genuine hope for the Italian game on Wednesday.

Believe it or not, I actually expect us to beat Italy.

That's not to say I am not gutted. I am but, trying to take any emotion out of actually analysing it, there are a few main images that stand out: James McCarthy shouldn't have tried that tackle for Kevin De Bruyne's run to set up Romelu Lukaku's goal, and Ciaran Clark really should have taken one for the team by making the foul.

That's what it comes down to. Once they got the goal, that was it. And that goal came through McCarthy, as did the second. Both were his fault.

He will be disappointed. I actually don't think he's done that badly around that but he's essentially just imploded for about 20 minutes. People think that because he has an expressionless face he doesn't try but that wasn't the case here. He's just blown up here in 20 minutes of a major European Championship match.

Why did he go to ground for the De Bruyne run in the way he did? There was a reason that, at Reading, Steve Coppell wouldn't allow us to slide-tackle in training because he thought it was a lazy and cheap way of defending. You stay on your feet, work your legs. In that sense, it's criminal what he did from a football perspective. I mean, it's not like it was at the end of the game either. He was fresh.

Once that happens, all of these other images came up. It was the red arrows coming at us, all different angles. The defence had no chance - so the chance should have been taken away before then. It's all the more frustrating that it came from our attack, whatever about the penalty. The players have said enough about that.

Despite how Belgium played against Italy, this lift in their display didn't surprise me. They always had the capabilities to come and produce that type of performance, even with the reported unrest. That's also why it's frustrating. We gave them better chances to show it, and through isolated individual moments, from our own play.

Beyond that, in terms of pure performance, I don't actually think it was that bad. Individuals were the difference. Class and bursts on one side. Errors on the other. But, because of that - and I know it might sound crazy - I don't think we played that bad, and often defended well.

We had passages of play where we were patient with the ball, and looked competent. Stephen Ward came in and did OK, he didn't really do anything wrong defensively.

I would almost be more critical of our attacking approach. There was no real invention in terms of shape. It was a traditional 4-4-1-1, a fairly basic formation. I thought playing Wes Hoolahan further up the pitch hindered us. He'd have been better in the diamond, and freer. That approach the last day gave more players the licence to move around. I can understand why he changed it, as he went with a bit of protection for the full-backs, but the net effect was that Shane Long was completely isolated.

This is the thing. If you wanted to frame it around the strikers, Lukaku got the service but Shane didn't. It wasn't his day.

Every single ball up to him was a two-on-one situation. As a fan, you're shouting at him to get there but, as a football observer you're thinking, 'Yeah, the best of luck with that, Shane'. There was so little he could with it. You don't want Shane needlessly running down the channel all the time like that. That was the Shane Long of Reading. He's come on now, and is a much better player, but needs help. He knew what was coming but couldn't do much about it.

The Robbie Keane substitution was ludicrous. He couldn't play up front on his own in his prime, let alone now that he's 35 and doesn't look any way fit. It must mean that Daryl Murphy is either out of form or training like a granddad because it's amazing then that he didn't come on. It's all the more bizarre because Martin O'Neill has persisted with him in the past despite his lack of goals but didn't here.

He never had goals, but could have offered something else. Most of all, though, we just lack pace. It's just not in the team. It was one of the greatest contrasts in this match. It really stood out with them from the off, with the way Eden Hazard just burst away almost immediately. For all his positive play, James McClean tried to do similar when he came on but just didn't have the speed.

That's a big question as regards how Ireland produce players. In saying it, I was at the Kennedy Cup and there were some there, so hopefully it comes through.

I do expect Murphy to come in on Wednesday, though, and I think there could be a few changes. I think Clark will be out, and maybe Richard Keogh or even Shane Duffy could come in, to offer some kind of presence. They probably need that fresh face.

Oddly, though, I'm not that worried, Maybe it's because the circumstances remind me of Paris 2009, when we had lost the first leg to France 1-0 and all seemed lost, but we then knew what we had to do. It means there's no fear.

And I'd go further. From that, I expect us to beat Italy. I think that the five to 10 per cent drop-off in their performance, combined with the five to 10 per cent lift in ours, could be the difference.

I think we'll create chances. This isn't over yet.

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