Monday 19 March 2018

Six ways Ireland can beat the Belgians...

Richard Keogh during squad training at the Stade de France Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Richard Keogh during squad training at the Stade de France Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Have a set plan for Belgium’s set-plays. We need to have a plan to deal with the problems that Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Romelu Lukaku, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen may cause from corners and free-kicks.

And this is another area where Jon Walters' absence will hurt.

You always see him defending at near posts, either heading corners away or managing to stick a boot to a ball and clear it.

And once you take Walters out of it, you can see why there may be a case for selecting Richard Keogh or Shane Duffy rather than Ciaran Clark.

It might be something O'Neill will think about although managers don't like to mess with their defence once it looks solid.

However, the fact he dropped Keogh - who featured so prominently in the latter stages of qualifying - shows he is capable of making the big decision. And this is one key area for him to consider.

Take advantage of the pressure Wilmots is under

The Belgian manager is under pressure. Marc Wilmots was under pressure in advance of the tournament, after getting knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the 2014 World Cup.

Wilmots has been at the job long enough to be able to ignore what people are saying about him. He won’t be worried by what pundits or press are saying about him. Yet he will be seeking to leave a positive legacy.

The reality is, though, that the criticism has been unbalanced. It should not be a national disaster for a country with Belgium’s history to lose a country like Italy. However, Wilmots has had to live with this idea that this is a golden generation of Belgian players, and a lot of people believe he has not exacted the maximum from them.

Players are rarely immune to what the public mood is, even if they are shut away in hotels. So the Belgian squad will be aware that Wilmots is under pressure, and are under pressure themselves to get a result. So if this pressure creeps into the players heads, Ireland may be at an advantage.

Do another Italian Job

Yet again Italy were prematurely written off before the tournament had even started. And yet again they produced a tactical masterclass to get a result few believed they were capable of producing.

 By using the defensive masterclass of the Juventus back three – Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, backed by the ageless Gianluigi Buffon – they out-thought and then outfought Belgium.

Getting outdone by the Italians is nothing new, though. For years they have mastered the art of winning games by counter-attacking strategies. Yet we can take lessons from their approach. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku did not perform on Monday largely because the Italians’ dogged, hard tackling upset them.

That level of sustained aggression and crowding can upset Belgium’s flair players, providing, of course, Ireland’s defenders stay within the laws of game. So if Ireland can absorb the pressure and be efficient and effective on the counter-attack then possibilities may arise because Hazard and De Bruyne in particular are not the best at tracking back.

O’Neill needs to get team right

He got things spot-on against Sweden despite my reservations about Robbie Brady’s selection at left-back. The truth is that Brady defended competently on Monday, although he was probably fortunate that Seb Larsson was his direct opponent.

For me, the big decision O’Neill made on Monday was to play Ciaran Clark and John O’Shea at the expense of Richard Keogh, who had played really well in five of Ireland’s last six qualification matches. But did O’Neill pick the right team? Well, look at it this way. Ireland got a point. Of the players he left out – would Stephen Ward have played better than Brady? Clark, own goal aside, played well. But that was then.

This is a new day and yet again he has to get the team and the shape right. The midfield diamond worked on Monday because of Hendrick’s energy and comfort in that role. His understanding of the position is improving and his energy allowed him push forward and get four shots in on goal.

One flaw, however, was notable on the right side where we were under pressure in both halves, and remained a problem until Aiden McGeady came on. So, with this in mind, I would make the case for a more structured midfield, with McClean on the left, Hendrick moving to the right and Hoolahan bolstering the midfield from an advanced central position. That would give us a bit more balance.

A change is as good as a rest

I would advocate freshening up the team, something I always found a positive move from my experience managing at World U-20 Cups and underage European championships.

Northern Ireland did it on Thursday with dramatic effect against Ukraine (when Michael O’Neill made five changes to his starting XI) and got the necessary result. England made changes at half-time against Wales – and that  too had an instant impact.

Russia also waited to half-time to change things for their game against Slovakia and must be regretting not making their adjustments sooner.

An additional reason to change the team is that it benefits morale, with squad players feeling more involved once they are selected. Hope also spreads to those not involved that their turn may come the next day.

In Poland, there were only 12 players picked to start and morale was damaged as a result. The hardest players to manage in a squad are the non-playing members. There’s only one way to solve that problem and O’Neill has never been shy in the past about juggling his squad around. He was rewarded then and can benefit again.

Keep McCarthy directing traffic

While James McCarthy was heavily criticised on Monday, I would make the case for staying faithful to him and restoring him to his normal club position in a 4-4-1-1 format rather than using him in a diamond midfield.

The early rash tackles he made against Sweden left him on edge yet in some games in the past, he has been the player that has taken on the role of being the first midfielder to get forward to the front man.

He is capable of doing that, of being tidy and neat in possession, of using the ball precisely, of directing the traffic in a positive way.

While he wasn’t at his best on Monday, nonetheless his Premier League qualities are required for this game. You could look at his stats and say he has missed a lot of games, that he wasn’t fit to play in the friendlies against Holland and Belarus and a case presents itself for leaving him out.

But I think it is unlikely in Martin’s thinking. 

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