Wednesday 13 December 2017

All systems go for Germany as O'Neill preaches tactical flexibility

Martin O'Neill: 'Sometimes you get lucky.' David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Martin O'Neill: 'Sometimes you get lucky.' David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Garry Doyle

Martin O'Neill leaned back in his chair and adjusted his seating position to avoid the mid-morning sun which glinted off the table in the FAI's boardroom.

It, more than the topic of conversation, was proving a discomfort until suddenly the discussion moved to football tactics and O'Neill, unprompted, straightened his back and sat up. Instantly energised, and no longer bothered by the sunlight, his unblinking stare conflicted with the blind view so many others have of the game he loves. "Tactics," O'Neill said, "play a part in football, absolutely. But I have to say, and it's the cynic in me, sometimes they are overplayed. Sometimes people hide behind these things. There are the new words developing in the game, words like philosophy. All this kind of stuff.

"It amuses me, really, because I worked with a genius manager, and I'll mention him again, Brian Clough, who made coaching points that have stood the test of time. Every single one of them. Cloughie preached that the game is really, really simple but people make the most of it these days with what they say. They tell me the game has turned into something else and wrap their argument up in some sort of words.

"Look, the truth is there is not a manager in the game who doesn't have a tactic but what happens if the game-plan doesn't work? Perhaps the opposition have got something to do with it. Sometimes no matter how good you think your strategy is, the opposition might just have better players who can explode past you. The greater the player you have, the better chance there is of winning the match."

That last statement has no phoney ring to it given how Alex Ferguson vividly endorsed the theory that players, rather than tactics, are the chief determinant of results. "And Alex was the most successful manager in the history of the game," said O'Neill, "so maybe we should listen."

And yet earlier this month O'Neill was in Moscow listening to the opinions of Roy Hodgson, Didier Deschamps and Joachim Loew as they spoke at a UEFA conference to an exclusive guestlist of managers about the tactical nuances that were prevalent in this summer's World Cup.

So despite his scepticism, O'Neill is clearly interested in the game's evolution, a point which is evident from the way his own strategic approach has come full circle from the 4-4-2 days which were prevalent at Wycombe through the 3-5-2 phase which characterised his tenure at Leicester City and Celtic.

"I started with three centre-halves at Leicester City simply because, other than Steve Walsh, the players that I had at the football club couldn't really defend. So we needed as many in there as possible. As it developed and the team got promotion, I signed Matty Elliot, a superb player who could come out with the ball but who had no real pace, so it suited him to have the two other centre halves either side of him. He was so important for us that it worked to stay with three at the back, and the plus side to it as well was that it allowed me to play three midfield players - Lennon, Izzet and Savage. So the team had energy and a wee bit of talent. There is always a reason for doing something and that was it.

"I went 3-5-2 at Celtic because we had most of the ball at home matches and the pitch is massively big there. But we changed to a flat back-four for some European games. Nothing was ever set in stone. Nor will it be with Ireland."

Under his predecessor, things were different. When Plan A failed, Giovanni Trapattoni unearthed Plan A as a cunning alternative. O'Neill, however, steers away from any criticism of his predecessor, doffing his cap in the direction of the Italian and his stellar CV, preferring instead to poke fun at Louis Van Gaal, whose arrogance contrasts starkly with the Derry man's self-deprecating nature. "My own view, and I could be totally wrong about this, is that Louis was not thinking about three men at the back in March time. Sometimes these things just fall for you and you get lucky."

This last element is something he hopes will travel with him to Germany next month. His game-plan is in place. "But you are always hoping injuries don't prevent you implementing it."

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