Analysing Martin O'Neill's tactical errors that led to World Cup heartache
It's the hope that kills you: a well-worn cliche, grimly familiar to fans of Irish football. And yet, those same long-suffering supporters were allowing themselves to dream again as 2017 dawned.
And with good cause too. The Republic of Ireland had emerged, unbeaten and unscathed, from four late-2016 engagements. Martin O'Neill's side sat in the Group D driving seat on ten points, with two tricky road-trips in the rear-view mirror. Surely now Ireland were finally fated to end their 15-year wait for World Cup qualification.
But the ill omens were always there, for those minded to see them. The good fortune that bailed out O'Neill's failings, in Belgrade and Vienna, and at home to Georgia, would not last forever. Eventually, in November, the 65-year-old's anachronistic, rough-and-ready, approach to football management would be exposed in brutal fashion.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, however. This story starts in March, with the visit of Wales, met by O'Neill with the first in a series of ultimately fatal tactical blunders:
1. O'Neill fails to capitalise on Taylor dismissal
O'Neill's tendency toward undue caution is a theme that will recur throughout this piece. But it's difficult to criticise the Northern Irishman for keeping it tight in this one. The absences of creative outlets Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan all but necessitated it.
The manner in which Ireland went about keeping it tight can be condemned, however. Speaking on the Second Captains podcast in November, Shay Given remarked that O'Neill eschews "team shape or organisational stuff". As for the opposition at hand, there is never any discussion of "how they play…[or] how to counteract that" either.
Which goes a long way toward explaining Ireland's attempts at pressing, that persisted throughout the year.
Even Jack Charlton, oft-maligned for his direct approach, understood that teams must press as a collective, or risk being too easy to play through. Not O'Neill, however. That kind of training ground grunt work just ain't the Kilrea native's style. Throughout the year, in the absence of instructions from on high, his players were forced to improvise; our second recurring theme.
Improvisation that usually took the form of one lone ranger bombing out to close down the player in possession alone. Against Wales, it was Glenn Whelan who filled those futile shoes, regularly leaving the defensive midfield position in Ireland's 4-1-4-1 to harry Joe Allen.
Enter the third theme, that would continue to resurface throughout 2017; luck. Whelan vacated the very space in which Wales manager Chris Coleman asked number 10s Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale to operate. But, fortunately for O'Neill, both had just returned from injury; and it showed.
Bale did avail of that space to pepper several diagonals at left wing-back Neil Taylor, however. Taylor regularly escaped Jonathan Walters' attentions, but lacked the wit to capitalise on his freedom. Ireland's chronic inability to deal with opposition wide defenders is arguably the greatest indicator of O'Neill's inadequate training-ground prep-work.
Taylor's 69th-minute dismissal, for breaking Seamus Coleman's leg, brings us to our fourth, and final, motif: poor in-game management. A subsequent Welsh reshuffle into a 5-3-1 formation left the visitors light on the flanks, and there for the taking. O'Neill waited until the 80th minute to react.
Winger Aiden McGeady was readied, replacing central midfielder David Meyler. This makes sense, thought the nation; with James McClean on one touchline, and McGeady on the other, we can stretch them, and pull out a win here.
Except O'Neill had other ideas. Fellow Derryman McClean, as technically ungifted as he is willing, was shifted into an inapt number 10 role. The right-footed McGeady, bafflingly, was asked to cut inside from the left-flank. Only Coleman's replacement, Championship full-back Cyrus Christie, offered any width.
Predictably, ten-man Wales comfortably saw out the game, securing a scoreless draw. Ireland were knocked off their perch by Serbia, never to return.
2. Undue caution lets a depleted Austria off the hook
Next to visit Dublin, in June, were Austria. Marcel Koller's side were out to avenge an inexplicable defeat suffered in Vienna the prior November, in which Marcel Sabitzer hit the woodwork, and Marc Janko wasted two glorious late chances.
Except Austria looked in no condition to take their revenge. Koller's side rocked up to the Aviva with a goalless, inexperienced, front-three, a third-choice goalkeeper, a one-cap right-back, and an out of position left-back. They, like ten-man Wales, were there for the taking on home soil. Especially with Messrs. Brady and Hoolahan back in harness. Surely, O'Neill would make the most of both mens' creative talents.
If only. With no competitive game in sight for two months, the cotton-wooled Hoolahan was still left to rot on the bench. Jeff Hendrick's industry won him the nod at number 10, ahead of the 35-year-old craftsman. O'Neill's innate conservatism was fully engaged.
Which may be why he accommodated the tireless, but limited, McClean in his favoured left-wing position. Brady, therefore, started on the right, with disastrous consequences. The Burnley man proved unable to keep tabs on converted centre-back Martin Hinterreger, who became the latest wide defender Ireland failed to shackle.
Brady fouled Hinteregger from behind, leading to the free-kick, and succession of subsequent corner-kicks, from which the Austrian defender opened the scoring.
Meanwhile, Hendrick was proving useless in the oceans of space either side of Austria's holding midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger. The visiting captain was often left stranded by his side's gung-ho approach, that saw midfield partners David Alaba and Zlatko Junuzovic regularly run beyond Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan.
Which is why O'Neill's admittedly brisk response to falling a goal behind was so ridiculous. In stark contrast to his needlessly cautious starting approach, O'Neill opened his side up completely on 37 minutes. Brady was restored to his preferred left-flank, with Hendrick on the right, and McClean joining Walters up top in a 4-4-2.
This dreadful in-game management continued in the second-half. By the time substitute Florian Grillitsch spurned a late, gilt-edged, double chance, Ireland were operating with McClean and Hoolahan in central-midfield. Yes, you read that right.
Left-back Stephen Ward had been sacrificed for Daryl Murphy by that point, as O'Neill again identified route-one as a potential road to salvation. The very same gambit that saved his bacon, and a point, in Belgrade at the beginning of the campaign.
This kind of last-gasp tactic rarely pays off for the desperate managers who employ it. Yet, once again, Lady Luck was on O'Neill's side. Aleksandr Dragovic's incompetence under the high ball allowed Walters in to snatch a scarcely-merited point.
With Austria in such rag order, it really should have been three. And yet, given O'Neill's decision-making, both before and during the game, it could - and should, perhaps - have been zero.
3. Failure to organise finally punished in Tblisi
If the half-fit duo of Bale and Ramsey could not capitalise on Ireland's haphazard pressing in March, the nothing-to-lose Georgians were not about to miss the same trick.
Quite how Vladimir Weiss' side lost to Ireland the prior October is anyone's guess. Georgia hit the woodwork twice throughout comprehensively outplaying their Dublin hosts. A tetchy chat with RTÉ's Tony Donoghue ensued, in which a defensive O’Neill both betrayed his frustration, and hinted at his laissez-faire approach.
Speaking directly after the final whistle, the Irish manager could not understand why his charges had been so passive without the ball, and so wasteful with it. As if both were uncontrollable variables over which the Northern Irishman had absolutely no agency.
In truth, Ireland were just as poor in Tblisi, 11 months later. Except this time they did not escape with a win, and two precious points were squandered.
O'Neill's unwillingness to work on team shape came back to bite in embarrassing fashion. Brady, apparently fielded in a hybrid number 10/central-midfield role, clearly had no idea what he was supposed to be doing.
McClean, apple of O'Neill's eye, was of course fielded in Brady's preferred left-wing position once more. Blunt force again prioritised over guile.
At least Ireland started positively, pairing their usual directness with an appropriately high-block. Route-one won a 4th-minute free-kick that Shane Duffy deposited. But, predictably, Ireland immediately retreated into their ultra-defensive shell from there.
Georgia smelled blood, and Weiss' side set about penning Ireland in. Criminally, for a side now focused almost exclusively on defence, Ireland once again failed to keep tabs on the opposition's full-backs. Jonathan Walters and McClean were again the guilty parties.
Those one-man pressing sorties, a dead giveaway of O'Neill's unpreparedness, came back to bite too. Georgia, unlike Wales, took full advantage of one particular Whelan solo run. The hosts deftly dragged a series of Irish players out of position to cover, capping the domino-effect with Vako Qashaishvili's damaging equaliser.
More barmy O'Neill in-game management followed. On the hour-mark, the Irish manager enacted the same futile reshuffle that failed against ten-man Wales: McClean to number 10; McGeady on at left-wing.
Then, with ten minutes remaining, O'Neill asked Murphy to save him once more. This final roll of the dice left Brady and McClean minding the central-midfield house, in a 4-4-2, against a side throwing caution to the wind. Crazy.
Once again, O'Neill escaped punishment, however. Ireland even had time to squander a couple of late counter-attacking chances to secure yet another completely undeserved victory.
4. Serbia capitalise on the diamond's untimely return
The diamond formation had been central to several of O'Neill's finest hours as Ireland manager. But the visit of Serbia, and Slavojub Muslin's 3-4-2-1, was unequivocally not the time for a revival.
Nattily designed to safely accommodate Hoolahan's talents at its tip, with three players behind to do the running, the diamond helped to secure famous victories over Germany and Bosnia in recent years. But there was always the sense that O'Neill's innate reserve only let him use it when he felt he had to.
Recall how the diamond was dropped after a promising performance in the Euro 2016 opener against Sweden. It never returned, as the nation faced bigger fish, and its manager reverted to type.
His usual undue caution wouldn't wash here, however, as Ireland needed at least a draw to avoid having to win in Cardiff. Victory would also restore O'Neill's side to the Group D summit, and the automatic qualification spot, in place of Muslin's Serbs.
As such, O'Neill started with a two-striker system, rather than turn to it when the chips were down. The diamond was presumably employed, ahead of a flat 4-4-2, to guard against central-midfield overload and maximise possession.
All very sensible, you might say. And indeed, Ireland did go for it here, pressing aggressively from the off. O'Neill even encouraged goalkeeper Darren Randolph to distribute the ball short, a ploy that was easily countered by the Serbs' press. It's not as if O'Neill would have discussed bypassing a press in training, after all.
Nor was shape-work on the menu either, of course, as Shay Given helpfully informed us earlier. Quick switches of play pose a great danger to the narrow diamond, forcing its three central midfielders to shift laterally across the pitch. This, again, is the kind of thing that needs to be developed on the training ground; moving as a collective unit.
And, although shuttlers Brady and McClean did their best to close down, Serbia's free wing-backs eventually did the damage. A quick switch of play, from right to left, saw Aleksandr Kolarov put to bed Ireland's chances of topping the group.
O'Neill quickly turned to Murphy, and route-one, again, shifting Walters into the hole upon Hoolahan's concurrent removal. Ireland were now effectively operating with three target-men, but the diamond remained intact.
A status quo that became more and more farcical as the minutes ticked by after Nikola Maksimovic's 68th-minute dismissal. To O'Neill's credit, the pressure generated by route-one did earn the centre-back his marching orders. But subsequent in-game decision-making, aimed at breaking ten-man Serbia down, proved poor.
Muslin, for his part, wisely preserved a back-three by bringing on centre-back Stefan Mitrovic. Serbia were now configured in a 5-2-2 formation; the two strikers designed to restrain at least one of Ireland's full-backs.
Incredibly, O'Neill's diamond remained intact until the final whistle, robbing his side of the width required to stretch the Serbs. Of all the errors committed by the 65-year-old throughout 2017, this was arguably the most egregious.
After besting Moldova at home in October, Ireland did in fact go to Cardiff three days later needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt; a travesty, given the position in which Ireland sat back in January.
5. Williams Cardiff catastrophe bails out O'Neill's customary negativity
To take almost no risks, when one needs a win, requires almost unthinkable levels of circumspection. But O'Neill managed it in Cardiff.
José Mourinho's "he who has the ball has fear" doctrine was in full swing, as Ireland kicked the ball away at every available opportunity. Hopeful long balls to an ageing Daryl Murphy, stranded in a 4-1-4-1, do not count as a plan of counter-attack.
Fortunately for O'Neill, his opposite number fluffed just about every decision he had to make. There's that luck again, luck that had already materialised before kick-off in the shape of Bale's injury-enforced absence. String-puller Joe Allen also departed early, a victim of Ireland's physical approach - a Cork and Derry sandwich, to be exact.
Derby County's Tom Lawrence understandably proved a poor deputy for Bale. Coleman fielded he and Andy King in the wide berths of an ultra-narrow 4-2-3-1. Quite how that was supposed to pay dividends against a massed Irish defence is anyone's guess. Asking full-backs Chris Gunter and Ben Davies to fling 34 crosses at Hal Robson-Kanu - rather than target-man Sam Vokes - was only marginally less insane.
Not that Ireland were permanently welded to their ultra-low block here. On the contrary, O'Neill instructed his side to press high at goal kicks. Stymieing Wales' efforts to build from the back was the goal. But Ireland's press was again laughably broken. Indeed, Wales would have had no problem playing through it if they tried. Although, perhaps Ashley Williams' catastrophic error stands as a clue to why they didn't.
O'Neill's luck continued in the 57th-minute, as one of his side's customary one-man pressing sorties finally paid off. Hendrick dispossessed a dawdling Williams to hurtle Ireland into a playoff, and O'Neill toward his long-overdue reckoning.
6. Criminal failure to pursue an away goal in Copenhagen
But first there was more good fortune to come, in the shape of a favourable draw against Denmark; complete with the luxury of playing away first.
That luxury was wasted, however, as O'Neill scaled the depths of risk-free, anti-football like never before.
In what was basically a souped-down version of their Cardiff showing, Ireland ensured they almost never possessed the football. The visitors completed an unprecedentedly low 54% of their passes. Murphy was again an isolated, lost-cause chasing, passenger.
Yet, despite failing to seek and secure an away goal, this could be construed, in hindsight, as yet another lucky escape for O'Neill. Errors continued to go unpunished. The likes of Pione Sisto, Andreas Cornelius, and Jens Stryger Larsen failed to capitalise on clangers dropped by Ciaran Clark, Randolph, and Callum O'Dowda respectively. In truth, the Danes should have put this tie to bed in Parken Stadium.
Larsen, by the way, became the umpteenth full-back Ireland's defensive unit failed to keep tabs on. Throwing the inexperienced O'Dowda in on a night of this magnitude was another potentially costly error for which O'Neill escaped the rod.
7. Eriksen and Denmark dispense a poetic reckoning in Dublin
Two years to the day after O'Neill's Ireland fell to a short Scottish corner routine, Denmark repeated the trick. After several earlier attempts, in which Ireland allowed a two-on-one to materialise, Andreas Christensen finally struck gold. Denmark had the away goal O'Neill never bothered to search for. Now his unprepared, shapeless, troops were primed for the hiding their manager had long invited.
Craig Bellamy's chat with Sky Sports, one month prior, immediately came to mind. O'Neill's former Celtic underling was happy to reveal that he "never worked on one set piece with him".
"He just expects you to attack the ball in their box, and your box," Bellamy continued. Which was precisely in keeping with the post-match excuse offered by an unapologetic O'Neill, in conversation with RTÉ's O'Donoghue. "The ball still should have been cleared," offered a totally uncontrite Irish manager. Presumably, O'Neill didn't get where he is today by admitting when he's wrong.
Denmark manager Age Hareide detected another big mistake too, remarking in the post-match press conference that "Ireland made it a little bit easy for us, because they play in a diamond with two strikers and that left a lot of space for Christian". Quite.
Yes, the diamond returned here again, looser and more improvised than ever before. Eriksen, a peripheral figure on a poor Parken Stadium pitch, frolicked in the spaces between the likes of Harry Arter, David Meyler, and Robbie Brady. O'Neill's new-found sense of abandon, that his first-leg caution necessitated, didn't stretch to handing Wes a start.
Two of our recurring themes were prominent here, then; inadequate preparation and undue caution. As was woeful in-game management, keeping in mind O'Neill's half-time decision to hook both his defensively-oriented midfielders. Needless to say, Eriksen had even more fun in the second-half, combining with Sisto - in behind Hendrick - to score Denmark's third.
The only motif missing here, therefore, was luck. That very much ran out, as errors from players in a green jersey were finally punished by their opponents. Stephen Ward was robbed for Denmark's second. And he was again at fault for their fourth, botching a clearance from the unfamiliar environs of centre-back.
And, why was Ward shifted to centre-back, you ask? Because his manager compounded the farce by switching back to the diamond in the 71st minute! Clark was sacrificed to introduce Long up top. Ireland, for the record, needed to score just the three goals at that point.
This was truly embarrassing, desperate, stuff from O'Neill. But it felt like the inevitable denouement to a four-year tenure throughout which his three main, glaring, failings were continually masked by a stunning sequence of good fortune.
Even now, with a two-year contract on the table, verbally agreed upon, it is very difficult to see how the 65-year-old can continue in the role. We await the dawning of 2018, to discover if indeed there will be another chapter added to this cautionary tale. For now, at least, we can reflect upon the moral contained within, another familiar cliche: fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: @alanob2112