Sunday 19 November 2017

Boys of summer should have a new confidence now

Arter introduction in Whelan role can help Ireland build on momentum from Euros

Former Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Former Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

This might sound a bit strange but, for in my time, a fixture with Georgia always put a bit of fear into your mind. That is because it is precisely the sort of game that doesn't suit us. The onus is on us. It is a game that we are expected to win but it is also one that you can't win in third gear, unlike against other supposedly lesser sides. You know you have to be effective in your performance, and ultra-professional.

I played against Georgia twice under Giovanni Trapattoni and both were difficult games that we only won by one goal. Now, part of that was down to Trap. He had a very rigid approach, even in matches like that. It could be frustrating in terms of attacking but you also knew that, because of it, they wouldn't score and we were always likely to do enough to get one. A striker would buy a foul, or you're that bit mentally stronger . . . either way, you just had ways to get through the game.

Having enjoyed the kind of European Championships that Martin O'Neill's side did, though, I think we should be past that stage of nervousness against sides like Georgia. The assertive, intense way Ireland played in the summer - especially in the first halves against Sweden and France, and right through the match against Italy - should give the players confidence to go and beat these sides, to at least be more convincing against them. We should be able to keep the ball more, to control the game better.

It does take a bit of a tweak in attitude in terms of going from a team that reacts to the opposition to one that is proactive, and that is often the tactical challenge in those situations for the manager.

Manchester City have very quickly gone from a relatively rigid 4-4-2 under Manuel Pellegrini to the ever-changing fluid formation that Pep Guardiola plays. In fact, I'm not sure you can even call that kind of movement a formation and, if you think that reference is a bit fanciful here given the difference in quality between them and Ireland, look at Huddersfield.

I know from speaking to people on the ground that they are doing something similar to City in the Championship, and it demonstrates that you can apply ideas like that at a lower level. O'Neill, of course, doesn't have the players day in, day out. In fact, if you combined every day he had with the team for a year, it probably wouldn't even add up to six weeks - outside of a tournament.

So he has to have significant impact with single decisions. Simple choice of personnel can be so important here. It is amazing how just one player can change the whole dynamic of a team. He can also change the entire view of the other players.

That's because that one player is a significant piece of the jigsaw of the pitch in a footballer's brain, and how they see the game developing. I know all about this because Trapattoni often used me as precisely this kind of player. I was introduced to give us a lift, to play higher up the pitch, to stretch things. It got to the point where, because I knew exactly what Trap wanted from me and when, I'd have my shinpads on warming up even before I got the call.

Wes Hoolahan can be a similar player for O'Neill, but how he makes the team approach games from the start is a clear example of this. If you're starting Wes, you won't play direct so much. That's because it's not his strength. He's good at building play more patiently. He's not the best second-ball player, though, or the best for knock-downs. If you want that - and that kind of physical approach is obviously more beneficial against some defences than others - you'd maybe play more energetic players in that attacking role, like Jeff Hendrick or Robbie Brady. That's no disrespect to the two boys, who can obviously play ball, but both have that burst to get up and down. Wes can't, but what Wes can do is build play more.

He is more experienced and sees the whole picture now. He has that type of perspective that only comes when you've reached a certain age, and have played a certain amount of games so you've become attuned to so many different scenarios.

It's something which is true of Theo Walcott now. I met him during the summer, and said here that I thought he would have a good season, as you could see it in his body language; in his eye; in the way he spoke - he means business. He now understands games better. Roy Keane was quick to shoot him down the other night, saying it's only a week, but I think Walcott has been open and honest about his situation and deserves credit.

I don't know if this is true, but it sounded to me that Walcott has been working with a sports psychologist to get to the next level. That suggests that he is actively working on improving, and that this can last. Football has changed. It's not like Keane against Vieira any more, that era of confrontation.

In terms of our own midfield, I would be keen to get Robbie Brady in there, and to enhance his development. He can play left-back in the future, but right now he's got the energy to be really good for us in the centre. There's also the fact that Stephen Ward has had a very good year and a half for Ireland. He doesn't always get the credit but I know how hard he works, and he's enjoyed his best spell as a defender.

My team would actually be Seamus Coleman and Ward as the full-backs, Richard Keogh to the right of John O'Shea in the centre and then a midfield of Harry Arter sitting behind Jeff Hendrick and Brady, with Jon Walters and James McClean then to the flanks either side of Shane Long.

Arter is the kind of subtle single-player difference I'm talking about. He would be playing in the same role as Glenn Whelan, but just approach it in a completely different way. I wouldn't underestimate Whelan's importance, especially in tough away games, but Arter has the range of passing for this one. That can also release Brady and Hendrick to give us that attacking control.

Coleman has come in for some criticism for his performances and his role as captain, but I think we have a good skipper. He leads by example, and gets people in the right mindset.

I expect the team to be in the right mindset for this, and a 2-0 win. There'll be no fear.

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