Monday 19 August 2019

Brian Kerr: O'Neill needs to change things from top to bottom

There is no apparent link between the style of football chosen by Martin O’Neill and that of Ireland’s underage teams. Photo: Sportsfile
There is no apparent link between the style of football chosen by Martin O’Neill and that of Ireland’s underage teams. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

In defeat, managers always suffer badly. Sometimes, they even lose their jobs. Martin O'Neill won't. He does have a lot to think about though. And a lot of holiday time in which to do so.

This also applies to Roy Keane, whose role, aside from playing the jester at press conferences, doesn't seem quite clear.

His satisfaction levels as an assistant can hardly fit his ego levels and the demands he would have had himself on ball retention and composure, as we hear often enough on ITV.

A lot of money is being paid to a lot of people whose roles remain unclear.

What they decide will be critical to his - and the senior team's - future.

But he is not the only person who should be re-assessing his future in the cold light of these November days and the yawning gap until the next set of competitive fixtures. The entire soccer structure needs to be re-assessed.

For now, there is an acceptance, it seems, that the vast cast of coaches and staff will retain their well-paid positions and carry on regardless but will there be an acceptance from every supporter that this remains the case?

Some may feel that Ireland would be better off clearing the decks; my hope would be that after lengthy introspection, rather than changing the manager, the manager changes himself.

Will the manager change his approach?

In the aftermath of a devastating defeat, a manager will always analyse his mistakes and ask himself would he have done things differently.

Martin shares a weight of the blame. For someone normally so prickly when being criticised, he was accepting that some of his decisions in key areas in selection and substitutions were awry.

That offers encouragement that some sense of enlightenment may follow. There have been false dawns before but he still has time to adapt and adopt a new mind-set.

Although the performances in France during Euro 2016 were always over-rated in my opinion, the style and intention shown in those games offered renewed hope of a new era in which our traditional strengths would be matched with classical football.

Those hopes have been gradually dashed. Tuesday's desperate outcome buried them quite publicly.

Results are almost everything in most people's eyes. But there has to be a requirement for a bit of style.

Nobody else in the world plays the game like we do. Nobody else in Ireland plays the game like we do!

Ireland's underage teams are attempting to play in a completely different manner, albeit with no tangible success as of yet.

Yet there is no apparent link to emulate what the senior team is trying to do; that linkage is something which every other country is attempting.

Maybe I've got it wrong. Perhaps if we're booting it up the field at senior level, then all of our underage teams should do that as well, and then become consistently good at it and never mind the begrudgers.

At least that would be consistent.

Of course, you always need the option to mix it up - you need a bit of boot and bollock on your day if you have to beat a Spain or a Germany; or even Italy.

Do we have the players?

We spoke about Denmark's broader football education the other day; it wasn't particularly relevant on Saturday but it certainly was in Dublin.

They were much more adaptable in their passing game and remained calm despite the early set-back.

But remove Christian Eriksen and their players aren't playing at a more prominent level than ours; they have a sprinkling in Europe's top leagues but I would argue that there is not much difference in standard between a player at Celta Vigo or Udinese compared to Burnley or Bournemouth.

FC Copenhagen are not world-beaters the last time I checked. The landscape of European international football is akin to the Premier League - there is an exalted few and then a middling muddle.

Northern Ireland remain competitive despite a vast deficiency in playing and financial resources compared to the Republic and they can still rely upon someone in their late thirties without much arousal of fuss.

Steve Davis and Jonny Evans are their only regular Premier League players. Iceland's players are scattered around Europe's lesser leagues and clubs.

True, we don't have the wonderful players of previous eras but the current crop are operating at a high level of football and are generally involved in their first-teams.

The potential retirees have not been central to O'Neill's plans in this campaign, there are a lot of players bubbling under, although we don't know how the likes of Scott Hogan, Conor Hourihane and Sean Maguire will improve things.

We regularly have 38-man squads and before the next competitive match players like Ryan Manning, Liam Kelly, Alan Judge and Declan Rice may emerge; a fit and confident Everton duo Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy can play a huge part too.

We remain weak up front and it is fair to say there is no sign of another Duffer or Robbie Keane. That's where we are at and we have to deal with it.

At international level, at any level, you have to maximise every possible angle to get the edge on the opposition, particularly when there is a perception that there is a limited pool of players and a limited quality to that pool.

In ranking terms, Ireland are probably the Burnley of international football on current form.

What Burnley do best is identify opposition flaws and deploy the best methods to exploit those flaws.

It is automatically assumed that their players will get the best out of themselves and know exactly what their roles are.

Should method trump motivation?

Whether Martin has moved with this trend is unclear.

It all seems off the cuff and players are making decisions during the game.

That would be fine were it not for the fact that the manager is often seen bellowing his own instructions from the line like a traffic cop who has just been stung by a bee.

Sideline instruction is not a bad thing but it does indicate that a manager has a lack of confidence in their decision-making, especially if they have already been told what to do.

Knowing the game is one thing, instructing it is quite another.

Clarity of roles and responsibilities are crucial.

While one can't anticipate every decision to be made in a match, suggested responses are necessary.

Professional players are taught comprehensive detail from their academy attendance and they undertake mandatory education.

They are used to sitting down and taking in stuff, they receive personalised analysis to their iPhones.

They are not averse to receiving information; it just seems the management are reluctant to offer them much. Instead of working out stuff from DVD clips, they need to be explained.

It is no coincidence that what happens on the pitch is related to what does or doesn't happen off of it.

I emphasised the necessity for freshness after the away game. Denmark didn't alter their team as much but then again they hadn't expended energy in Copenhagen.

There, in typical style in this group, we were running around without the ball which is much more taxing, mentally and physically.

There are nine medical staff attached to the senior team - a little more than when O'Neill was winning a European Cup in the 1970s - some of whom play a crucial role in identifying fatigue and assessing the readiness for another night of ball-chasing.

How much of this was considered when he retained 10 of the Copenhagen starters? GPS monitoring is used widely in GAA and rugby but do the FAI use it enough?

An hour in, the team were ragged looking and James McClean, making elaborate U-shape runs after a weekend of long-distance running, was already flagging.

Daryl Murphy was listing, the brains of Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady were scrambled.

For me, what happened in between games is very relevant.

Sunday was recovery and analysis day so Monday was the only real training day.

What did they do then which was relevant to the game on Tuesday? What work was done on tactical changes and on set-pieces?

This is the massive flaw when you name your team an hour and a half before kick-off.

From an attacking position, it's not so costly. Defensively, you can't be loose and the unfolding disaster was almost inevitable.

Despite the fact that there seemed to be an intent to occasionally pass the ball on Tuesday, the mis-placed passes across the defence and hoofs from midfielders showed the difficulty in dramatically readjusting to an unfamiliar style of play. There was a fear amongst players in trying to implement it.

Can there be uniformity in approach?

The diamond had been used before, reasonably effectively against Serbia, but with entirely different personnel; Jonathan Walters and Shane Long started that game, Walters was well able to fill in on the right and David Meyler played in his best holding role.

On Tuesday, there was a lack of spread on the outside of Brady and Meyler - Hendrick didn't know his role - and it allowed Andreas Christensen and Jens Stryger Laursen to ramble into that space.

It was assumed that Harry Arter would look after Eriksen but the glaring flaw in this assumption is that Eriksen looks for space wherever he can find it.

Why not play Meyler in the deep role when he had been effective there against Serbia and Wales instead of Arter, who clearly has not got the discipline?

Then, when the manager made the changes at half-time, they were too drastic and the cautious approach to Eriksen was utterly abandoned.

It betrayed a manager who had lost faith in some players who in turn had lost faith in the system.

Against Serbia, down two men late on in Dublin, O'Neill's changes were ineffective, as they had been in Georgia a few days earlier.

It has been a trend and needs to change.

We don't have a set pattern of play so how can you implement one in panic situations? There is no belief or conviction in it. That only comes from consistently doing things that work out for you.

In the 36th minute, Shane Duffy, who is composed on the ball for Brighton, receives a ball from the goalkeeper but with four players available, he turns on his left foot and boots it past O'Neill's head.

The stuff in Wales and Denmark may have worked but this time the system and style was not fit for purpose because it had not been practised enough. They didn't get away with it this time.

Can there be consistency in selection?

The selection is inconsistent too. Meyler has been prominent but having started the campaign as a bit player, he ends up as one of several captains.

Suspended for the first leg, when the diamond was unfurled on Tuesday he didn't play in the position that he had been in before but was still sacrificed.

Arter was poor in Georgia, then pleaded his case and was restored to the line-up for Wales but remains a player who kicks the ball out of shape for us, although is a ball-player at Bournemouth.

Callum O'Dowda was selected in Copenhagen but nowhere to be seen in Dublin as Aiden McGeady, who is rarely effective now, leap-frogged him.

The alteration in tactics and nuance to a style and system with which the team is not comfortable with was compounded at half-time by a switch to 4-2-3-1 with a whinging Brady, totally demoralised now, but apparently retained due to his set-piece qualities, retained alongside Hendrick, who lacks any nous to mind the house.

Again, no joined up thinking.

This campaign was a missed opportunity. Losing Coleman and Walters were significant blows but Ireland were in a dominant position a year ago and let it slip from their grasp.

If the management stay on, there needs to be more coherence in their approach but also more connection with the game in this country.

There has been no lack of publicity and colourful press conferences but little substance in the connection with the other levels of the game here or the development of the new breed of players.

If the FAI remain committed to this management team, they need to demonstrate they are part of the bigger picture. And if they don't think the players are good enough, the FAI should insist upon their involvement in a new production line.

The Regional Development Officers, still awaiting the restoration of pay cuts, could do with some support.

The future need not be as grim as many suspect. But those in charge need to lead the way.

Irish Independent

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