Tuesday 20 February 2018

Brian Kerr: Why we don't need to worry about Ireland's missing players against Wales

If O'Neill's side can cope with the threat posed by Bale and Allen then Ireland can claim vital draw
James McClean training with Daryl Horgan and (inset) Robbie Brady and Harry Arter who are both missing for Welsh match
James McClean training with Daryl Horgan and (inset) Robbie Brady and Harry Arter who are both missing for Welsh match

Brian Kerr

While so much has been written about the lengthy list of absentees from Ireland's squad for tonight's qualifier against Wales, it is also worth pointing out that ten of tonight's likely starting XI featured prominently in the opening match of the campaign six months ago.

Only Robbie Brady - who is suspended - won't be at the Aviva Stadium this evening but the rest of Martin O'Neill's first-choice starters from that Serbia match in Belgrade are available, all of which makes me reluctant to subscribe to the doom-and-gloom narrative that has been prevalent throughout the build-up, especially as James McCarthy is recovering from his hamstring injury to help negate the threat of Gareth Bale.

That divvying up of the week's agenda between the presence of one Welshman in Dublin - and the absence of 10 Irish players - highlights the conflicting perceptions of each side: Wales being, incorrectly, viewed as a one-man team, Ireland, more accurately, as a side whose sum exceeds its parts.

O'Neill's history of changing his team so often actually makes the withdrawal of Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy, Daryl Murphy, Harry Arter et al, easier to cope with. In John O'Shea and Richard Keogh, there is a ready-made alternative partnership, and while this duo's combined lack of pace has the potential to cause concern, neither Hal Robson-Kanu nor Sam Vokes are likely to be troubling Usain Bolt's 100m world record any time soon.

Brady, certainly, will be missed - particularly in respect of the threat he poses from his set-piece deliveries, while Arter's mobility would certainly have been an option O'Neill would like to have had, but whose unavailability isn't as big an issue as Wes Hoolahan's.

Excellent against Moldova and Austria - where he played a central role in the creation of Shane Long and James McClean's goals - Wes provides the team with a creative bridge from defence to attack; he's one of the few Irish players who has the ability to unlock a defence with one pass. So he'll be missed - although there were no guarantees O'Neill would have selected him.

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Wes Hoolahan's goal against Sweden at Euro 2016 was a career highlight

For this game, though, he'd have been the perfect option for that No 10 position, the playmaker whose natural feel for the role could have provided the team with the confidence to exploit the space to the left and right of Wales' three-man central defensive system. As it is, though, even without Hoolahan, we can still pose the Welsh a threat from a fit-gain Jon Walters, whose trim shape, and energy, impressed me when I saw him play for Stoke last weekend against Chelsea.

While Walters looks ready to deliver a big performance, he isn't alone. James McClean showed impressive form against Arsenal last weekend, and when you consider the Derry man's personal motivation to show his respects to his two friends who passed away this week, there is every reason to believe Ireland can trouble the Welsh as much as Chris Coleman's side can unsettle Ireland.

Key to this happening are two things. Firstly, from a tactical perspective, there is the potential for Wales' three-man defence to be unlocked with long, diagonal passes - which may sound a little agricultural, but which, at the same time, may be an effective policy to embark upon, given how the weak point in any 3-5-2 formation lies in the space that exists behind the wing-backs and to the flanks of the central defenders.

Secondly, there is the fact that Shane Long, on his day, has the ability to trouble any team, which he'll be hungry to do, having featured sporadically in Southampton's starting XI this season - often enough to be match-fit but irregularly enough for him also to be fresh for this match. The same can be said of Glenn Whelan, dropped for Stoke last weekend, Walters and McClean.

All need to be at their sharpest because while the perception is that Wales have slipped backwards since last summer, when their journey to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 was one of the stories of the football year, in actuality their performances have not been as dismal as some would suggest.

Yes, Georgia held them to a draw in Cardiff, but consider for a moment that Georgia also outplayed Ireland for large chunks of our clash in October. Both Serbia and Austria, meanwhile, had to come from behind to force equalisers. A team in decline?

Far from it.

If anything, given the age profile of their squad, where the majority of their key players are in the 25-28 bracket, they're likely to get better over the next couple of years, and when you consider how special a player Bale is - scorer of seven of their 11 goals in the Euro 2016 qualification campaign - O'Neill needs to have some sort of plan in place to deal with him.

As a former Ireland manager, I've a fair idea of the concerns going through the Derryman's head. Back in 2004, before Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele came out of international retirement, we travelled to Paris for a World Cup qualifier, fully aware of the danger Thierry Henry posed.

"Should we man-mark him?" I asked myself in the build-up to the game. In the end I decided not to, as an effective, focused XI would limit the influence of one of the world's best players. But we did have a plan to deal with France's attacks at source.

Back then, Henry had a tendency to drift left when opposing teams were attacking, all the while knowing he could exploit the space in that area with his pace and exceptional technique.

Aware of this, we played both Steve Carr and Steve Finnan on the right-hand side, Finnan in the more advanced role, where his shrewd positioning helped restrict the area Henry liked to thrive in.

We should have won that game - but drew 0-0 in the Stade de France - and for me that game is more relevant to this one than the match, a year later in Lansdowne Road, when Henry - despite the presence of Richard Dunne, Roy Keane and Kenny Cunningham in the vicinity - scored a wonderful winning goal.

James McCarthy looks to be available to help negate the threat of Gareth Bale after the Everton midfielder recovered from a hamstring injury. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
James McCarthy looks to be available to help negate the threat of Gareth Bale after the Everton midfielder recovered from a hamstring injury. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

In Paris, Zidane, Thuram, Makelele and Patrick Vieira were missing. In Dublin they weren't. So, just as the players keeping Bale company now are Vokes and Robson-Kanu - the men renting the shirts off Zidane and Vieira in 2004 were Olivier Dacourt and Djibril Cisse.

With this in mind, Ireland's players certainly need to be concentrated and aware of Bale's presence whenever he gets the ball, but they also need to deal with the person who gets the ball to him: Joe Allen.

A deep-sitting build-up player in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, Allen has the skill and authority to control the tempo and pattern of games, to release the ball subtly through central areas to Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey, or alternatively to the wide channels where Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor operate.

Clearly, then, Ireland need to deny him space, whether that job falls to Walters - if O'Neill opts for a 4-4-1-1 formation or a midfield player, maybe McCarthy or Jeff Hendrick, if he goes with a 4-3-3 system, is irrelevant. The point is Allen cannot be allowed to control the rhythm of the game.

If we do this efficiently, while neutralising Bale, I'm confident we can get a result this evening, although the point also needs to be made that Ireland's lengthy injury list does reduce the options available to O'Neill to spring from the bench.

Subs - particularly McClean and Long in the last campaign - Daryl Murphy and David Meyler in this one, have got big results for Ireland under this regime.

James McClean of West Bromwich Albion. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images
James McClean of West Bromwich Albion. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

That area has been noticeably weakened by the spate of injuries.

So this issue, coupled with the fact that there is too much at stake for the Welsh, makes me think that Coleman's side have a chance.

I don't agree with those who argue that they are weaker now than they were last summer, as by now they have proven to be a team possessing spirit, resilience as well as a two-time European Cup-winning superstar. Bearing all this in mind, a draw seems likeliest tonight.

Irish Independent

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