Saturday 21 April 2018

Comment: 'He's an irritant but he is our irritant' - Why Ireland need Harry Arter

Ireland midfielder Harry Arter won't be fit to face Wales
Ireland midfielder Harry Arter won't be fit to face Wales
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's always dangerous to form an opinion about a player based on one performance. Maybe they just had a particularly good day, maybe his opponents had a bad one or the team around him made him look better than he was.

For that reason, this column came away from Stamford Bridge last December trying to find reasons not to go overboard about Harry Arter's performance against Chelsea when Bournemouth beat them 1-0.

The main mitigating factor was that the Chelsea players looked as though they wouldn't be overly bothered if Jose Mourinho was sacked - and he was within two weeks - but to be the standout midfielder when facing Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Willian, Oscar and Pedro still takes some doing.

We tried to find reasons why Arter may not slot seamlessly into Ireland's central midfield and quickly become one of the first names on the team-sheet. After Saturday, we're still trying.

Arter wasn't perfect in possession, nor did he win every tackle or intercept every pass, but there's a streetwise quality to him which gets in the faces of the opposition. He's an irritant, but after finally playing his first competitive game, he's our irritant.

In the win over Chelsea, he revelled in the pre-Christmas pantomime villain role with little things like re-tying his laces inside the penalty box so that a goal-kick couldn't be taken, or strolling out of the centre-circle after Bournemouth had scored to waste a few extra seconds before Chelsea could kick off.

Harry Arter in action. Photo: Getty
Harry Arter in action. Photo: Getty

Saturday's moment of villainy came with 20 minutes remaining when the ball broke between Arter and David Alaba, midway inside the Ireland half.

As Arter stretched for the ball, Alaba nicked it away and Arter hit the ground with a scream, a quick clutch of the ankle and an arm in the air to indicate that a free-kick should be given and the injury could be serious. Standing a few yards away, the referee ignored his appeal.

Right next to the referee was Austrian captain Julian Baumgartlinger, who would have seen Arter recover miraculously to find himself in possession four seconds after being on the ground in apparent agony.

Annoyed, Baumgartlinger clattered into the back of Arter, who flicked his head back to maximise the appearance of the impact and then lay with his face in the turf as the David Luiz lookalike stood over him and roared abuse at the back of Arter's head.

As the referee booked Baumgartlinger for dissent, Arter's smiling face came up off the ground over a con-job well done. Up he popped and jogged away with a free-kick won, an opponent booked and a few precious seconds wasted as Ireland held on to a 1-0 lead.

There is, obviously, far more to Arter's game than winding up opponents and being friendly with the ref in order to help him officiate the game - and he excels at both - but in what remains a group of tiny margins, a player in central midfield with that sort of nous is crucial for Martin O'Neill.

Ideally, central midfielders and defenders are the manager's coach on the pitch and where James McCarthy is often accused of being quiet, it's impossible to miss the amount of instruction and cajoling that Arter dishes out to those around him.

One of the great truisms of the John Giles school of football is that by performing small, seemingly insignificant tasks high up the pitch, it prevents far bigger problems from occurring in front of your team's goal.

Midway through the first-half, Wes Hoolahan was dispossessed with Ireland having committed players forward.

As the ball broke to Alaba, Ireland found themselves with five men ahead of the ball and the opposition's most dangerous player in possession and with two-thirds of the pitch in which to work.

Across came Arter to put out the fire before it could ignite with a challenge which didn't even merit a mention in TV commentary, but without it could have been part of the highlights of why Austria were dangerous on the counter-attack.

Of course, Glenn Whelan has performed a similar fire-fighting task admirably, but the difference appears to be that while Whelan - and McCarthy - usually let a player come into their area, Arter actively closes down to regain possession.

It may be one of the reasons why, this time, Ireland didn't just sit back after going in front.

Just as it is at Bournemouth, Arter's first instinct is to press, which, as it did occasionally in the opening stages of Saturday's game, can see the ball passed around him if everybody isn't on the same page.

But once Whelan went off, Arter dropped alongside David Meyler and the pair dovetailed superbly. With Meyler covering, Arter could back himself to make the correct decision in a given moment, even if it meant going off script.

That was the case with the first-half free-kick where Alaba's pathetic delivery rebounded back to him and he passed the ball inside to Baumgartlinger.

Rather than wait in 'his' area, Arter pressed the ball, meaning that Baumgartlinger (a name that can't be typed or said too often) didn't have time to take a touch and potentially deliver a dangerous ball into the Ireland penalty area.

The pressure forced him to go back 60 yards to his goalkeeper, who Arter continued to close down, forcing a hopeful punt which was dealt with by the Irish defence.

Arter wouldn't necessarily have been to blame had he chosen not to close the Austrian, but by making the decision to do so the Irish defence had the far easier task of winning a header from a 70-yard launch by the goalkeeper, rather than a cross delivered from midway inside their half.

It's this accumulation of doing little things correctly which led Paul Merson to ponder his chances of an England call-up and sparked a story of him turning his back on Ireland - peddled by several people who should have known better.

Yet in the rush to mock Merson - who was technically correct - the point that the 26-year-old is rapidly being viewed among the top midfielders in the Premier League was somewhat lost.

Jack Wilshere added to the praise by describing him as "one of the best midfielders" he has played with.

It may have been him trying to ingratiate himself with a new team-mate, but his description of the type of player which Arter has become is spot on.

"You hate them (that sort of player)," said Wilshere.

"You turn and he is there. You think you have beaten him and he comes back at you, so it is horrible to play against."

Fortunately for Ireland, playing against him isn't something we have to worry about.

Irish Independent

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