Thursday 17 January 2019

Comment: Irish players are struggling to understand what they're supposed to be doing and that's down to Martin O'Neill

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during defeat to Wales
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during defeat to Wales

Alan O'Brien

"The manager didn't actually say much to be honest with you. He kind of just read out the team and we were trying to figure out where everyone was playing." The words of Aiden McGeady, speaking four years ago in the direct aftermath of Ireland's last-gasp draw in Germany.

McGeady was a fish-out-of-water that night, fielded in a number-10 role for which he had no prior experience. Freely admitting his bafflement at this turn of events, the winger continued: "When [Martin O'Neill] read the team out a few of the lads were saying 'are you playing off the striker?' and I was like 'I think I could be'."

"I was a little bit surprised, but that was the way he wanted to play. I am not used to playing there," McGeady conceded. Sound familiar? 

It should. For McGeady in 2014, read Cyrus Christie in 2018. There is nothing new under the sun where Martin O'Neill's seat-of-the-pants Republic of Ireland tenure is concerned. And, whether they're clouded by memories of a 2016 jaunt to France or otherwise, anyone telling you otherwise is dead wrong.

"The last time I played there I was about 14 or something like that in the academy. The manager just wanted me to go out and do a job," said Christie, on the moment he learned he would be playing in midfield against Denmark. Informed, like McGeady before him, mere minutes before kick-off, the Fulham full-back didn't even get to practice his new role in training. Then again, quite how O'Neill uses his pre-match facetime with the players is still shrouded in mystery.

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Set-piece work is certainly not on the menu, anyway. Continuing his behind-the-scenes revelations back in 2014, McGeady also revealed that: "Steve Walford comes around [after the starting eleven announcement] and gives you the set-pieces and how the shape is going to set up." And Craig Bellamy was equally forthcoming about O'Neill's disinterest in dead-ball preparation, too.

Speaking on Sky Sports toward the end of 2017, Bellamy remarked of his former manager 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. All of which explains why Ireland have fallen to short corners so frequently throughout O'Neill's tenure.

That longstanding flaw resulted in Scotland meting out the Derryman's first competitive defeat back in 2014. And it also allowed Andreas Christensen to grab Denmark's precious first away goal back in November. When Wales worked the same basic two-on-one on Tuesday evening, fashioning a clear-cut chance that James Chester somehow spurned, Irish ineptitude was tinged with more than a hint of black humour.

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James Chester glances a header towards goal. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

For if fans of Irish football don't laugh, they'll cry, right? If they think there's anything to cry about in the first place, that is. Inexplicably, O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane still have their defenders, whose failure to see the blindingly obvious is not helped by a media narrative that has only recently turned mildly negative toward the not-so-dynamic duo.

The reality, however, is very different. Although O'Neill's off-the-cuff approach to management booked a handful of fantastic results throughout 2015 and 2016, the performances underpinning them were terrible almost without exception. The surrounding circumstances, such as Italy's disinterest or Bosnia's disarray under Mehmed Bazdarevic, were often exceedingly favourable, too.

Lady Luck was very much in the O'Neill camp, in other words. But even seemingly infinite reserves of good fortune have a habit of running out. Prior to the latest international break for example, the prevailing winds again seemed to blow in O'Neill's favour, with both Denmark and Wales shorn of their most potent attacking threats. But despite avoiding the likes of Christian Eriksen, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, Ireland failed to score against either side. And the only two clear-cut chances that came their way stemmed from opposition errors.

Opposition errors and solo pressing sorties, to be more precise. The sight of one player bombing out of Ireland's so-called defensive shape to press the opposition is a familiar one to long-suffering Irish fans. Has collective pressing been worked on behind the scenes?

"I agree that the distances [between defence and midfield] are important and we do try to work on that," O'Neill said, defending the incredibly deep defensive line his side held throughout Saturday's deadlock with Denmark. But all the evidence suggests that, far from knowing their off-the-ball roles, his players are struggling to understand what they're supposed to be doing.

As if to prove the point, O'Neill insisted the passive outlook, that so gifted Thomas Delaney and Lasse Schone control of Saturday's game, was not in his plans. Speaking to Sky before kickoff, he insisted: "We want to be on the front foot. We have certain players here who I think will adjust. This is an opportunity while we're playing at home to go on the front foot."

Unfortunately for O'Neill, telling is not the same as showing; and this regime is doing far too much of the former and far too little of the latter. This, also, is nothing new. Recall, if you will, Ireland's get-out-of-jail victory over Georgia in Dublin toward the end of 2016. Seamus Coleman's winner denied a Georgian side that struck the woodwork twice during a first-half in which the hosts completely sat off their unfancied opponents.

Challenged by RTÉ's Tony O'Donoghue in the aftermath, O'Neill admitted he had to tell his players to press higher at half-time. Coleman also admitted the same in an earlier interview. All of which begs the question: what exactly was going on in the five-day training camp prior to the game? Unsurprisingly, Georgia exacted their revenge in Tblisi a year later, earning a richly-merited point that seriously damaged Ireland's fading World Cup qualification hopes.

The central-midfield O’Neill chose to face Denmark was eerily reminiscent of the square-peg trio that so gifted Georgia space on that fateful night. In both cases, Harry Arter got the nod in the deepest berth, a role to which the natural runner is wholly unsuited - as anyone who watched him twice grapple with Eriksen last year will attest. In Tblisi, Arter was flanked by Glenn Whelan (a player infinitely more adept at defending between the lines) and Robbie Brady (who looked lost in a hybrid midfield/number-10 role).

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Republic of Ireland veteran Glenn Whelan. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

On Saturday, it was Christie and Callum O'Dowda who got the nod either side of Arter. O'Dowda, a left-winger with his club Bristol City, was making his fourth central midfield start in five international games - despite never playing there for his club before. 

O'Neill regularly damns his players' abilities in public, as if to excuse his own underperformance at the helm. "Technically we're short. We know that," he said in the direct aftermath of Tuesday's defeat to Wales. "I think everybody can see that. But we're not short of heart." But the sense that he is not extracting the best out of the players at his disposal is impossible to ignore. Assigning them positions in which they've excelled before would be a start.

"The only player we had playing in a position where he doesn't normally play is Cyrus Christie, and he was man of the match," said O'Neill, responding to criticism of his selection for the Denmark game. But Christie's accolade was, in truth, a joke; presumably reflective of the fact that the fish-out-of-water exacted Ireland's only shot on target in the game. The Fulham defender finished both games this week as the most dispossessed player. And Arter behind him, in going to ground rashly on Wales right-back Connor Roberts, handed Harry Wilson his decisive free-kick.

The Cardiff City midfielder successfully executed neither a tackle nor an interception against Wales, despite playing against an inexperienced, struggling front-four with an average age of 21.25. Because, quite simply, he's not a number-six; nor, for that matter, is James McCarthy. McCarthy was tasked with the anchorman role against France at Euro 2016, despite being implicated in three of Ireland's four group stage concessions. Antoine Griezmann ran off him twice and the rest is history.

All of which brings us to James McClean. O'Neill insisted after the Denmark game that the Stoke City winger is a natural left-wing-back, who has played there before for club and country. "James is obviously sometimes not right in the head but he's absolutely brilliant for us and he epitomises everything that this side has been about for the last few years," O'Neill said of the player upon whom he's bestowed more international caps than any other.

His avatar on the pitch, O'Neill's fellow Derryman does indeed epitomise everything the 66-year-old's tenure has been about: all heat, very little light. It was McClean who let Roberts go, forcing Arter into remedial action. And although he enjoyed some success in cowing Wales' David Brooks into submission, the 29-year-old was a yellow-card-waiting-to-happen throughout both installments of this week's double-header.

O'Neill moaned about the absences of Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady on more than one occasion over the past week. But the truth is that McClean has often been favoured to Brady in the past, when both men's natural left-wing position was being dished out. The now-retired Wes Hoolahan, when fit and available, was often overlooked for a central role too; blunt force prioritised over guile.

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October 2018: Ireland 0 Denmark 0. Photo: Sportsfile

Reserves of sympathy for O'Neill, therefore, should be at an all-time low. He alone has been the architect of his own downfall, and his tenure -- moribund if not dead after November's 5-1 defeat to Denmark - was criminally extended in January for two further years at exorbitant cost to the Football Association of Ireland.

Reportedly paid four times more than his two-time conqueror Ryan Giggs, O'Neill would be exceedingly expensive to dismiss now. And the FAI, who are cognisant of the fact that they have form in extending managers' tenure beyond their natural lives, are in full-blown narrative-control mode. A visiting Danish journalist remarked on the easy ride afforded to O'Neill over the past week. Attentions instead have turned to the association itself, who have allegedly concealed rising levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo by dispensing oodles of free tickets.

It's easy to pile on the FAI, which under John Delaney's tenure. Arguments centering around lack of investment in the League of Ireland and pathways for younger players, as always, have plenty of merit. But here's the bottom line: for five years now, the Republic of Ireland's senior team has been overseen by a man that doesn't do enough to earn his bumper pay package. 

A man that wantonly misuses the pool of available players, while also criticising them in public. He, and the organisation that employs him, are tetchy and dismissive when questioned, always attempting to handwave away current failures with references to glorious past successes. 

Those days are long gone now. Martin O'Neill's methods are at least a decade out of date, and his Republic of Ireland tenure is at least 12 months past its best-before. Relegation to Level C of the Nations League, and third-seed status for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, is all but assured, as attendances and interest continue to dwindle. Apathy is a rot that spreads - quickly - and, in this instance, there is only one way to stop it. The FAI must act now.

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