Tuesday 15 October 2019

Stephen Hunt: Did Martin O'Neill play Harry Arter to get rid of the fuss after the row with Roy Keane?

‘Did O’Neill play Harry Arter to get rid of the fuss after the row with Keane? I don’t know but it was a costly decision. His confidence looks shattered’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Did O’Neill play Harry Arter to get rid of the fuss after the row with Keane? I don’t know but it was a costly decision. His confidence looks shattered’ Photo: Sportsfile

Stephen Hunt

These are very testing times for Irish football. These are testing times for Martin O'Neill, his assistant, the players and the supporters. Trying to remain positive after the last two performances is not easy.

There must be improvements for the final Nations League game in Denmark, otherwise O'Neill is going to be under even more pressure before the Euro 2020 draw is made in Dublin in December.

No matter how good O'Neill says he is, this is a results-based business and if you have only won two games in the last 11, then you are going to feel the heat.

At the moment, I believe he still has the support of the Irish public, and the FAI. When Wales went ahead, the fans in the Aviva immediately got behind the lads with an almighty roar.

It is easy, in the Irish football bubble, to get dragged down into a negative cycle. Ten minutes into co-commentary on the Denmark game with Nathan Murphy on Newstalk, I had to say he was not going to drag me down. Then we had to watch one of the worst Ireland performances we have seen for a long time. At least then it is right to comment and reflect on another bad performance.

We all want to see significant improvement in the team and the performances. The big question is how can we improve? How can we improve the back three, for example? From what we know of their capabilities and experience, Kevin Long, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh didn't put a foot wrong between them across the 180 minutes.

But could we play Cyrus Christie as a right-sided centre-back to defend the wide areas, as England have with Kyle Walker? Could we have better distribution from the back and keep better possession? The answer to both questions is yes. I think we attempted to pass it out once in the two games.

That has to come from the players being brave enough, but first and foremost the coaches have to tell them what they need to do to make it happen.

One thing that stood out for me was that Declan Rice would significantly improve this Ireland team, either as sweeper or holding midfielder. One player can change the dynamic of a team, especially when you play a system that requires technical players. Rice could still be that player for Ireland.

But it also requires trigger points, such as an expectation of how to react when the ball is in certain areas of the pitch. Then you need every single player to be coached to know exactly when to press, not press or drop off.

Look at Matt Doherty. He might be disappointed he couldn't make more of an impact in the two games, but he is being well-coached at one of the in-form Premier League teams and when he looks up and passes the ball inside at Wolves, he is looking at Ruben Neves and Helder Costa, not Cyrus Christie, who is used to playing at right-back.

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Ireland's Matt Doherty. Photo: Sportsfile

Playing Christie in that role was some kick in the teeth for the four midfielders who were left on the bench. If I was David Meyler, Shaun Williams, Conor Hourihane or Alan Browne, I would be fuming and wondering why Christie played instead of me and the manager persevered. It made no sense.

Did he play Harry Arter to get rid of the fuss after the row with Keane? I don't know but it was a costly decision. His confidence looks shattered. The amount of fouls Arter committed was frightening, and foolish when you look at the Welsh winner. He went to ground too easily and then forgot about the ball. At times he looked like an amateur footballer and he is really not that bad.

James McClean can play at left wing-back but he needs a structure within the formation so he knows where he has to be.

He must have looked over his shoulder to check that Kevin Long was behind him every two minutes in both games and he cannot play to his strengths, on the front foot, if he continually has to do that.

In the first game, we didn't have a clue how to press and gave the Danes far too much respect, especially considering they were without Christian Eriksen. In the Wales game, without Gareth Bale, we had the opportunity to squeeze the life out of them, and didn't take it.

And we have to get out of this habit of flying out of the blocks for the first five minutes and then going flat. It is not about kicking the ball forward, smashing into the opposition and getting a big cheer from the crowd. It is past that now - and I'll admit that is coming from someone who knows it was very much part of my game with Ireland.

Perhaps we have to look over the Irish Sea and how England have improved under Gareth Southgate. They proved against Spain that it is possible to relinquish possession and win football matches. It is just a question of using the ball properly when you have it. Simple really.

I went to watch Halifax play Wrexham in the Conference six weeks ago and, I kid you not, Halifax gave a masterclass in counter-attacking football. Whether it was a 4-4-1-1 or a 3-5-2 shape, they had patterns of play and movement and just sucked Wrexham in, counter-attacking the life out of them.

That is at non-league level. There is coaching going on to make that happen and ensure the Halifax players, on between £400 and £500 a week, are familiar with that style of football, and can make it work. Of course we'd all love to see Ireland dominate teams and keep the ball for fun, but I don't think we ever will. We have to be quicker, better and sharper in and out of possession. There has to be more than booting the ball hopefully up to Shane Long, praying he wins a foul.

My biggest worry is that we looked desperate when we went behind to Wales - and they might have scored three or four if Bale and Ramsey had been playing. You do that if you are in the last minute of a cup final, not when you have gone behind to Wales at home with more than half an hour to play.

I like the formation with three at the back, but we can play so much better. As an ex-player and coach, I can see a structure and how it can work. Seeing it put into practice last week, I can only see a blank. There has to be a player who grabs hold of the ball and uses it, there has to be more communication with the players and a better understanding of how the system can work. And if we are down to 30 or 40 per cent possession, that use of possession has to be electric.

Irish fans, I think, enjoy seeing the Ireland team defending manfully, throwing themselves into challenges and scrapping. But they do not like seeing them simply hoofing the ball upfield and hoping for the best.

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