Saturday 17 March 2018

Steven Reid: Glenn Whelan proves value to team and will be huge loss against Germany

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

We got there. Just about. It wasn't pretty but then again it rarely is from Ireland. But we won.

In football, the result is the bottom line, especially at this stage of the competition and with a play-off spot up for grabs now, you have to give the team and the manager some credit.

Okay, they are not playing like Barcelona but they are an honest bunch and they are also mentally strong. Strong enough to qualify? I think so.

Do we know what our best team is yet, though? I wonder.

This time last year the campaign began in Tbilisi and at the forefront of the action that night were David Forde, Marc Wilson, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Ward and Stephen Quinn. All five men started.

Last night they were all subs and keeping them company on the bench were five more players, Shane Long, James McClean, David Meyler, Cyrus Christie and Richard Keogh, who have been handed starts at some stage of this campaign by Martin O'Neill.

Read more: Vincent Hogan: Still a light to follow on road to Euro 2016

Does this tell us there is some serious strength in depth now in the Ireland squad? Or does it suggest O'Neill is yet to know what his best team is?

I'm not sure. What I will say is that the manager is not afraid to put the team before any individual. Taking Robbie Keane off at half-time was a big call. It required guts. Keane, remember, is the captain, the one with 67 goals, the man who has constantly delivered.

But O'Neill surveyed that first half, analysed where Ireland were going wrong and realised he needed Long's pace in the side.

The pattern of the first half had been dictated by Georgia's tactical shape. With their defenders crowding their own penalty area, their midfield sitting so deep that there were very few gaps noticeable between their midfield and defence, they were operating, to use coaching parlance, a low block. In layman's terms, the phrase is parking the bus. And it is so hard to break down.

It requires patience, because once you face a team who have three centre-halves and two wing-backs who are not overly bothered with the attacking aspect of the game, you won't get space. You need to think your way past them.

Read more: Relieved O’Shea switches focus to Germany clash as Ireland march on

So that requires being precise with your passing, requires varying your movement and requires a bit of magic.

In the first half, we didn't see any of the above. Ireland were far too predictable. Too many players - Keane, Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters - dropped short in their search for the ball and ,while it is all well and good if one of your attacking players does this, when it is all three, the opposition finds it too easy to cope with.

Hence Long's introduction at half-time. I've played with Shane. He has pace. He isn't afraid to look for space in behind defenders. Nor is he unprepared to dart a diagonal run right across the defence. That was what Ireland needed last night and that was why he was on.

Significantly, too, Ireland took considerably more risks after the break. The two full-backs, who were stationed in a conservative, defensive position in the first half, pushed forward much more.

By doing so, that low block became less of a concern. Georgia's wing-backs were suddenly asked to do a different job. They had to leave their defensive zone - and comfort zone - and the gaps which were non-existent in the first half became apparent in the second.

Then, after 68 minutes, the goal came. Typically, it stemmed from a wide area, Robbie Brady pushing up initially before he supplied the pass for Jeff Hendrick to embark on that magical run of his, which was followed up by a clever cross and a subtle finish from Jon Walters.


There and then you could sense the relief in the Aviva. And for all that I have talked about tactics here, there is nothing that influences a game as much as a goal. It can deflate one team, inspire another.

The low block is no more. Teams have to change their strategy. And as a spectacle, the game becomes a lot more watchable.

Read more: Eamon Dunphy: It's a poor Germany team and we should be aiming for a win

What I found hard to watch was the decision by the Hungarian referee, Sandor Szabo, to book Glenn Whelan in the 75th minute, when clearly he had won the ball cleanly. That Ireland will miss Whelan for the match against Germany is a big issue, because, for me, he was our best player last night.

He never gets credit, Whelan. But he is an underestimated player and, as I watched the game last night, I was reminded of how influential he was when I briefly played alongside him back in 2008.

It's funny but Whelan is type of player who, if he was in a championship-winning side, would be the one who fans revere the most. Let's hope his absence won't be as big a factor next month. It could be.

Irish Independent

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