The anatomy of a disastrous goal: The crucial Irish errors in Denmark defeat
There were plenty of mistakes on Tuesday, but none exposed Irish players and management like Denmark’s crucial opener
In the aftermath of the 5-1 defeat to Denmark, Martin O'Neill described the two first-half goals which put Ireland on the back foot as "really poor goals to concede".
He was right, but while there wasn't much the management team could have done to prevent Stephen Ward's individual error for Denmark's second goal, the visitors' first looked like an accident waiting to happen with how the team had been set up to defend corners.
In Copenhagen, Denmark had five corners, the first two of which came from the right side - in other words, a right-footed taker would swing the ball away from the goal.
In the first of these instances (figure 1), Denmark sent both Christian Eriksen and Pione Sisto (circled) to take it while Ireland committed just James McClean, with Harry Arter as back-up. Denmark's bizarre routine saw Sisto pass to Eriksen who, from two yards beyond the corner flag, had his cross blocked by McClean.
Their next didn't come until the hour mark when the Danish duo went together with only one Irish player for company (figure 2) but, with Sisto too far away for anything short that would move the Ireland defence, Eriksen put in an away-swinger which was easily defended. It was the same story four minutes later (figure 3).
As Denmark piled on the pressure, they earned their first corner from the left side in the 89th minute but, by that stage, Sisto had been substituted, meaning Eriksen only had the option of an in-swinger which was cleared, as was their final corner in injury time.
In Copenhagen, Ireland hadn't seen Denmark take a short corner from the left, meaning the threat of Eriksen and Sisto both potentially cutting inside on their favoured foot never materialised. They hadn't been warned. By Ireland showing that they would only send one man to defend a short corner, however, Denmark had.
At the Aviva Stadium, with Ireland 1-0 up in the 17th minute, Denmark won a corner on the left which Sisto and Eriksen, again, went to take with only Harry Arter defending (figure 4).
In most circumstances, the defence would commit two men to prevent a short corner but Ireland seemed more content to have an extra man in the penalty box and commit a second player only if the short corner was taken. When it was, that second player was Jeff Hendrick who sprinted in a straight line towards Arter with the double-job of not leaving Arter isolated and also being close enough to Eriksen to close him down if he got the ball back (figures 5 and 6).
In this instance, it worked as Eriksen's left-footed cross was blocked (figure 7) while, a minute later, Arter was again the only Ireland defender out with Eriksen and Sisto but, with no short corner taken, Hendrick held his position in the box (figure 8).
Ten minutes later, however, is where the problem arose for a goal which there aren't enough fingers on one hand to count those who are to blame.
Again, Eriksen took the corner short to Sisto (figure 9) which was Hendrick's trigger to sprint out and support his team-mate (figure 10), similar to figure 5. This time, however, Sisto takes an extra touch which squares up Arter and also freezes Hendrick, with the Irishman appearing to expect a repeat of the first corner (figure 11).
Recognising that Hendrick is starting to move out of position, Eriksen steps backwards to draw him further and create a larger gap which Sisto can exploit if he can beat Arter (figures 12 and 13). With Arter too square to his man, and Eriksen no longer interested in possession once he has dragged Hendrick away, the Dane easily puts it through Arter's legs (figure 14), leaving Ireland's defence totally exposed.
At no point in the move is Andreas Christensen marked which, as he is the furthest player from the ball initially, wouldn't be unusual but, as the move develops, there's a marked lack of awareness in the Irish defence.
On the edge of the box, James McClean faces a no-win situation and chooses to hold his position. As Sisto nutmegs Arter, David Meyler takes a final look over his shoulder (figure 15) as an unmarked Christensen (circled) begins to make his move.
The Danish player at the back post - Andreas Bjelland - appears to occupy Meyler's thoughts, leaving a gap for Christensen to run into (figure 16) and by the time anyone reacts, Christensen has a relatively free shot from inside Ireland's six-yard box (figure 17), from a move which started five seconds previously.
To add to the organisational nightmare of the goal, Cyrus Christie produces the final error when he falls over his own feet and the ball ends up in the net himself (figure 18). For a goal that was an organisational disaster from the start, it was quite an appropriate finish.
Suggestions appear to be growing of O'Neill's apparent lack of training groundwork on set-pieces yet, if it were left up to the players, they would almost certainly send two players to defend a short corner. But the fact that Arter knew he was first man out, and Hendrick's immediate reaction to both short corners, suggests that style of defending was part of an overall defensive plan. All of which makes it even more baffling.
If they were the kind who liked to claim credit, the Danish management could suggest they had worked on such set-pieces. More likely, however, is that Denmark's two best players quickly worked it out between themselves that the two of them against Arter and a late-arriving Hendrick was a situation that could be exploited.
Four minutes into the second half, after the bizarre half-time substitutions, even fewer players seemed to know their job. Sisto goes short, accompanied by just one Irish player while McClean decides, this time, to mark Christensen. It meant there were four Denmark players (figure 19, Eriksen not pictured), being marked by two Irish players, allowing Thomas Delaney possession on the edge of the box at a point when Ireland were, in theory at least, still in the game.
They got away with it that time, as they did with Denmark's final three corners which, mercifully, were all away-swingers taken from the right by Eriksen.
The damage, however, had already been done.