Saturday 20 January 2018

Midfield mayhem points towards unthinkable solution

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

We've all been here before: underwhelmed by the performance, frustrated by the approach and bored almost senseless having to watch it. Should we change the system? Should we even change the manager? But there's another question to consider these days: how would you feel about dropping the captain?

Contrary to all the pre-match must-win talk, drawing 0-0 against Slovakia may not turn out to be a bad result at all. By virtue of the away goal we scored against them in Zilina last October, we need to only match their final points tally to ensure we finish above them. Qualification is still in our own hands, obviously, as nine points from our remaining three games will guarantee us top spot. Even a draw in Moscow on Tuesday may be enough to clinch a play-off place, as Slovakia could well drop points against Russia in a month's time.

Of course, all this is taking for granted we'll get six points from the two remaining games with Armenia and Andorra, but that is far from a given when you factor in how we actually played on Friday night.

Some players were simply nowhere near their usual level of performance and the system again looked predictable and flawed. All the same weaknesses were exposed once again. We were overrun and outplayed in central midfield, we were too conservative in our approach play and too limited in attack. Four-four-two was made to look redundant and toothless once again. Demanding change is one thing, but there may be just as many objections to the alternative.

As in the Russia defeat, the Irish midfield had little influence on proceedings. We were outnumbered and dominated but only in part because of the performance of those on show. Any central midfield pairing would struggle against an extra man. Those demanding change may not realise it fully, but they are inadvertently calling for the captain to be dropped.

If Giovanni Trapattoni decided to go with an extra man in central midfield, it is difficult to imagine a place in the side for Robbie Keane. His talents are not suited to playing alone up front, nor would he naturally slot in as an attacking midfielder or on either wing. The number nine role would be filled by either Shane Long or Kevin Doyle, but just couldn't be filled by Keane. If the system really is the problem, and there is much evidence to suggest it may be, then the record-scorer would have to be withdrawn.

Because we've always played 4-4-2 is no justification for continually doing so, but the pattern of both home games with Russia and Slovakia suggests it is time to be a little more adaptable. However, there is little reason to think we actually will be.

So the situation is very much as it was before kick-off. We are still in control of our own destiny, but with fewer reasons for optimism than ever before. This latest performance was disjointed, tired and dour. Overwhelmed with ease by a three-man midfield and woefully short of ideas in attack. It's not how any of us had hoped it would go beforehand, though it's hard to think of why we expected anything else. The team was booed off by the Irish crowd at the final whistle, and the manager's future is as

uncertain as ever before.

Trapattoni has yet to show any hint of altering the system he has adopted since his arrival in the job, though surely even he can now see its limitations. Obviously, the counter-argument to any change in approach would focus on the opportunities that fell to Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane late in the game.

Had either player scored, talk of the effectiveness of the approach would have drowned out any moans about its ugliness. But they didn't, and at this stage of the competition that's all that counts. It's nice to be entertained, but results are all that matter now.

Of course, we could well go to Moscow and get a result on Tuesday, but the bigger issue remains. Any change in approach would mean considering what has previously been unmentionable -- the player with more goals than all others would have to be sacrificed. And let's be honest, there isn't a hope in hell of that ever happening.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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