Friday 27 April 2018

One-dimensional approach cannot be trusted anymore

Ireland's limitations and those of their manager were shown up on Friday night, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

O n Friday night, Richard Dunne reflected on a November night in Paris and wondered what happened to the promise of that evening. When Ireland play in Slovakia on Tuesday, they will need to recapture that potential.

Nearly a year ago, Ireland lost at home to France and everything about Giovanni Trapattoni's methods were questioned.

In the weeks that followed, the manager would angrily deny reports that these questions had extended as far as the players, who had taken it upon themselves to change the approach for the second leg. Whatever happened, everything changed in Paris. In Zilina, they may have to change again.

"We've proved we can play in Paris but we've not followed up on it," Dunne said after Friday's game. "Whether it was a one-off, or a fluke, whether we can do it on a regular basis, we still haven't proved that yet."

Dunne asked more questions on Friday night, primarily of the team, but indirectly of Trapattoni's approach which, once again, saw Ireland favour a long ball hit in the general direction of the willing, if exhausted, Kevin Doyle over any kind of possession football. Trapattoni can say it's pragmatic but it was ineffective as Ireland lost. There may have been a spirited fightback but that was meaningless.

Ireland's attitude and approach were questioned by Dunne on Friday night. It was not a direct questioning of Trapattoni's methods but it was probing.

"As soon as Shay gets it, we all turn our back on him and run forward and see if Kevin Doyle can head it and what else Kevin can do," Dunne said. "I think as a team we've got to help each other out a bit more and look to try and get the ball. At the moment we're just going forward, then defending, going forward, then defending. We're never going to control games if we play like that. We've got to put our foot on the ball at some stage and string five or six passes together and create chances that way rather than from set-pieces or long balls."

Dunne's comments could be seen as the first indication of dissent as it has never appeared to be Trapattoni's way to ask his side to string one or two, let alone five or six passes, together.

Trapattoni insisted that his plan for Friday's game was to bypass the midfield where he knew Russia would outnumber Ireland. Russia had superior technical ability, aided by Trapattoni's insistence on ignoring Ireland's most technically gifted players, James McCarthy and Andy Reid. This was confirmed by Dunne's comments. He might have called on the players to take more responsibility but he insisted that the players had followed Trapattoni's wishes.

"Not a lot was said at half-time. We had a game plan at the start of the game and we tried to continue it in the second half and then they scored again. It was probably only a bit of luck with the long ball that gave us some input into the game and gave us a chance. Even when we scored, we never got the ball back until it went out for a throw or a goal kick. We never won the ball back. We weren't going to score a wonderful goal tonight. We were only going to score from a long ball and see what would happen."

Even a conservative coach like Dick Advocaat takes more risks than Trapattoni. Alan Dzagoev may have been in the Russian squad before Advocaat arrived but the Dutchman kept him there. Dzagoev is 20 years old and he played with invention and intelligence at Lansdowne Road on Friday.

Ireland looked to Aiden McGeady for some of these qualities. Where is Aiden McGeady going? He is the footballing embodiment of the life philosophy that it is not the destination which matters but the journey. He may have caused some panic in the Russian goalmouth with a couple of feeble shots which were fumbled by Igor Akinfeev but otherwise it was predictable.

McGeady works in isolation and this is not all his fault. He is asked to attack on his own or at some distance from his team-mates. Even if he was prepared to pass, he is rarely given many options.

Ireland had a frenzied opening but there is no point getting nostalgic for a good couple of minutes in front of a home crowd in a stadium which generates a fantastic atmosphere.

Ireland may claim that pride was restored but that is as meaningless as their pre-game huddle and Robbie Keane's arm-waving routine (those who can, do. Those who can't, encourage the crowd).

As they broke from that huddle, Ireland were slow to react from the kick-off as Russia charged forward and the first goal was not a failure of the little details that Trap makes so much of but the pretty big ones. Ireland failed to defend the near post and Sergei Ignashevich made the most of the poor defending before Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored.

This was Ireland's worst home performance since the defeat to Austria in 1995 when the squad prepared by taking Harry's challenge. Fish and chips can't be blamed for Friday night. This was a more complete failure.

After the win in Armenia, Ireland's players queued up to say what a significant victory it was. Slovakia's defeat in Yerevan shows the importance of that result but on Friday night there were many things lacking. This time it was Dunne's turn to point out the failings.

Trapattoni turned to him too on the field, using the prehistoric idea of turning the centre-half into a centre-forward as Ireland chased the game but with no ideas. It may have been a show of pride as Trapattoni insisted but more significantly he also confirmed that he took Kevin Doyle off when the score was 3-0 to rest him for the Slovakia game. Ireland were playing well in garbage time. The game was over.

Crucially, Ireland never looked comfortable defending set-pieces and this is supposed to be Trapattoni's strength. There are deeper problems. Ireland continue the search for a victory against a significant side (even if they did beat France in Paris over 90 minutes) since the Holland game.

Trapattoni insisted there were no excuses but spent some time yesterday detailing them. Only the second goal seemed to stand as a demonstration of Russian superiority. The first (offside) and third (deflection) were just bad luck.

There were also unfortunate realities that no Irish player, present or absent, could correct. In the last qualifiers, Ireland were fortunate to face superior technical opposition who were in disarray.

On Friday night, Russia were supposed to be a mess but instead it turned out they had something to prove. Russian teams are fragile but once they took the lead, they played with absolute conviction. After the game, Advocaat seemed pleased that his side had disrupted Ireland's game plan and forced Trapattoni's team to play long balls. They had disrupted Ireland but that is Trapattoni's game plan. Advocaat was angry afterwards too that such control had been jeopardised in the final portion of the game. "There was no need to be nervous, we controlled the game."

Trapattoni is right to recognise that Ireland's limitations will never allow its players to out-pass more technical sides. But he has followed this philosophy to its most extreme conclusion, choosing at all times the more technically limited player. In Paris, Ireland demonstrated what happens if Ireland play without fear.

Trapattoni takes other lessons. He pointed out yesterday that Russia were beaten by Slovakia because they were, as Jack Charlton would have put it, fannying about at the back. The message seemed to be: Ireland will lose but they will never be self-indulgent.

James McCarthy should have been on the Irish bench but he remains excluded to the bewilderment of many. Trapattoni might make changes for Tuesday but he won't alter his beliefs and his view of Irish players.

"You can make a show or make a result," Trapattoni said after the game on Friday. It is one of his favourites. On Friday, Ireland made a show of not getting a result. It was the opposite of all Trapattoni preaches and all he has made central to his great football life. On Tuesday in Zilina, the result is all that matters.

Sunday Independent

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