Wednesday 22 November 2017

Long dry spell doesn't mean star striker is a busted flush

Southampton’s Shane Long battles for the ball with Sparta Prague’s Mario Holek. Photo: PA
Southampton’s Shane Long battles for the ball with Sparta Prague’s Mario Holek. Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

At the height of Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign, just after the team had enjoyed the emotional release of Robbie Brady's goal against Italy, Shane Long was in the happy mood to let slip an admission. He laughed as he revealed he often had to stop himself singing what had become one of the fans' anthems in France: 'Shane Long's on fire'.

"It wouldn't look good!" he said. Long did look very good at the time, and was undeniably a player on form. That fire, however, never led to an explosion. For a variety of reasons, most of all the hard-running, lone-forward role required of him, Long never did score at Euro 2016.

That was not a problem but what might be is the fact he still hasn't scored since. It is now 13 games, and almost four months, since he last hit the net - a poacher's goal against the Netherlands in the 1-1 Euro 2016 warm-up friendly. Even for a forward who has never been prolific, or defined by his goals, that is a prolonged period.

Some at Southampton have expressed slight concern at that, especially with how Long's misses at Arsenal last week contrasted with his fine form at the end of last season, and the question is whether it should be a concern for Martin O'Neill and Ireland. It has certainly become a more relevant issue since Robbie Keane finally retired, and the 29-year-old is now Ireland's primary striker in every way. He is also probably the most high-profile player in the squad, and the question that still lingers is whether he could have done with a move in the summer at a key age in his career, to complete that final step.

Liverpool did express an initial interest, and Leicester City investigated the possibility of bringing Long in as an alternative forward option to Jamie Vardy in a season where the Champions League would bring so many more games. Both were put off by the huge fee Southampton wanted for a player of his age.

In terms of how he felt off the pitch, that was fine for Long, since his family are settled in the area. That obviously has a positive effect on the pitch too.

In terms of his game, though, a move might have been the chance to charge his strike rate; to turn him into the more regular scorer he's never really been. It would also have been a fairly natural progression. One reason Long had been so good right up to Euro 2016, and that he himself credited, was the coaching work that Ronald Koeman had done with him. As a former centre-half, the then-Southampton manager knew exactly what runs from strikers were especially damaging, so worked with Long to hone his movement.

With Koeman leaving to join Everton in the summer, it might have been logical for Long to move on himself. As it was, Southampton were desperate to prevent another one of their prize players going, and were keen for Long to give Claude Puel's new regime a good enough foundation. Adjusting to that new regime has undeniably been part of the player's dip in form, but it shouldn't be a long-term issue.

Adjusting to an even greater prominence with Ireland shouldn't be too much of an problem either. Former international David Kelly doesn't consider his career anywhere near the level of Long's, but he did face a relatively similar situation in the mid-90s, in temporarily becoming the starting striker after legends like John Aldridge began to fade. He was also charged with having more to do than just scoring goals.

"I think Longy will take it in his stride," Kelly tells the Sunday Independent. "He's an absolute master at getting on the shoulder of defenders and making super runs into space and in behind full-backs when the ball's in transition. You do judge yourself on goals. Shane will know that himself but look at [Romelu] Lukaku. He hadn't scored for a good while, then hit a hat-trick.

"Longy's got great confidence in his own ability. He's also got that little petulant streak in him to hopefully be the best player he possibly can. I don't see a boy that lacks any confidence."

Long arguably proved it on Thursday. Just five days after two bad misses against Arsenal, he wrought havoc against Sparta Prague, brilliantly setting up two goals for Charlie Austin in a 3-0 win.

This was a vintage Long performance, and almost an ideal for Ireland. You imagine O'Neill putting it forward as a template for what the forward can do, especially in opening the pitch to the rest of the attack. That's what Ireland need. The only thing that was missing was a goal. Just as Long produced that display out of nowhere, though, he does have previous in producing big strikes from nowhere. The Germany goal didn't exactly come in a prolific spell.

As Swansea City might find today, Long is someone who can ignite from the merest spark.

Sunday Indo Sport

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