Sunday 18 February 2018

Smacky-whacky suits trap far better than tiki-taka

SCIENTISTS get quite upset when something is described as "proven". Things like evolution, gravity or the 'X-Factor' murdering decent music might all have become accepted, but they remain theories.

In the world of football-speak, where everything seems "massive" and phrases like an injured player being "a big miss" get a nod of agreement rather than a slap in the face, it's hard to expect theories to be tested.

On Friday night, as Ireland trudged around the Aviva Stadium like a bunch of rugby forwards playing against backs, their display against France 11 months ago was cited as the reason why this shouldn't be the case.

"We proved against France that we can pass the ball," went the theory after the Russian defeat, as though the 26 games for which Giovanni Trapattoni has been in charge could be characterised by one night in Paris.

Just as somebody surviving after jumping off a bridge doesn't prove it's an advisable thing to do, the game against France did show it's possible for Ireland to play attractive, effective football -- it just might not always be practical.

Against France, Ireland played with the freedom that comes from knowing it's as well to lose 2-0 or 3-0 as it is to lose 1-0. It was the same on Friday with the Russians 3-0 up and taking their foot off the pedal. In American sport, it's called 'garbage time': that period when one team knows it has won, so eases up, while the beaten team makes the scoreboard look respectable.

Friday night was not the first time Ireland have been played off the park by a team with better technique but, under Trapattoni, they have usually managed to emerge with a result.

Even against Russia, had one of the late hoofs resulted in an equaliser, the grumblings over performance wouldn't have completely gone away but they would have been clouded by that peculiar football philosophy that playing atrociously and getting a result is something that good teams do.

But what exactly do people expect of Trapattoni, or indeed any manager who can call upon the smallest number of creative midfielders Ireland has had in 50 years?

Andy Reid has been restricted to around 15 minutes of Premier League football this season while James McCarthy -- depending on how it's spun -- could either be the man who helped Wigan beat Tottenham 1-0 or be part of a 4-0 defeat at home to Blackpool. After those two, you might start to hear a scraping sound.

If, tomorrow night, John O'Shea takes the ball from Shay Given and attempts a pass to Glenn Whelan which is intercepted, and Slovakia score, will those people who whine about Trap's philosophy forgive O'Shea because he is "playing with freedom"?

Or would he be castigated for putting Ireland's qualification hopes in jeopardy when he should have cleared his lines, in other words, lump it up the pitch and do exactly the thing that currently has the team under fire.

In Irish football, and in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, there'll always be honesty, lots of effort and a few good, hard tackles chucked in because the crowd love it -- all that technique and short-passing stuff is best left to the continentals.

The next time Ireland simply retain possession across the back four, listen to how long it takes the crowd to become impatient and somebody to scream "get it forward". Like the scorpion who stings the frog carrying him across the pond, killing them both, it's in our nature.


Of his preferred starting team, most of Trapattoni's players grew up at a time when, at U-9s, they were chucked out onto a full-sized pitch and told to play 11 v 11. Goalkeepers couldn't touch the crossbar, the kid who could kick the ball furthest took the goal-kicks while corners barely reached the penalty box, but the kids, and often the coaches, thought winning was more important than development.

It was far from all coaches or players who subscribed to this philosophy, but until the post-'Put them Under Pressure' breed come through the system with the help of fully badged-up coaches, nothing is likely to change.

As European and world champions, Spain are now the leading lights in how the game should be played, yet they have played the same way for decades and won nothing. What's changed is a squad depth that allows them to bring on Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres and even at that, Holland were the width of Iker Casillas' boot away from beating them.

In much the same way as Stoke or Blackburn in the Premier League, if Ireland attempted to take on their opposition in an open, free-flowing game of football, they would generally come off worse. That's not to say that they can't, occasionally, put together some good passing moves but, over the years, the philosophy in this part of the world has always been more smacky-whacky than tiki-taka.

Chelsea's greatest strength is their organisation and power yet, in the last five games against the purists of Arsenal, they lead by an aggregate of 13-2. Arsenal might be more pleasing to watch, but whose trophy cabinet would most players prefer?

Tomorrow night, particularly without Kevin Doyle, Trapattoni will be under pressure to find a Plan B and the players to perform the not-unreasonable duty of passing the ball to somebody in the same-coloured shirt.

Maybe they will do that in one of the greatest games ever seen and leave the pitch with a moral victory and a 4-3 defeat. Or maybe Trapattoni will continue his belief that the end justifies the means by tightening everything up, hoping to nick a goal and win 1-0.

It's a question of performance versus points because, with this manager and these players, it's almost proven that you can't have both.

Irish Independent

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