Saturday 25 November 2017

Steven Reid: McCarthy must learn from former midfield general Keane to reach the next level

Republic of Ireland's James McCarthy
Republic of Ireland's James McCarthy

JAMES McCARTHY moved to Everton this summer for a price tag that should place him in the top echelon of Premier League midfielders, but I still think we need to see a lot more from him in an Ireland jersey.

Last Friday, in a game he could have dominated, the Irish stand-outs were James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan.

For me, it was a night when our main central midfielder should have been to the forefront, dominating the game and displaying his passing range. But I never felt that James reached that level. He was just okay and, going forward, he has to do better than that.

He's the player I'll be looking out for tonight in a game that should present a different type of challenge. If Ireland want to be as effective in possession against a team like Poland as they were in beating a poor Latvian side, we require a deep-lying midfielder that can dictate the game and control the tempo – the Andrea Pirlo role, as I call it.

Pirlo has been a tremendous player, the highest benchmark that you can compare any midfielder against, but now that Everton have paid £13m for James, he has to deal with the increased expectation. He has a lot of the attributes to grow into that type of player; I know that lads who've played with him believe in his potential.

I'm hoping the influence of Roy Keane can bring James to the next level and encourage him to show more personality and demand the ball. Roy knows exactly what is necessary to boss that position and, if he can use his experience to draw the best from James, the team will benefit as a whole.

The central midfielders will set the tone for tonight. Their attitude last Friday summed up the change from the Giovanni Trapattoni era. We saw James and Glenn Whelan pressing high up the park and forcing the Latvians into mistakes in their own half, as opposed to sitting back and only getting possession outside our own penalty area.

We also saw either Glenn or James dropping short and receiving short goal-kicks from Keiren Westwood with the full-backs pushing on and the centre-halves splitting.

That was an encouraging sign in terms of taking a more expansive approach at home, but I would expect the job of the midfielders on our travels to have some similarities to the Trapattoni era.

Going away from home, against a higher calibre of opposition, you simply have to pick and choose when to press – and mainly concentrate on keeping a good shape. If you start throwing too many forward, you risk being picked apart by one or two passes, especially when you're up against a side with a striker like Robert Lewandowski.

Once a central midfielder gets caught up the field, there's a danger of leaving the other isolated and creating a situation where Lewandowski has the space to cause havoc.

From watching the Champions League, we know he's one of the top strikers in Europe and while John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark managed to keep him reasonably quiet in Dublin earlier this year, I'm sure he'll be prominent in front of his home crowd.

That said, I don't expect a complete retreat from the principles that were central to the Latvian game. Having played against sides managed by Martin O'Neill, I don't think it's in their nature to sit back too much.

You would always hear Martin on the sideline screaming at his wingers, be it McClean or James Milner or Stewart Downing, to attack his man and pose problems. He'll be imploring his attacking players to push on.

Another pleasing aspect of Friday was the impact of the substitutes. Sometimes in friendly games the multiple changes can flatten things out. This was the opposite – each new wave brought added enthusiasm and energy and that's the sign of a healthy camp.

I'd expect to see evidence of that desire to make an impression in Poznan, albeit with a slightly more careful approach with regard to committing numbers.

I can understand why O'Neill would want to change things around a little tonight to have a look at what he's got, but I'd still like to see Hoolahan again at some stage. I know there's a belief that when the emphasis changes away from home Wes could be the one to miss out.

However, I feel that if you have a good base, with McCarthy and Whelan or maybe Marc Wilson or Paul Green, that still gives you enough security, especially if you get a repeat contribution from the wide men.

That can give you the licence to use Wes in the hole behind Robbie Keane in a specialist position. However, with a limited number of opportunities to work with these players between now and Euro 2016 qualifying, it's only right that the likes of Shane Long and Kevin Doyle are given a longer stint to make an impression.

There won't be any holding back from the lads who feel their international futures are at stake but, if last Friday was about ambition and invention, O'Neill will be looking for organisation tonight as well.

Irish Independent

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