Saturday 16 December 2017

Striking opportunity to claim a place in Trap's heart

Arsene Wenger said last week that he could not think of any player who scores goals in a team that does not create chances. He was rejecting suggestions Arsenal had become reliant on Robin van Persie. As with any player in any position, he said, Van Persie is dependent on those around him.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Robbie Keane's availability for next week's play-off with Estonia. But the decision as to who should partner him in the absence of Kevin Doyle (and probably Shane Long) will have a major bearing on the outcome. Forming a successful striking partnership can take time, but time is not available here. Giovanni Trapattoni will have less than a week to assess the readiness and fitness of the players before he names his team. His biggest call will be who to play in the number nine position.

There was a time when we knew it would always be Keane and Doyle up front. When both were available for selection, both played. And more often than not both played well. Trapattoni brought an end to those days when he dropped Doyle and publicly questioned his fitness prior to the Slovakia game (though later reinstated him when Shane Long pulled out through injury), but suspension rules him out of Friday's trip to Estonia.

The pecking order was blurred a little further when Simon Cox was then selected to partner Doyle ahead of Shane Long against Armenia. It will be an opportunity for someone to make themselves an overnight hero, but it's unclear at the moment who that will be.

Trapattoni has his opinions on the merits of those available, but his view on their suitability to work with one another will be a major factor in his final selection. Whoever he decides upon needs to be able to work together and perform as a duo. The intricacies of a striker's role vary depending a lot on a manager's instructions and the support play of team-mates, but little is possible without sufficient understanding between the two who lead the line.

The curious question about Keane is whether his own game is ever affected much by who he plays alongside. His more successful partnerships have always come with players who fit into the 'big man' category. Worryingly for Ireland, none of the strikers available fit neatly into that description. Obviously, the unpredictability of Keane's movement causes concern for defenders, but I've often wondered whether it's equally problematic for his team-mates.

So what makes a partnership successful? It's often described as finding the right balance of height and speed, work ethic and goal-scoring, coming short and going long. Having only played one way since his arrival, we can assume every striker available to Trapattoni knows exactly what the role requires. Assuming Keane has no more problems, the job of partnering him will fall to either Cox or Jon Walters. Despite his late call-up, Leon Best is unlikely to even be considered.

It doesn't always take time though. I played alongside several players during my career, but the partnership which was the most successful was the one on which I worked the least. In fact, neither of us did much work at all together. It was with Steve Claridge. He was in his mid-thirties at the time, while I was in my early twenties. We didn't have much to do with each other outside training and due to his reluctance to try a leg while at the training ground, there wasn't any point in doing much there either.

It just worked between us. The things he did on a field never clashed with the things I did. We seemed to approach every scenario as a pair. Even when it came to arguing with the referee, we good cop/bad copped him (Steve was never blessed with

the sunniest of dispositions so naturally adopted the grumpier role). It all just happened that way. We immediately developed an understanding of what each of us should do in any given situation. Neither of us thought the other was doing less work, and we shared the goals between us.

We played together at a time when the club's main striker, Neil Harris, was unavailable through illness, and we understood he would replace one of us on his return. I got injured so the manager was never forced to decide. The partnership between those two never got going. They clashed in just about every way. It was almost comical to watch some days. The lack of appreciation they had for one another was glaringly obvious, and it showed in how they played together. Because my injury was showing no signs of improvement, however, they had to suffer each other a while longer.

With relatively little experience on the international scene, both Cox and Walters are approaching two of the biggest games of their careers. How they cope with the occasion will matter as much as how well they can link with Keane. Cox has started just one competitive game with Keane while Walters has yet to start any. It's far from the ideal scenario, but under Trapattoni, it's been a long time since things have been ideal.

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