Saturday 24 March 2018

Trap avoids Stockholm syndrome despite his best efforts

David Kelly

David Kelly

The Stockholm Syndrome, and its attendant, lazy denial that change can effect improvement, could have gripped Giovanni Trapattoni last night.

That it did not may yet prove that, even amidst the ongoing blizzard of confusion that seems to trail in his wake every time he opens his mouth.

Quite simply, this was Ireland's best performance of the Italian's reign. Hardly a chance was created, it is very true. But the approach was freighted with conviction. It was a performance that will only gain credence if it is followed up with another on Tuesday.

More importantly, for all his persistently troublesome foibles and needless bickering with players, it was one that was prompted by his own enthusiasm for a fledgling Irish team.

Ireland could not have helped being encouraged last night. One's only hope was that their manager would not remove that encouragement.

Trapattoni is usually more adept at removing conviction from the courageous, not sustaining it.

In a strange way, that the pattern of this game remained utterly unchanged would have suited a manager who has not always demonstrated himself to be open to change for its own sake.

Could he dare alter Ireland's impressive shape and commendable balance?

The harder Sweden tried to impose themselves, the more enervating their own efforts became and making only one half-time substitution had seemed a generous concession by coach Erik Hamren to his team's ineptitude.

The removal of Wes Hoolahan's tracksuit top in the 75th minute offered us a decisive answer. Now Trap was in control when it seemed for so many of the previous 24 hours that he was not. Ireland had made their point. In a roundabout way, so had their manager.

Despite his cack-handed treatment of Robbie Brady. In deciding that Brady hadn't sufficiently advanced whatever mental tests that had been set for him, after two lengthy summit meetings with the player, he then had to resort to selecting James McCarthy, a player he had so publicly belittled at Thursday's press conference.

The comments about McCarthy, for whom Trapattoni's back-handed praise suggested that he is nothing more than a crab-like passer in midfield, clearly irked the captain, Robbie Keane, who grimaced suggestively at his manager's comments.

Now, McCarthy started and one could only estimate as to his feelings on the matter as, having started every competitive game, he suddenly found himself initially withdrawn from the side, then hastily re-introduced as a purportedly babysitting defensive winger.

This is not the stuff of which the media gleefully sprinkles hype.

The manager has publicly made decisions – or not made decisions – which cannot but have caused yet more rancour within a squad already unnecessarily denuded of some of its strongest personalities due to the Italians' actions.

Why on earth he thought it necessary to reveal all to the Irish supporters on the eve of battle will remain an eternal mystery. And it is noticeable that the sheen that seems to shimmer whenever Trapattoni decamps to foreign climes with "little old Ireland" may be diminishing, such that a prominent Swedish daily suggested that "Trapattoni does not know what he is talking about."

As he now helms a side that is clearly embroiled in transition, how much energy and clear-minded thinking can the 74-year-old still bring to the table?

There is still a glimmer, it seems, despite his often complicated and intractable modus operandi.

The Irish side that took to the field last evening was the most callow competitive line-up that has represented Ireland in some years, with only Keane and John O'Shea surviving from the regular starting line-up of the disastrous Euro 2012 campaign.

But Ireland, whatever about the manager's eccentricities, have always been consistently competitive away from home, where it seems his rigid philosophies are always less exposed than when they are asked to do the pressing at home, often against weaker sides with well-populated midfields.

And, to McCarthy's immense credit, the criticisms directed at him by his manager were shrugged off with the maturity of a 33-year-old, rather than a 23-year-old. His influence on Ireland's passing game was a hugely positive dimension to a most encouraging declaration of opening intent.

The Swedes, who have recently scored 10 against three of the world's top six sides – but also conceded eight – while Ireland have huffed and puffed against the world's minnows – were worried about the counter-attack coming into this one.

They need not have been so discommoded early on as Ireland's young guns dominated possession, with McCarthy spraying passes that were a little more of the direct, rather than the linear variety as his manager spiffily suggested.

McClean contributed positively from the wing, with Ciaran Clark and, at one stage, David Forde, sweeping intelligently as Zlatan Ibrahimovic searched forlornly for space.

Forde, an anomaly in this team in terms of age – Ireland's oldest competitive debutant – but not in regards to inexperience, also delivered handsomely as Ireland repelled the fitful hosts even though, ironically, they created the best two scoring efforts of the opening quarter. For all the surprising dominance in terms of possession, and often creditable ease with which they either retrieved it or were donated it by the home side, Ireland couldn't deliver an economic return in terms of chances.

Sweden's profligacy in possession was in stark contrast to their clear and present danger when foraying occasionally deep into the heart of the Ireland defence, though, albeit more penetratingly from customary, well-delivered set-pieces than via open play.

Through it all, Keane devoted himself slavishly to the Trapattoni ideal, flogging himself around with seemingly little intention of using the ball, instead concentrating on making sure Sweden didn't. Hence, Ibrahimovic and co flitted in and out of the encounter, though his listlessness did not betray indifference; his sparks of invention in the penalty area inured Ireland against complacency.

For Keane, and Ireland in general, the effort must have been enervating, particularly as the rewards weren't immediately obvious.

And so it was perhaps inevitable, as the half progressed, Ireland subconsciously drifted deeper, the midfielders pressed less vigorously and Sweden belatedly adopted a rhythm of at least some pace, even if still more staccato than legato.

If anything, it confirmed for many of us that, for all the sublime genius of Ibrahimovic, Sweden are effectively a very ordinary team. A bit like Ireland, for whom an inferiority complex about its international team has almost become a statement of fact. Last night could help change that perception.

Irish Independent

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