Sport Soccer

Sunday 25 February 2018

Trap's straitjacket won't fit

Predictability of Irish approach is damning indictment of Italian manager's methods, writes Dion Fanning

Damien Duff scratched his head. He wasn't trying to figure things out but trying to figure out why he was been asked to figure things out. Slovakia were just the latest team ranked above Ireland who had left Dublin undefeated, a record of underachievement stretching back to the game against Holland, ten years ago last week.

"It's a fact, isn't it? I couldn't possibly comment on that, it's disappointing. We're looking to make it a fortress but maybe teams come here looking for draws and what have you, so it's going to be harder to break down teams."

Under Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland have created a fortress only in the sense of the siege mentality that takes hold on the pitch.

Everything that would allow a team to play football and draw out a team at home is sacrificed. Everything seems shaped towards a desperate final ten minutes when Ireland can abandon the pretence that they have a midfield prepared to do what midfields have traditionally done.

On Friday, Ireland hoofed it long in the final minutes towards those renowned target men Robbie Keane and Simon Cox. It was ugly, ineffective and a damning indictment of the style imposed by a manager who, after more than three years in the job, can have no excuse for the lack of imagination.

Ireland did not, as they like to say, resort to the long hoof forward in the end after exhausting all other options. This was their only option. On Friday night, they only got to Plan A in the final minutes. Until then, there had been containment.

Things could be different on Tuesday in Moscow as they often are when Ireland travel away from home. There will, however, be no change in the approach or in the system.

In fact, Trapattoni took comfort in the point and insisted Ireland had created the chances to win the game. Ireland had chances but to say they created anything in a meaningful sense is wrong.

Trapattoni suggested yesterday that he would have considered altering the system if Ireland had won on Friday and only needed a point in Moscow. But now, with Ireland in need of victory, he doesn't want to sacrifice a striker. This is a neat trick, suggesting that two strikers equals attacking intent when anyone who has watched Ireland knows the truth is very different.

Ireland would not sacrifice attacking intent if they managed to find a way of playing which allowed them to hold onto the ball. But that is not Trapattoni's way and he isn't going to change now.

Keane might have had the best chance on Friday night but Ireland's most incisive move came from a quick Aiden McGeady free-kick that ended with Damien Duff's one-two and shot. When McGeady took the free-kick, Glenn Whelan had his back turned even though he was five yards from the ball. This told of a team well drilled in Trapattoni's methods. They have absorbed his instructions and aren't looking for opportunities on the field. Trapattoni says he wants the team to be more incisive but he has a funny way of showing it.

McGeady explained to the media after the game that his poor performance was down to a lack of match practice. Trapattoni suggested people who questioned the selection were being wise after the event.

After the event that was Russia's win in Dublin, Trapattoni says he had known what to expect but Ireland had done so well, he couldn't change the system. He will have another answer again if Ireland play as they always have and come away with nothing.

There is no need to panic, Trapattoni insists, no need to worry about the plastic pitch. Shay Given said the surface gave Russia an "unfair advantage" but Trapattoni chose to talk it down. If there is nothing to worry about, there's no need to do anything radical.

Those who say James McCarthy hasn't made too much of an impression when given an opportunity make a valid point. But only if they discount the performances of Keith Andrews on Friday night or of Paul Greene or Darron Gibson or anyone else Trapattoni can select ahead of the player. As part of his "integration", McCarthy might make the bench in Moscow which at least would give Ireland a creative option.

Shane Long's absence robs Ireland of pace but the system will only change if Keane's back injury is worse than suspected.

The manager believes Kevin Doyle is concerned about his knee injury. Doyle was disappointing but having played every minute in the Premier League this season he is baffled by the idea he is unfit. Trap says the injury was on his mind, or perhaps the manager dropping him believing him to be injured affected him. He will be needed in Moscow.

Trapattoni will only change if he has to. Darren O'Dea is the most likely replacement for Sean St Ledger and the manager won't call any players in to replace Long who returned to West Brom last night with an injury that baffled Trapattoni.

He will rely on what Ireland have and hope that those players whose instinct hasn't been suppressed can push Russia back. On Friday there was only one.

Duff played as if he had missed the meeting at which it was outlined that Ireland would give the ball away, fail to beat a man all night and play with anything that resembled invention -- or anything that didn't resemble fear.

Ireland's utter predictability is not creating a sense of an unstoppable force. "We saw a few videos of the Ireland games," Slovakia's Martin Skrtel said afterwards. "We expected you to play long ball and we prepared for that, but I think to be honest we played better than you today, and that's it."

The manager's son, Vladimir Weiss, one of Slovakia's threats on the night was almost apologetic as he talked about Ireland. "We were expecting a hard game, maybe we thought Ireland were going to be a little bit better than they were today but not everyone has a great game all the time. Ireland have not had a great game today but they can go and win in Russia. They have some good players, it's still open."

Trapattoni dismissed the suggestion and wondered why, if Ireland were so predictable, Slovakia hadn't won. He then fell back on a familiar theme: Ireland had no players capable of the unpredictable, no Messi, no Ronaldo, no "circus performers".

Although, as always with Ireland, there will be a high-wire act. Trapattoni says Ireland need a win in Moscow but he will be happy to match Slovakia's points in the run-in, however that happens, while hoping that Russia don't also finish level on points and Ireland make it to another play-off. It's complicated but after Friday, Ireland have surrendered the right to keep things simple.

Slovakia are one of only three teams to win in Moscow in competitive matches since 1998 and it would be among the greatest results in the history of Irish football if Ireland were to win but there is nothing to suggest it could happen, or almost nothing.

As they marched out of the Aviva on Friday, the Irish players were asked about Paris, was this a time to play without fear again?

"France was just a matter of playing very well on the night," Stephen Hunt said. "We had a good shape and the right mentality of where we went out to win the game. Hopefully we'll have the same on Tuesday."

The idea that the players overruled Trapattoni that week in Paris has taken hold even if the players and the managers have always denied it.

There was no talk of the same freedom or desperation in Moscow. Shay Given talked about the handbrake being "half-off" on Tuesday. "We can't leave the back door open though," Given warned. His manager would agree with him, especially as he usually triple-locks the front door as well.

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