Thursday 14 December 2017

Warning signs in lack of creativity

Ireland have been too sterile up front, says Seán Ryan

WHAT have Argentina, Russia, Norway and Uruguay got in common? Answer: They have all visited the Aviva Stadium in the last 12 months, and won.

Another thing they have in common is that they are all ranked higher than the Republic of Ireland in the FIFA rankings issued last week. Uruguay are ranked fifth, Argentina ninth, Norway 12th and Russia 13th.

In fact, the only team ranked higher than Ireland that failed to record a victory at the Aviva was Croatia, ranked 10th, who settled for a 0-0 draw last month.

While all but the Russia game were friendlies, what these results point to is the fact that the Aviva, in its short life, has proved far from a fortress for the Republic of Ireland. The only victories recorded there have been against lowly ranked teams like Scotland (55), Northern Ireland (59), Macedonia (90), Wales (117) and Andorra (203).

All these facts should serve as a warning to those fans who have heightened expectations of trouncing Slovakia (ranked 26th to Ireland's 31st) on Friday and heading off in good form for the vital game against Russia in Moscow four days later.

The evidence suggests that, far from that scenario, it may be a case of hopes dashed even before our players board the plane for Russia.

Painting such a bleak picture doesn't come easy, but football generally follows a certain logic and, sadly, there is no indication that there is enough creativity in this team and management to suggest that lessons have been learned and this time it will be different.

Making a team hard to beat is the easy part of management; bringing them on to the next level where they can win on a regular basis is the hard part. Giovanni Trapattoni has done the easy part, now is the time for the hard part to kick in, with the four-game run-in to Euro 2012 qualification.

The good wins recorded against Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy earlier this year will all be meaningless if that winning habit isn't reproduced when Euro 2012 points are at stake.

While the game against Croatia might be taken as a bad example because its timing militated against 100 per cent commitment on the part of the players, it nonetheless revealed a sterile approach to forward play.

Invariably, goalkeeper Shay Given kicked the ball long, aiming for lone striker Shane Long, who was then expected to perform miracles to (a) win the ball, (b) retain possession, and (c) do something creative with it when the cavalry eventually arrived. While he was probably glad to be part of the action, it must have been a frustrating night for the Tipp man.

Manager's press conferences are not usually the most enlightening events to attend, but an exception was made last November, when Norway coach Egil Olsen spoke more sense in a few short sentences than all the waffle that usually floats around the Aviva's press conference area.

He explained how, in most matches, they faced teams who had greater resources and so they spent a lot of time on defence. As a result, they depended on two areas for most of their goals -- set-pieces and the quick breakaway.

What gave him most pleasure that night was the winning goal, scored by Erik Huseklepp, after what Olsen described as the perfect counter-attack. From a defensive situation, the ball was thrown quickly to a player on the run and, two passes later, it was in the back of the Irish net. It was clinical and impressive.

According to Olsen, this was about the fifth such goal they had scored in their previous nine games, including a winner against Portugal in the Euro 2012 Group H game.

Was anybody in the Irish camp listening? It doesn't seem so, as there has been no attempt to incorporate the quick counter into the Irish game plan. Instead it's the same old, same old, so predictable, and so dependent on a bit of luck with a breaking ball.

Route One was successful in 1990 for Jack Charlton's team, but it's hard to believe that time has stood still for the Republic of Ireland tactically since then. No wonder those higher-ranked teams have been making hay in the Aviva.

Perhaps the gap between 13th (Norway) and 26th (Slovakia) is so great that Ireland won't have to put their best foot forward to win, but victory might only be enough to earn a play-off, where teams like Norway could be lying in wait.

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