Aimless Ireland in dire need of defined strategy
Georgia 1 Ireland 1
In the aftermath of a bad night at the office in Tbilisi, the search for positives was coated in the language of disappointment.
Jonathan Walters fared best, pointing out that a victory against Serbia tomorrow night will help the Irish players to forget their experience in Georgia on Saturday.
That is an incentive because if Martin O'Neill and his squad end up sitting at home next summer the memories of this night will linger like an unpleasant smell.
Ireland's progression for Euro 2016 was ensured by improvement when it came to the crunch but the graph has gone the other way as this campaign has progressed.
Sometimes a dreadful display can shock an Irish team into a reaction. But it was difficult to be optimistic coming away from the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Stadium after an inexplicably poor showing.
O'Neill's men could have nicked it in a frantic conclusion, yet that fact alone only served to highlight the inadequacy of what went before.
Shape went out the window for the conclusion with James McClean and Robbie Brady loosely winding up as the two central midfielders. Oddly, that set-up yielded more joy for Ireland than the team which effectively set out with round pegs in round holes, although Walters would probably prefer to be operating through the centre instead of on the right.
But with an experienced enough side made up of eight current Premier League players, Ireland were comprehensively outplayed by a team ranked 112th in the world that was missing some of its leading lights and drew on personnel from ten different leagues.
Harry Arter said afterwards that the chasing his side received was comparable with what Man City did to his club Bournemouth last weekend.
Georgia are a decent side and can pose problems, but they are no Man City. Ireland made them look like world-beaters. Walters was upbeat while offering some damningly honest analysis.
"Look, it's tough letting them have possession," he said. "I'm playing right of midfield and ended up playing right back most of the game. It was similar for James McClean.
"We didn't lay a glove on them as such but if we can keep possession better we'll be a lot better. But it's easier saying it now than doing it on the pitch."
O'Neill was tetchy in his TV interview with RTÉ but his tone was slightly different when he came around to written press duties. He acknowledged the failings, without necessarily being able to explain them.
Ireland's poor use of the ball was a discussion point, yet he also felt that sluggish closing down made life far too easy for the natives.
"It's all very well sitting back and allowing the other side to have possession but at some stage you have to get closer to players, that's just the name of the game," he sighed.
His original midfield three, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter and Robbie Brady, were ineffective in and out of possession. A reference to Wes Hoolahan drew the response that he hadn't been playing regularly for Norwich, but his analysis of Ireland's technical inferiority throws open the debate about the choice of personnel.
This Ireland squad has limitations, but they shouldn't be exaggerated either. The positive spin on the one-dimensional approach is that it can be brutally effective, as demonstrated by the late equaliser against Austria in the summer that came after a punt to Walters that could easily have gathered snow on its route.
On Saturday, Ireland were just brutal until Aiden McGeady added some degree of guile, even if his final ball was lacking. Stats don't always lie. Georgia executed 568 passes to Ireland's 150. That should be a source of embarrassment.
"There's definitely a sense of disappointment in the dressing room," said the manager. "I think that's to do with our first-half performance because we should do better, we really should do better at international level. That's the point.
"It's a step up and you are playing against teams who are technically decent. Each team we play are technically decent and we have to address that."
Hoolahan would be one solution, but the problems run beyond one player. Brady is capable of much better and has underperformed since the Euros. Arter is competent on the ball too and, while it was sailing over his head for lengthy spells, he wasn't exactly full of composure when he did get on it.
The fundamental debate boils down to whether the players are devoid of a clear instruction from the sideline or are simply unable to execute a gameplan. After losing early momentum in Serbia last September by dropping deep, Seamus Coleman said O'Neill had berated the players for retreating. It continues to happen, though.
Across the campaign, turgid first-half displays have been a recurring theme. The two matches with Georgia and June's struggles with Austria instantly spring to mind.
O'Neill's penchant for keeping the team on their toes and revealing his selection late is simply how he prefers to do things. But it does leave open questions about how much time his XI are actually spending working together on patterns of play.
He has made good substitutions in games across the group and that, allied with the consistency of spirit and the never-say-die attitude have allowed Ireland to finish games strongly. There comes a point, however, where Plan A has to actually deliver.
With a tight three-day turnaround that will immediately be based on recovery, there is a limited window to radically transform things. O'Neill said himself that there's no quick fix.
Throw in the fact that Serbia had a routine win on Saturday that allowed them to rest legs while Ireland were involved in a lively affair in energy-sapping conditions, and it's clear that the manager is right in saying that a 'phenomenal' display will be required to get the show back on the road.
Serbia are a decent side but they have shown frailties in this group. They struggled when pressure was applied in Belgrade last September and were particularly vulnerable when balls were lumped into the box. Both of Ireland's goals arose from set-piece situations. So we know what's coming next, right?
That would be tolerable if it's accompanied by the high-tempo display that defined that aforementioned Bosnia game, a performance that was actually superior to the victory over Germany because there was no fortune involved. That is the level that has to be recaptured.
In the cold light of day, players tend to refocus easily and take the glass half-full approach. Walters quickly adopted the tone that is sure to be repeated today in the preliminaries.
"It's a disappointing result, but if we win our last three games we're there," he said. "You can be as negative as you want - we didn't get the result we want - but the cold fact is if we win on Tuesday we're top of the group so we've got to win.
"It's going to be a difficult game but that's what you're in football for - for games like that. If we win on Tuesday, tonight is forgotten about. So we've got to be positive."
Criticism has galvanised this group before and the adoption of a siege mentality might draw some kind of short term response. But we are again seeking encouragement from the prospect of increased levels of grit and determination. That only gets you so far.
O'Neill's challenge now is to prove he can take his team further.
GEORGIA - Makaridze; Kakabadze, Kvirklevia, Kashia, Navalovski; Gvilia, Kvekveskiri; Jighauri (Chantuira, 75), Ananidze, Kaziashvili (Khocholava, 90); Kvitalia (Merebashvili, 85).
IRELAND - Randolph; Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward; Whelan (Murphy, 78), Arter (McGeady, 61); Walters, Brady, McClean; Long.
REF - Ivan Kruzliak.