Thursday 24 May 2018

Comment - The Irish players have never been given the opportunity to discover they are better than Martin O'Neill thinks they are

Ireland required a game and style they have not been familiar with during current regime

14 November 2017; A dejected Shane Duffy, top, and Jeff Hendrick of Republic of Ireland after the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
14 November 2017; A dejected Shane Duffy, top, and Jeff Hendrick of Republic of Ireland after the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Christian Eriksen (far right) rifles home Denmark's second goal despite the best efforts of Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph at the Aviva Stadium last night Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Backs to the wall and only one way out. For Ireland, the exit door.

In the end, Ireland finished the game with three centre-backs and two strikers and the rest filling in where they could.

It was almost managerial hara-kiri, an exercise in which the bench almost seemed to absolve themselves of any control over the unfolding rout.

Little wonder Age Hareide thanked his old landlord for such generosity of spirit.

Christian Eriksen was thus allowed to roam the Dublin 4 turf as if it were the backyard of a docile child, rather than a hostile visitor.

Eriksen symbolises a side who have transformed their playing style and also radically redefined themselves in how they utilise their best asset.

Ireland, in contrast, regard their best footballer as an awkward adornment and any pretensions to a passing game, even if merely to take pressure off one's own defence, with arrant suspicion.

Welsey Hoolahan is no Eriksen; in truth he is probably half the player; but his influence on this Irish team multiplies when he has been trusted to affect those around him.

He rarely has; when he has played, others play the game in a different manner too.

Instead, a collection of men, who could find such expression on the fields of France, have been ignorantly muzzled.

In the end, despite an early lead, Ireland were asked to play a game that was beyond their limitations because, unlike with their clubs, they have been denied the chance to play it.

And all was compounded by the wild inconsistencies in selection policy, tactics and preparation. The manager will take time to think about signing a new contract; others may think harder before offering it.

All of a sudden, the cult of miraculous motivation trumping precise preparation and naming teams an hour before kick-off seems so utterly redundant.

Do these players not deserve better? Is this as good as it gets?

It had started so promisingly, perhaps surprising Ireland themselves more than Denmark.

Robbie Brady's wand of a left foot had featured in many optimistic predictions; not so that of Nicolai Jorgensen, who unwittingly helped on his halfway line dead ball to allow Shane Duffy snatch a lead.

Ireland had not yet devised a game-plan or a pattern of play to earn a goal and now, suddenly provided with a goal from the training ground that demanded both, they struggled to adapt.

The next 84 minutes yawned like a lifetime.

Ireland, though, were much more energetic in their hustling and harrying; more than that, they showed the guile and invention which all know these top-class professional players display every week for their clubs.

A second goal was required, as O'Neill had suggested; instead, the Danes reached that number before them, first after a stunning lapse in concentration at a corner when Harry Arter was left isolated against two men.

When one of them, Pione Sisto, nutmegged him, Arter's gathering collection of colleagues in the box couldn't prevent the sloppy concession.

Ireland's narrow diamond, with David Meyler and Robbie Brady operating in unfamiliar positions, were struggling to cover ground; William Kvist had rattled Randolph's palms to announce the weakness.

The Danes get a marvellous second goal, with Burnley club-mates Brady and Stephen Ward struggling to effect a passing sequence that would hardly tax them if asked to effect it at the Etihad.

O'Neill normally changes a malfunctioning diamond much earlier than this but he allows a situation where Brady and Meyler, out of position, are clearly struggling to control the territory that is required.

As the Irish crowd are becalmed, the Irish players bicker with each other, as if few of them were precisely told what they were supposed to be doing.

Just as we think it wiser to retreat James McClean he breaks with Brady and creates a chance for the outnumbered Murphy.

It is but a momentary rebel yell.

Ireland's full-backs are now repeatedly exposed by the narrowness of a midfield who aren't comfortable enough in their own positions to influence the proceedings.

They, and their manager, pine for the promise of half-time reinforcement and, either a reminder of who is to supposed to be playing where or what they are supposed to be doing there.

Ultimately, O'Neill opts for a double-switch with Hendrick - O'Neill has always had pet players in his career - surviving the cull as Aiden McGeady, surprisingly, and Wes Hoolahan are brought in.

Now they are 4-2-3-1. The energy and enthusiasm of the switch offers early exuberance and Ireland go close to halving the two-goal tally they require for progress.

But worrying leaks remain with a deficit of ball-winners.

Too late in the day, Ireland require a style to progress with which, in green, they have never been trusted to implement.

Denmark radically shifted their intentions a good while back, despite the image of their manager as being a relic of the Norwegian stone age.

Sadly for Ireland, their manager has not consistently given them the encouragement to discover that they are much better than he thinks they are.

Irish Independent

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