Saturday 17 March 2018

Deeper question of Irish football identity underpins debate about our style of play

James McClean celebrates his first goal against Moldova. Picture: Sportsfile
James McClean celebrates his first goal against Moldova. Picture: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

It was meant as a fierce response from James McClean but, really, it amounted to a philosophical football question. "When has a win never been enough?" the winger asked, after his two goals against Moldova had earned Ireland three points to add to the win over Georgia, and earned him the position to criticise a press he felt had been unfair.

"For some reason, the media. . . it's a no-win situation: we play pretty football and, if we don't win, [it's] 'Aye, well, we should've won'. We don't play pretty football and we win, 'Well, we need to play better football'."

The easy answer is to both play pretty football and win, but then the entire issue is more complicated and layered than that, and goes back a lot further than this Irish team. The tension between what you can do to look good and what you need to do to win has fired football's entire history, but has rarely been such an either/or question as McClean made out. In all of this, it is worth remembering Martin O'Neill has managed something that Ireland certainly found very complicated for most of that history, by so regularly claiming maximum points from lesser sides.

That is to be praised. It is not something similar-sized countries like Scotland can say, and Wales could yet rue dropping points to Georgia in the way Gordon Strachan's team did in the Euro 2016 campaign.

In claiming 18 points from 18 against bottom-two seeds since taking over in 2013, O'Neill has imbued Ireland with an impressive ruthlessness, that many of his predecessors would have envied.

This debate that so energised McClean is not really about the past, though. It is about the near future, and what the performances actually indicate. They might have been enough to win those games, against limited opposition, but do they suggest the possibility of winning tougher matches?

That was why there was such criticism after the Georgia game. Ireland barely created any chances from open play, and the winning goal - where Seamus Coleman literally just ran - isn't the kind of move you can rely on repeating. It isn't a stretch to say the win was almost completely reliant on luck - specifically the literal bounce of the ball off Georgian legs - and that isn't really the most solid foundation for a winning approach against better sides.

Whatever about pretty football, there was just no evidence of a plan, of the sense of an overall idea that is meant to maximise a team's qualities.

The latter is more important to this debate than aesthetics or style of play. It's about playing to potential, not playing pretty football.

When this kind of thing comes up, extremes are often pointed to, and how Ireland just don't have the talent of Spain or Germany. That is obviously true, but it's also true that they didn't seem to make the best of the talent they do have.

Ireland looked less than the sum of decent parts against Georgia, independent of how Georgia played against Wales.

The argument here is not even to replicate the performances against Germany or Italy, since they were partial products of rare do-or-die occasions, but it is about regularly replicating a defined approach that accentuates the team's ability.

O'Neill's instructions to the players are said to be quite minimalistic, and he still seems to rely on motivation more than tactical organisation.

That is maybe why Ireland appear to perform better in bigger games, and why so many matches like those against Georgia are so flat.

The same fixture in the last campaign was very similar, right down to final score. As Stephen Hunt also suggests on these pages, the way that McClean spoke indicates that O'Neill specifically used the reaction to those games as motivation for Moldova.

That is maybe why there was such an uplift in performance. The middle stretch of the game apart, Ireland looked like a side playing to their potential, like there was a design to what they did. That was very different to what we saw against Georgia.

There was also, however, one big difference the starting line-up. Wes Hoolahan played. The Norwich City playmaker does personify elements of this debate about performance, since so much of the talk about him is pushed to the extremes, and it can be easy to forget the more mundane reality.

Hoolahan is not an immediate solution to Irish problems, nor a guarantee of good football, but he is someone whose technical abilities naturally give a team a more shape in the absence of one being imposed on them from above. That could be seen from the first minute against Moldova. Because everyone now instinctively knows what type of passes he is capable of, and how he moves, they can make sharper and more constructive runs. That in turn allows more angles to Ireland's play.

It is all the more important in the absence of a "philosophy" or proper football identity, since Hoolahan at least gives a semblance of one.

This is something else that has been discussed more over the last week, and really should be one of the main issues for the FAI, since it cuts to the heart of the association's most pressing task: youth production.

As O'Neill has touched upon himself, he has not taken over a squad that are the collective consequence of a concerted design, of players trained up according to specific traits. They are instead a mixed collection of players from a variety of different backgrounds.

Some of them have a natural ability honed by elite academies, some of them were hewn by the rougher edges of the English lower leagues, and some of them came from the home league and its idiosyncratic nature.

The point is that none of them came up coached through a specific Irish approach - an in-built identity that every manager can build on.

As recent European football history proves, identifying and developing one can be a huge advantage. It means players will understand each other and how they move on a deeper level, allowing teams to be more fluid and cohesive. It also accentuates the effect of any youth coaching, since it is then part of an overall system.

It is why Barcelona were able to so humble Manchester United in two Champions League finals in 2009 and 2011, because one club were playing from a deeper plan, and why Spain were a level above the Netherlands in beating them in the 2010 World Cup final to also win three successive trophies.

The irony is that the Spanish almost directly upgraded the faded Dutch football identity, since it had become the Barcelona football identity, but that also cuts to the core of this debate. What would an Irish identity be? What traits should it entail?

What would be one that also reflects our history? The phrase 'put em under pressure' might have become something of a cliché, but it was pointedly evoked by Roy Keane during Euro 2016, and to some success. Ireland's best performances involved the intensity that only pressing brings.

That is something to build on, something to develop, something that involves a trait Irish players have traditionally enjoyed.

That identity, however, is a bigger issue than O'Neill can tackle. He can only manage what's in front of him now. The current nature of the team also means there will be a cost-risk balance to almost everything he does.

That is why a 34-year-old like Hoolahan will sometimes need to be rested, and why motivation is sometimes more valuable than anything.

There are always elements that can be improved, though, and that is why the win against Georgia didn't feel enough. It was different against Moldova.

It needs to be different for the rest of the campaign, at least until the rest of the Irish football structure tackles a deeper philosophical question itself.

Sunday Indo Sport

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