Monday 24 September 2018

Limp performance lacking creativity a huge concern for O'Neill

Hendrick: Not replicating club form. Photo: Sportsfile
Hendrick: Not replicating club form. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

Have you heard the one about the four Irish Premier League midfielders with impressive passing-rate stats who can't pass a ball from A to B and to Daryl Murphy for their country?

Or what about the two Republic of Ireland coaches, schooled by Brian Clough, one a European Cup winner under one of the game's greatest managers, who must be instructing Harry Arter, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean to play this way?

Clough once said: "If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there."

Good job Old Big 'Ead wasn't in Copenhagen on Saturday night to see the Ireland team Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane have assembled. The Danish grass didn't help apparently, according to the manager, but Clough would not have been impressed.

The feeling among former Ireland players in the press-room prior to Saturday's encounter was that O'Neill had selected players to run with the ball into space, and passers who could get it up to Murphy and thus keep the Danes away from Darren Randolph's goal for longer periods. But neither materialised.

As Damien Duff observed in the studio, in his personal and thus far successful attempt to claim Eamon Dunphy's crown of contempt, it was ugly beyond belief.

It was a performance which, as an ITV pundit, Keane would have loved to have offered his own pithy observations. He would have had a field day criticising the ineptitude of the Irish team to keep the ball.

Keane, though, is among the coaches on the bench and history suggests he will not be afraid to let his former Ireland team-mate know his opinion on Duff's scathing views.

It is not all down to the manager and his assistant, or O'Neill's other, quieter, right-hand man Steve Walford but the Ireland coaching set-up must take some responsibility for the performance, in possession, of their team in the Parken Stadium.

One of the abiding - and most depressing - memories of the terrible goalless draw against the Danes at the weekend was O'Neill screaming at Arter around the hour mark after he had again hoofed the ball aimlessly from his own half. No control, no composure, no thought. Daryl Murphy wasn't even close to getting close to it and didn't even bother.

O'Neill spent half a minute trying to get the Bournemouth midfielder's attention and got a wave of apology in return. Arter does that a lot in an Ireland shirt. He certainly did it too much on Saturday.

And yet in the 63 Premier League appearances he has made for Eddie Howe's side since their promotion, and his own recovery from serious injury, Arter's passing success rate is nearly 90pc. He also wins 90 per cent of his tackles.

For the record, Robbie Brady this season has a 66.2pc passing success rate, which is compared to 74pc at Norwich City last season, before his club-record move to Burnley.

Jeff Hendrick is achieving 84pc at Burnley and McClean, when he plays, has been at 77pc. Since scoring his winner in Wales, McClean played a total of 15 minutes as a West Brom substitute against Manchester City and Leicester and then half an hour at Huddersfield last week.

So, arguably, they can do it. But in their quest to avoid defeat, and avoid making the costly mistake which might cause defeat, the Ireland players, and midfielders in particular, resorted to a depressing anti-football game which they hoped would simply preserve a clean sheet for Tuesday night.

It did work. It is goalless at half-time. And while it may have been closer to Route Zero than even Route One - without Murphy or latterly Shane Long catching sight of the ball - no Irish supporter will be claiming a Krone in compensation from the trip to that ridiculously expensive city, if Ireland are in the World Cup draw in Moscow next month.

And Denmark hardly fared much better. They were awful too. Age Hareide's team may have enjoyed more possession but Randolph had only two saves to make, most of their shooting was from long range and for long spells of the game, Christian Eriksen was the deepest Danish midfielder. The Spurs midfielder tried desperately to pick out passes beside William Kvist and Thomas Delaney as they preened themselves on the halfway line. And it was desperate stuff.

There has to be a significant improvement at the Aviva. Ireland have to score, they have to create chances. Wes Hoolahan offers the best chance of making both happen and yet is still considered an unlikely starter tomorrow night.

There has to be a better delivery from Brady at set-pieces too. Since he moved to Turf Moor, the winger has provided one assist for his club in 978 minutes of top-flight football, compared to four in 22 games in the Championship with Norwich last season.

He repeatedly found a red shirt from corners and free-kicks in Copenhagen.

Surely the Irish tactics will be more sophisticated than relying on the 'Aviva Roar' as O'Neill claimed during his terse post-match briefing. Fans need a lift to be lifted and have to anticipate a considerable improvement in possession and going forward if Ireland are to progress to the finals in Russia and beat Denmark.

Then again, as one Brian Howard Clough once said of a Nottingham Forest team including one Martin Hugh Michael O'Neill: "Players lose you games, not tactics. There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes."

Irish Independent

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