Monday 26 August 2019

World Cup blow exposes shortcomings of Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

The verdict was brutal in its simplicity when Denmark boss Age Hareide paused to consider the Republic of Ireland's World Cup misery.

Asked to assess his old friend Martin O'Neill's tactical plan to edge the Republic past his team and into next summer's finals, Hareide was to the point.

"If you lose 5-1, you are not successful," he said.

A campaign based on defensive resilience and the ability to finish strongly ended in chaos at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday as Ireland abandoned their tried and trusted methods and were found wanting when presented with a different challenge.

O'Neill, like Giovanni Trapattoni before him, has lacked world-class stars and needed to adopt an approach which is far from easy on the eye, but has been largely successful during his four-year reign.

The 65-year-old, who took Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, maybe cannot win in some respects.

If he sets up his team to frustrate opponents, they lack a cutting edge; add more creativity and the defence leaks like a sieve.

Rafael Benitez often uses the analogy of a short blanket when describing his Newcastle team, the message being you can keep either your head or your feet warm, but not both at the same time, and O'Neill has a similar issue.

Hareide played with former Northern Ireland international O'Neill at Manchester City and Norwich, and was diplomatic when asked about the disparity between his old team-mate's attack-minded approach as a player and his conservatism as Ireland boss.

"I think it's a matter of finding a way," Hareide said. "I knew Martin as an attacking outside-right at Nottingham Forest and a central midfielder when I played with him. He wanted to see a lot of the ball and play all the time.

"He had a very attacking team (as manager) at Celtic, although the other teams weren't really on the same level as Celtic.

"But I think he has found his way with Ireland."

O'Neill's way saw the Republic reach the World Cup play-offs despite being seeded behind Serbia, Wales and Austria in Group D. It was an achievement that was largely founded on their success on the road, where they beat Moldova and also won in Vienna and Cardiff alongside draws with the Serbians and Georgia.

But it was at home where they struggled with only Georgia and Moldova losing at the Aviva Stadium, and there lies the problem.

When asked to soak up pressure and then exploit the desperation of their hosts, they prosper; handed the task of taking the game to their opponents, they struggle.

Wes Hoolahan is the poster boy for O'Neill's most vociferous critics. Arguably his most naturally gifted player, the Norwich midfielder started only four of the 12 games Ireland played in the campaign and appeared in two more as a substitute.

For the manager's detractors, that is simply a waste of a rich talent, but O'Neill sees 35-year-old Hoolahan as the man to unlock a packed defence rather than trade blows in a free-for-all.

In part, his point was proved on Tuesday evening when at 2-1 down, he sent on Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady for the more defensively-minded David Meyler and Harry Arter and saw his team ripped to shreds.

That was not necessarily the fault of the newcomers, more the fact that Ireland could not cope without the additional security and were repeatedly picked off by the ruthless Danes.

O'Neill has verbally agreed to stay on and seemed nonplussed at the suggestion that he might reconsider in the wake of a heavy defeat.

So as O'Neill prepares to remain at the helm, he will have to find that balance with no sign of a longer blanket at his disposal.

PA Media

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