I have to say I was surprised by Martin O’Neill expressing disappointment the Irish players didn’t do more with the ball in the defeat to Belgium on Saturday.
Surprised because, to want your team to be comfortable on the ball, to be more composed and look to play through midfield, you must first develop that kind of culture in your team. And I’ve seen no real evidence of that having being attempted since the start of the manager’s reign, to the degree that, to me, there’s very little difference between how Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin have gone about the job.
The first thought that seemed to enter a lot of Irish players’ minds in Bordeaux was to get rid of the ball, hit it long for Shane Long and hope for the best. And that’s the way we’ve played in many of the games throughout the qualifying programme. So to suddenly expect the team to get the ball down and play in such a high stakes setting as the game against Belgium — well, it was never going to happen.
Just look at the number of times when, if we win a throw, the player throws it down the line looking for someone’s head, rather than throwing the ball sideways or backwards to feet. It’s a kind of percentage play, a 50-50 gamble — we may win it or we may not.
The point is that teams who have an ingrained culture of putting their foot on the ball and looking to combine with one another never do that.
Even in that positive performance against Sweden, we were good mainly because we were first to the ball and we were tougher and quicker than them. It wasn’t really down to playing a great deal of football — certainly not the kind of football we saw the Belgians play.
Many people said after the Sweden game that it was the best they had seen Ireland play under O’Neill but what was really noteworthy about the performance was it was more or less the first time we’ve seen some of that combination play from the team. Wes Hoolahan was the focal point for that and Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were also good on the day.
Of course, to some extent, the opposition dictates how you play, and Sweden are clearly inferior to Belgium.
But Ireland’s best football in the Stade de France was produced by those three players in particular; it wasn’t a reflection of how the team played as a whole.
If you want to play football, to keep possession rather than resorting to hit and hope, then your midfield is key in assuming responsibility.
And there was no evidence Saturday that our midfielders had any ambitions in that regard.
Yet, even though the game was poor to watch when we were in possession, I was happy enough at half-time that, one half-chance for Eden Hazard apart, the Belgians hadn’t really directly threatened Darren Randolph’s goal in the first half.
But having kept them quiet enough for 45 minutes, a series of pretty naïve mistakes cost us in the second half.
For the first goal, James McCarthy should have run with Kevin De Bruyne or he should have fouled him. He should certainly not have tried to tackle him where he was, because we were caught with a lot of men forward when the Belgians broke. And from there we were outnumbered at the back and Romelu Lukaku took his chance well.
Then McCarthy went and did it again for the second goal. Caught ball watching and not doing his main job of marking his man, McCarthy’s unprofessional lapse of concentration allowed Axel Witsel to run free and head home. 2-0 and it was game over.
But there was still time for another individual mistake to play its part in the third goal, as the Belgians were now happy to sit back and wait for an opportunity to pick us off.
I’d said on these pages Saturday I felt Martin O’Neill had a big decision to make about whether to retain the error-prone Ciaran Clark after the game against Sweden. And his lunge on Hazard confirmed the doubts I have about the player. As we’ve seen in the Premier League and in the first game of these European Championships, there’s a rashness about Clark that should have given the manager pause for thought. Instead, he made the wrong selection decision and we saw the result in Bordeaux.
As for his other big selection call, you could half understand why Martin brought in Stephen Ward so he could push Robbie Brady forward.
Against Sweden, Brady had been a very good outlet down the left for us, using the ball well and linking up with Hendrick and Hoolahan.
But Ward, who had a poor game on Saturday, doesn’t have the ability on the ball that Brady has, and we missed that against the Belgians.
We also, of course, missed Jon Walters who might have given Shane Long much needed support. I felt sorry for Long. Every opposition player and every manager that you see interviewed before they play us says the same thing: “Ireland are a physical team who play a lot of long balls.”
So Vermaelen and Alderweireld got exactly what they were expecting on Saturday and responded by giving Long a physical battering with little or no intervention from the referee.
In previous games, Ireland have had success by getting the ball from back to front quickly, and Walters has been a big part of that.
So, with Long left so isolated, Walters’ support was badly missed in that respect.
Ultimately, you have to hold your hands up and acknowledge that Belgium have much better players than we do, something that’s reflected in the gulf in transfer market value between the two teams. There’s no getting away from that.
But through nobody’s fault but our own, we made it easier for them on Saturday. In the first half, I thought the pressure Belgium had been under going into the game was clear in things like the visible frustration of Lukaku — he was pointing a finger and moaning about the service — as well as the fact that Hazard and De Bruyne were relatively quiet.
Up to the break, they really weren’t opening us up which just goes to show that, if you have a really good day, you can stop them.
But Ireland’s good day ended at half-time in the Stade Nouveau. Martin O’Neill blamed the result in part on people not getting the ball down and playing. No. It was down to the fact that people just didn’t do their jobs properly in the second half.
And yet, it’s far from the case that all hope is lost for Ireland in Euro 2016. The performance and the point against Sweden still gives us grounds for hope but, if we are going to try and make the most of our final opportunity against Italy in Lille, players will have to be told what they did wrong in Bordeaux and why it cost us so dearly.
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