The service to Shane Long and Jon Walters wasn’t great but when they did get it, neither held the ball up very well, writes Liam Brady.
We got away with it in Belgrade on Monday night in our 2-2 draw with Serbia, the away point on the opening night of the World Cup campaign a very real bonus after a very average Irish performance.
It was a display that was all the more disappointing considering we got off to such a great start with that Jeff Hendrick goal after just two minutes. But we didn’t build on that goal at all.
In fact, I thought it had an adverse effect on us. Whereas we should have been confident on the back of that advantage and eager to confront Serbia high up the pitch, what actually happened was the whole team retreated to the edge of the 18-yard line and invited the opposition on, with the result that we were lucky not to concede an equaliser much earlier than we did.
I was hoping that Martin O’Neill’s half-time team talk would rectify the situation but things only got worse after the restart as we failed to retain possession to any degree.
And the inevitable result was Serbia’s equaliser.
Where we could claim some bad luck was in the awarding of the penalty which put Serbia in front. Not only was it not a penalty but Kostic should have been penalised for throwing himself to the ground under pressure from Jon Walters.
But, on the balance of play, you couldn’t say that Serbia didn’t thoroughly deserve their lead and, indeed, it was only the bar which prevented them going 3-1 up before Ireland showed their character with a spirited response.
But the equalising goal still came from what is basically our long ball game, with Daryl Murphy announcing his arrival off the bench by getting a flick on that Shane Long should have scored. It was from the resulting corner that Murphy got the header that made it 2-2, and from there we were able to see the game out.
It’s a great point to get on the board considering the circumstances but I have to say I think O’Neill was guilty of exaggeration when he said that we deserved it. Yes, there was a good reaction to their second goal but the reality is that for a lot of the 90 minutes we were totally outplayed and only spared more trouble because Serbia didn’t make the most of their chances.
There were very few players on our side of whom you could say with any conviction that they had a good game. Robbie Brady was anonymous in midfield, although his set-piece delivery was crucial to our goals, proving once again that this is practically our most potent form of attack these days.
Upfront, the service wasn’t great to Long and Walters but when they did get it, neither held the ball up very well.
James McClean and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Hendrick probably acquitted themselves best but, overall, we were never in control.
I think it’s the management and the players combined who are responsible for the way we played — the massed, deep defence and reliance on the long ball. Maybe the management think we don’t have the players with the necessary personality and composure to get on the ball but, certainly, I don’t see any evidence that they are encouraging the players to even try to play that way. O’Neill is never going to come out and say that he feels he doesn’t have the players to play a more possession-based, expansive style but I suspect there must be an element of that in his thinking or else we’d see signs of some effort to change our approach. It’s either that or the players are not following his instructions.
A case in point is the way he deploys Glenn Whelan and/or James McCarthy as a defensive midfielder, whose primary function is to be a shield in front of the centre-halves. But if we’re going to retain possession and build up the play, then it should be the man in that position who assumes that responsibility too. Have we got that kind of dual-purpose player in the squad?
McCarthy was absent in Belgrade but while he has the tools to do both jobs, he doesn’t seem to have the personality. Harry Arter might be the solution — Bournemouth certainly like to play out from the back — but it’s not yet clear if he can do the defensive part effectively.
Think of Roy Keane in his playing days, taking the ball from the back four and developing the play, and think of how creative Paul Scholes was alongside him in that Manchester United midfield.
Two great players, of course, but there’s no semblance at all of that kind of ambition in the Irish midfield, and no sense that it’s the desire of the management to want the players to try to express themselves that way.
None of our midfielders look to get into a position to receive the ball so, consequently, the only option is to go long, even if it means that, nine times out of 10, the opposition will gobble up the ball and come straight back at us.
Going a goal up early on is a great position to be in, because with composure and good game management you should get plenty of chances to exploit the fact that the opposition are flinging bodies forward. With clever passing and good combination play, you can really hurt them on the break. But we were totally lacking in those qualities on Monday.
Occasionally, in spasms, this Irish side does produce some good stuff, the kind of football we all like to see — the goal against Italy at the Euros was an example — but moves like that appear to be off the cuff and are very much the exception to the rule. Generally, ours is a game-plan that relies for its success on set-pieces and poor defending from the opposition — a percentage game, in other words — rather than something that’s the product of our own good play.
The best football that I’ve seen from a Martin O’Neill team play was when he had Stiliyan Petrov and Neil Lennon in the middle of the park at Celtic. They were players who were prepared to receive the ball and turn with it but, if Hendrick and Whelan aren’t up to doing that on a consistent basis, they should at least be able to do a bit more of it than we saw from them in Belgrade. That’s if O’Neill wants to go down that road at all. Ask him what his philosophy is and he’ll never tell you.
Of course, he’s entitled to point to the good results this approach can bring. And there’s no doubt that in a group as tight as the one we’re in this time, Monday’s could prove to be a valuable point.
The positive from our point of view is that there’s no Germany in there so no side is nailed on to win it. But that could work against us too in that we’ll be coming up against a lot of teams who could take points off us if we don’t perform to our best.
A change in format was crucial to us qualifying for the Euros. The margins are much narrower this time, and if we’re going to have any hopes of finishing in the top two, we’re simply going to have to play a whole lot better than we did in Belgrade.
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