It was a really bad night for Ireland in Warsaw on Sunday.
Maybe expectations were exaggerated after the remarkable win over Germany — bearing in mind that we had only three shots on target in that game — but it wasn’t just the result against Poland that was disappointing, it was the alarming nature of the display throughout the 2-1 defeat.
This was a performance which lacked leadership, discipline and composure. Everybody seemed to be pumped up and nobody seemed to be thinking straight. Our manager’s tactics were all about testing Poland’s nerve, and it was very basic, route one stuff. But I think the Poles knew what was coming and handled it pretty comfortably, if not always elegantly. They headed as many balls as we did and made as many tackles as we did.
Yet, going into the game, they must have been nervous too, knowing how close they could come to being consigned to the play-off in the final group game on home soil. In that sense, you’d have to regard this as an opportunity missed by Ireland.
To go through our main weaknesses on the night, let’s start with the leadership deficit. John O’Shea, the captain of the team, was all over the place — he could have given away two penalties in the first half. There was also a lack of organisation, never more glaringly obvious than in the first Polish goal which we gave away from a corner. And this wasn’t the first time that’s happened to us in this campaign — we also conceded a goal from a corner when we fell asleep on the job away to Scotland.
In fact, the Irish performance overall on Sunday was very much like the one in Celtic Park last year — a bit helterskelter, up and at ‘em, all bark, bollock and bite.
In short, we didn’t play a whole lot of football, something I know many people have attributed to the absence from the start of Wes Hoolahan. But we were still entitled to hope that the lads who were in the middle of the park, like James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan, would have been ready to accept responsibility to get on the ball and keep it. lnstead, there was a woeful lack of confidence and composure, an almost complete unwillingness for someone to take the initiative and start off moves.
Yes, we worked hard to try and win the ball but when we did, we just gave it straight back to the Poles. In fact, at hardly any stage in the game, did we really string more than three passes together — and that summed us up on the night.
Lack of discipline was another big problem. James McClean could have been booked in the first half when he seemed to almost forget about playing football and instead expended all his energy on tackling as many Poles as he could, as hard as he could. And I think Jeff Hendrick, Jon Walters and Shane Long were in the same boat — they all got caught up in the physical battles. That was why I said on the RTÉ panel at half-time that I didn’t expect us to finish with 11 players — so it came as no surprise to me when O’Shea got his marching orders late on.
Unfortunately, that ill-discipline has been a recurring feature of this campaign, as when McClean got booked for a silly tackle and Whelan also saw yellow for pointlessly getting involved with the referee, in the game against Georgia.
This was one of the things which Giovanni Trapattoni addressed when he became the Ireland manager because he knew we simply couldn’t afford to have key people missing because of suspension. And the players really took that on board at the time. But now, because of what happened the other night, and in earlier games, we won’t have our captain, O’Shea, and arguably our most consistent player over the whole campaign, Jon Walters, for the first leg of the play-off next month.
Understandably, people might find it hard to figure out how we could go from beating the world champions to playing badly and losing to Poland in the space of a few days. But, when you stand back to look at the bigger picture of Ireland under Martin O’Neill, I think you’d have to say that Sunday, rather than last Thursday, was a truer reflection of what has been going on.
For example, we’ve not seen the combination play of Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan in the middle of the park against Germany in any other game, which is why, ideally, I would like to have seen them retain those positions in Warsaw. Against Germany, they had given the team the very qualities of leadership and composure — as well as a refreshing willingness to get on the ball and use it productively — which were all absent from the performance against the Poles.
This raises the big question of how the manager wants the team to play. And, frankly, the answer is unclear. The water is always muddy. A case in point: Would Hoolahan and Brady have played in midfield against the Germans had Whelan and McClean not been suspended? Probably not. I’m sure Martin must be getting hot under the collar over the endless debate about Hoolahan. But the debate is really about more than one player — it’s a debate about how you play your football.
Now, I’d be the first to accept that, throughout the squad, there’s a dearth of players who would be sufficiently comfortable and confident on the ball — certainly by comparison with a lot of the better teams Ireland come up against — to successfully play a more expansive, possession-based game. But what does the manager think? And what way does he actually want to go? Do the players know?
Are we going route one and hoping that Wes picks up the knockdown and we play from there? Is he saying to McCarthy, Whelan and Hendrick: Don’t get the ball from the back and then try to play it forward to Hoolahan? And what is the point of having Robbie Keane on the pitch — as he was when Shane Long went off in Warsaw — if there’s no-one playing the ball into his feet?
Worryingly, there are far more questions than answers about Martin’s philosophy, but my own sense of it is he has long since come to the conclusion that his best tactic with Ireland is to play back to front. And I’m afraid that tactic will only take you so far. It might just get you qualification but it certainly won’t take you far in the tournament.
All that said, I think the final group qualifying table is a pretty accurate reflection of our place in the scheme of things, since I always felt it was going to come down to a battle between ourselves and Scotland for third place. And luckily, we have got there. I say luckily because, if you look at the amount of chances we created against Germany, home and away, you’d have to say we were very fortunate to take four points out of those two games.
Whether we succeed or fail in qualifying for France will now have a lot to do with the kindness or otherwise of the draw for the play-offs but, thankfully, we’re still in there with a chance.
And, according to media reports, it already seems that, irrespective of the outcome, O’Neill is a certainty to stay on at the helm, at the FAI’s request. And, frankly, I’m not surprised, because I would imagine the last thing the FAI would want now, having had a turbulent few months, is to have to begin the search for a new manager.
And since nothing succeeds like success, I’m sure they’ll be praying even harder than everyone else that Martin can oversee victory in the play-off and lead Ireland to the finals of Euro 2016.
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