When Roy Hodgson was asked recently to contrast the centre-halves England have brought to France (John Stones, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling) with the choice Sven-Goran Eriksson had at World Cup in 2006 (Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher and John Terry), he couldn’t quite bring himself to dispute the gulf in quality.
If it’s tempting to copy this notion and contrast the individual defensive talent Ireland has at Euro 2016 compared to previous eras, the current crop hardly looks promising.
Paul McGrath, Phil Babb, Denis Irwin, Gary Kelly and Terry Phelan all went into 1994 World Cup after more than 30 games with clubs in the top half of the Premier League (save Phelan, with Man City, who finished 16th).
This time? John O’Shea couldn’t get back in the Sunderland team for the relegation run-in after a run of errors cost points against West Ham and Southampton.
Ciaran Clark is coming off a season in and out of the Premier league’s worst defence. Richard Keogh was player of the season with Derby in the Championship but even Ireland’s most highly thought of defender, Seamus Coleman, saw his manager get sacked for being unable to set up his back four properly.
Rob Elliot, Ireland’s only regular Premier League goalkeeper last season, is injured and their in-form keeper, Keiren Westwood, just about made the plane. And that’s before we even get to the main area of concern.
The most remarkable thing? It hasn’t mattered, hardly at all.
Ireland haven’t had great individual form at times or a settled back five, but only conceded eight goals across 12 qualifiers. They held the world champions to one Toni Kroos goal over two games despite playing with makeshift right backs. At the Aviva, their back four was Christie, Keogh, O’Shea and Ward. In goal, Darren Randolph came on for his competitive debut.
Ireland have found a way of stopping the opposition through a collective stubbornness and a willingness to defend correctly.
Joachim Low spoke after the game last October of Ireland consistently having nine or 10 men behind the ball and if Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy of stopping the other team creating chances is via possession, Ireland’s most impressive defensive performances have been based primarily on putting as many bodies as possible between ball and goal, being disciplined, energetic and cohesive.
Ireland have traded possession for compactness. In those two games with Germany Ireland had just 33% and 35% possession, in the play-off with Bosnia that figure was 37% and 36%.
Like their two main central midfielders, Ireland have been better without the ball than with it.
It’s hard to recall the centre-halves being isolated in one-v-ones or being caught with runs into space behind them in the entire group qualification phase — Lewandowski and Dzeko did both score, but from crosses near the endline. The Bayern striker was the only one to give a proper chasing to Ireland’s defence.
Teams have been corralled into throwing the ball into the box from the flanks — Germany had 38 crosses in the game at the Aviva after averaging 10-12 in other games. It follows that Ireland’s centre-backs have put up huge numbers of clearances. In the home game with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark made 16 clearances between them; away that was 24.
To put these numbers in context, the Atletico Madrid centre-halves made 20 clearances in total in that backs-to-the-wall masterclass against Bayern in this year’s Champions League semi-final.
Individuals have stepped up but if there is a big idea from Martin O’Neill, it’s been his ability to get the players to buy into that collective responsibility of getting back into defensive positions.
In the Switzerland friendly at the Aviva, Ireland didn’t keep possession at all well but it was clear, and the players mentioned afterwards how Roy Keane had referenced it, there was a real emphasis on putting in a shift off the ball.
The Netherlands performance only reinforced the commitment to that style when clearly outmatched by a possession team.
There are obvious weak points and calls to make if you look through the goals Ireland conceded in the qualifiers.
The goal in Zenica came from a low cross in behind Ireland’s left side. Poland’s goals originated from a corner conceded after they’d got in for a decent chance down Ireland’s left and a cross from Ireland’s left side nodded in by Lewandowski. Scotland tore open the left side of Ireland’s defence for Shaun Maloney’s goal at the Aviva.
The goal at home to Poland sprung from a blocked clearance off Robbie Brady, the left-back. The Scottish goal at Parkhead was a clever corner routine (or a defensive switch-off, whichever you prefer). And in the opener in Georgia, Okriashvili scored a swinger after left-back Stephen Ward let him turn and was slow to close him down. See a pattern here?
Ireland’s main vulnerability in the March friendly against Switzerland came down the left wing where Brady got caught too far infield time and again by diagonal passes and the two goals Slovakia scored came from attacks behind Ireland’s left channel of defence.
Ireland haven’t been able to alter the flow of goals from here no matter who’s started and it’s hard to imagine opposition video analysis won’t have noticed. Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady were in all kinds of trouble for 30 minutes in Bosnia yet it was on Marc Wilson and James McClean’s watch that Bosnia got in for their goal. Robbie Brady and McClean came under real pressure down that side in Poland.
Martin O’Neill has a call to make on where to fit Brady in and if a full-back combination of Coleman/Brady might be odd for a manager with defensive leanings, it’s more out of attacking necessity than defensive focus. There’s also the reality that the full-backs don’t necessarily receive full protection from a traditional wide midfielder when Ireland play some form of diamond or three in midfield.
The key is whether this collective can remain solid against individual flaws or errors.
Giovanni Trapattoni brought his team to Poland four years ago based on a defensive ideal; it all began to unravel within three minutes of the opener and the entire premise of Ireland’s solidity was exposed. Ireland don’t have a Paul McGrath or even a Richard Dunne but to date have never really looked in danger of being overrun.
Zlatan and especially Belgium will test the soundness of this group’s dynamic.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE ANALYSING IRELAND SERIES
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved