On an evening when Ireland could have taken control of the group by also taking this game by the scruff of the neck, we saw a typically timid, tepid performance in attack. The proactive, aggressive display that was expected — and, to some degree, promised — never came. Ireland were as uninspired as ever.
The great follow-up to France 2009 still hasn’t arrived.
Trapattoni, in his defence, has always maintained that Ireland will eventually play more proactive football once the players become accustomed to, and accumulate confidence in, his system. But it’s been three and a half years now. And, beyond assorted friendlies and matches when the pressure is off — such as when the team trailed to Italy and France — we’ve never seen it. The team only ever drops hints of dominating games in any kind of dynamic way.
But then this wasn’t even as open as the game between these two teams in Slovakia.
To a degree, that was always going to be the case given the make-up of the teams. Yet again, Trapattoni’s rigid 4-4-2 looks reductive — and, occasionally, risky — in international football. With three constantly-moving central midfielders, Slovakia effortlessly dominated the centre of the pitch. Because of the extra space their fluidity created, their passing looked crisper and they created opportunities from open play much easier.
The chances offered up to both Vladimir Weiss and Marek Hamsik between the 55th and 60th minutes were cases in point. Only last-gasp blocks prevented certain goals. And, regardless of the quality of any backline, that’s not something you can rely on at the top level if your midfield allows the opposition to open you up at will. Ireland were perhaps lucky Slovakia have been so wasteful of late, now only having scored six goals in seven games.
With Trapattoni’s front six so fixed in their positions, by contrast, they found it much more difficult to create extra angles. As such, the passing was often predictable and easy to counteract.
On a few occasions, too, Ireland were forced into the ultimate low: ironically, a high, hopeful ball forward. Both Keith Andrews and Richard Dunne resorted to that on more than one occasion each. Indeed it was the route that created one of Ireland’s only true chances: Simon Cox’s snapshot wide on 83 minutes came from John O’Shea’s punt.
Essentially, the midfield was crying out for a player with a bit more craft beyond Andrews and Glenn Whelan. Perhaps a James McCarthy or even a Keith Fahey. Just someone that offered something other than attrition.
Indeed, the only one looking to constantly break the team’s rigid lines was Damien Duff. And, unsurprisingly, anything any way progressive went through him — most notably the one-two with Andrews on 37 minutes that forced a fine save by Jan Mucha.
With that kind of framework, though, it’s always going to be difficult for Ireland to play football that’s any way dynamic — regardless of the confidence the players build in the system.
Occasionally, of course, sheer aggression and drive overtakes anaemic positions. That was what we saw in Paris. And there was a suggestion of it at the start of the second half, here, when Whelan broke forward.
But it didn’t last. Instead, Slovakia grew in confidence. They began to take Irish players on and threaten even more. Weiss in particular.
In previous games, Ireland have had the armour of an early goal. But not here. And this is the real danger of Trapattoni’s approach at the elite level. The approach left them on edge.
To be fair, his system remains best suited to difficult away games — such as Moscow on Tuesday. And, as has often happened in the past with this team, it’s possible a more rousing result in the second game of the double-header could alter the perspective of the week.
But the fact is that, until Ireland offer up a more convincing approach, those doubts will remain. For all of Trapattoni’s progress, his team still look a little short of making the final step. And they certainly never came close to it last night.