The Ireland manager was in Brazil doing analysis for ITV and, on the eve of the final in Rio de Janeiro, took time out to reflect on the tournament and the lessons he will take away as he prepares for the start of the Euros campaign in September.
“I think it’s been a great competition, really fantastic, although I don’t think there was an outstanding team in it,” he said. “On Germany, (I’d think) all the things you would expect. They won their first game convincingly and then they had a tough game against Ghana. You obviously expected them to come through, which they did. They had a tough enough game against the USA. Then Algeria gave them some really tough moments. I thought they looked a wee bit tired against France, nothing really happened in the match. I think as the competition wore on they tried to tighten up defensively; Lahm went to right-back, although unwillingly, I think he sees himself as a midfield player, but they had to do that. Germany were holding a high line with maybe not the quickest defence at the time and I think they learned from that.
“Some of their good players found a bit of form. Kroos came into form, Muller had a really decent tournament. Ozil’s been, for his own ability, maybe in and out of the tournament but then they’re gone with Klose who didn’t start the competition but who is probably their main goalscorer. And eventually in their game against Brazil — I know they were handed some goals — but they were probably back to their best. All the sides that have been involved this year have deficiencies but it’s a matter of how you can cover them up.” O’Neill might have taken plenty of information away with him from watching Germany in Brazil but he’s at pains to point out that a heavily concentrated World Cup is a very different beast to a protracted qualifying campaign.
“It’s a totally different competition,” he stressed . “This is under tournament rules here. And things happen to you on a daily basis where you have to make these sorts of changes, the Lahm sort of change. Germany, coming out of this tournament, will still have confidence so it’s not as if to say that they have to make major changes to things a couple of months on. So while actually playing Germany in Germany will be a totally different thing to playing them out here in a game where maybe the temperatures are roasting or something like that, I still think you can draw something from the fact that Germany, well … they’re not in decline anyway!”
Attending a World Cup for the first time as an international manager, O’Neill was struck by how the tournament highlighted football’s ongoing tactical evolution – and, indeed, the way in which, sometimes, what’s deemed fashionable can seem to come full circle.
“Three at the back seems to have come into vogue a little bit again where as it was considered just dead and buried a decade ago,” he observed. “But the Dutch have come in and used that. Sometimes you look at your personnel and you think they might be suited better. Ronnie Vlaar’s had a terrific tournament but I think that maybe he’s been helped by having a centre-half either side of him rather than being one of two in those circumstances. I’m not saying that Aston Villa will go and change the system now to suit him but the Dutch seem to have done well playing it and it also gave them a chance to maybe play two centre-forwards and have Robben roaming round.
“For me he was one of the five top players in the tournament. Whatever you say — he might dive occasionally — but he’s been brilliant, brilliant and I don’t think that Holland would have had the same success without him.
Would three at the back be a runner for Ireland? “I think that, essentially, managers are always trying to look, with the personnel that they have, what best suits them and what works best for the team at that particular moment. You don’t just do something because you think, ‘ah well, I’ve seen it work there’. You try to do a bit of work with it, even to walk it through. Also (it’s about) centre-backs being comfortable coming out of their comfort zone. Very few centre-backs like going out wide. I don’t care how good they are, they really don’t, they don’t like leaving that space.”
The conversation might have been taking place in Brazil, but though Roy Keane didn’t, in the end, make it to Rio, it was inevitable that O’Neill would be asked how he feels the Cork man’s role as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa would be balanced with his Irish commitments.
“My view is if it doesn’t impinge on the job here then in actual fact it will end up being good for him,” said O’Neill. “I know that if we couldn’t make it work, that he wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place at Villa.
“If his commitments to us — both on the commercial side, and, certainly from my viewpoint, in terms of the time working with the players — are not impinged then I’m happy for it to go ahead. I think if he’d picked up a job as a manager in its own right, whatever club that might have been, that would have been difficult, but I think Villa have agreed with the Republic to give him all that time with us and therefore I don’t have a problem with it.
“I spoke to Paul to see how he felt it was going to work. He said he gives the players, the senior players who are not involved at international level, a lot of time off anyway during that time and even if they did come back for a day or two, they could cope with that there as long as Roy was happy to head off to the Republic.”