Manager has crucial calls to make in midfield

Stuck in the middle with who? A player of the quality of Robert Lewandowski may have been the difference against Poland last night, but the wonder will be whether Martin O’Neill could have done things differently in the centre of the pitch.

If Ireland do make it to France, you can already see one of the customary big discussion points growing: will the manager play Glenn Whelan or Wes Hoolahan?

There’s also the way that both players kind of represent bigger ideas, as tends to only deepen these type of debates.

Whelan is about pragmatism, protection, defence and destruction. Hoolahan is about technique, proactivity, attack and creation.

On this occasion, though, O’Neill’s decision probably shouldn’t have caused quite so much noise. Even Norwich City manager Alex Neil said recently that Hoolahan struggles with two games in a short space of time, and he did put in a huge effort against Germany on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the seeds of a deeper debate could be seen here, not least because O’Neill then went back on what he said and brought Hoolahan on from the bench.

It was notable in the first half that James McCarthy wasn’t anywhere near as all-action as he had been against the world champions, and there is an argument that he is better as the main defensive pivot rather than Whelan, instead of being the passer next to the Stoke midfielder as he was here.

McCarthy’s own range of passing from that position makes Ireland more fluid, and when he is paired with Hoolahan it just allows more fluidity, more life. O’Neill’s side are then able to create more angles, and better passing moves. There’s just more movement between the lines.

There was so much less of that here. Ireland’s main angle of attack was the Darron Randolph punt to Shane Long or Jon Walters.

The side just had fewer ideas without Hoolahan.

Of course, they also had fewer dangerously risky balls into their own box, as the Norwich midfielder was guilty of against the Germans despite his otherwise excellent performance.

Whelan doesn’t take those kind of risks — or any risks.

The word from the squad is that the players like him in the team, though, for his leadership and calming influence as much as his football abilities.

In the 1-1 against Germany a year ago, for example, Toni Kroos’s goal came after Whelan had to go off — and from the exact area the midfielder usually covers.

This time, Whelan was on the pitch, but he wasn’t patrolling that area in the manner that should be expected.

Grzegorz Krychowiak had so much space from which to tee up and angle his brilliant volley from outside the box.

This time, then, Whelan wasn’t offering his usual protection.

That protection was no longer the main concern once Poland went ahead, and it should have been no surprise that O’Neill eventually took the number-six off, but it was still a conspicuous moment.

It should be even less of a surprise that Ireland immediately had their best spell of possession of the game once McGeady replaced Whelan, finally putting a series of passes together.

That greater control of the ball was only strengthened when Hoolahan was finally introduced late on, and he significantly steadied the team.

That is often the irony with decisions between playing a destroyer over a creator in midfielder for defensive security. Nothing gives security like actually having the ball, and being able to use it.

O’Neill evidently hasn’t come round to that thinking yet.

It does feel pointed that Hoolahan has not started any of the big away games in this group, even if the manager again had an excuse for that.

He now has a big decision ahead of the play-off.

Will we see more graft in the middle with Whelan alongside McCarthy, or will we see more craft with Hoolahan.

It already seems like there’s not going to be much middle ground in the debate.


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