No winter break for O’Neill

The way Martin O’Neill tells it, he’ll probably start to suffer “withdrawal symptoms” at some stage today.

“I might even be on the phone to one or two,” he stated after Tuesday’s 0-0 draw in Poland.

The long breaks between internationals are something he’s going to have to adjust to, especially since he’s only ever experienced the intensity of the club game.

Additionally, as many of the players lamented in Poznan, it’s almost a pity that much of the momentum from the new appointment may now diminish in the four-month wait until the March friendly.

At the same time, a regime is never going to be sustained on the vagaries of momentum alone. Patience, planning and proper construction are required in the long term. In that sense, now that he has a bit of time to appropriately reflect, this wait could actually suit O’Neill as regards assessing what the side actually requires.

Because, while there were undeniably many positives about the first two games, it would be naive to think a new vibe alone can suddenly solve all the side’s issues.

O’Neill and Roy Keane have a few elements to figure out, most of all the following:

The team’s firepower

It was, admittedly, one of the first things O’Neill mentioned when asked about possible improvements.

“It would be nice to be hard to beat but you also want to feel you can pose an attacking threat.”

That has undeniably been a problem. Although Ireland’s haul of 16 goals in 10 games of the World Cup qualifying campaign initially looks respectable enough, it’s pretty poor once you take out the fixtures against the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan: just four in six when facing the top three.

Sweden scored as many in just one — admittedly farcical — game against Germany. It is a facet reflected in the scoring ratios of all the players behind Robbie Keane.

Other than Anthony Stokes, whose 0.41 goals a game is offset by the fact they come in Scotland, no player has hit more than a strike every four matches. Shane Long is next closest with 0.22. The notional first-choice midfield, in fact, only have five goals between them over 154 caps. The problem is all the more pressing given Keane’s age. O’Neill is going to have to find alternative sources, although it is the next issue that might solve some of that...

Keeping the ball

It was the great contradiction of Giovanni Trapattoni’s time, and a key to the modern international game. The Italian was absolutely petrified of the squad losing possession but set up the team in such a rigid way that it was also guaranteed. Ireland simply couldn’t create the necessary triangles to outmanoeuvre opposition because the players had to concentrate on their set defensive duties in a flat 4-4-2. O’Neill has already illustrated greater trust in his team, not least in the release of Aiden McGeady to roam. That has already had promising signs with the winger creating some nice interchanges with the No 10, a more mobile central midfielder and an overlapping full-back.

These four players can create better angles than when players stick to their positions and a further consequence would be Ireland becoming so much more unpredictable in attack, and therefore more openings developing. O’Neill must try to deepen the integration and understanding between the players in that regard.

Develop a core

One of the problems of the last campaign was that Trapattoni had to oversee a transition he was no longer particularly equipped to handle. It remains something of a misfortune the Italian did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup, because a team with so many leaders at their career peak — such as Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane — would have likely given a much better account of themselves than they did at Euro 2012.

Instead, the last two years have seen too many senior players past their prime and too many of their replacements still short of it. Now, at least, there are signs of that changing. It is up to O’Neill to harden that core, to do what Trapattoni himself did in 2008. The prime candidates would appear to be the Everton duo of James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, with their influential roles in Everton’s possession game also offering potential as regards a new approach, as well as Marc Wilson and Shane Long at opposite ends of the pitch.

Choose a goalkeeper

It went somewhat under the radar that O’Neill eschewed recent selections and made Keiren Westwood his first choice in that debut game. The keeper has at last started getting first team football at Sunderland again. Selecting either Westwood or David Forde will be crucial to providing this new core with a foundation.


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