By half-time on Saturday against Bosnia-Herzegovina, it seemed like we might be seeing the first real change in Giovanni Trapattoni’s seemingly settled starting XI in well over a year.
As many anticipated, the energetic, fearless James McClean was forcing most of the team’s openings on his very first start. At the very least, then, he was giving Trapattoni a lot to think about and making a strong claim to be Damien Duff’s leading counterpart on the other side of the pitch.
At half-time, however, Aiden McGeady came on for Duff himself and gave what was arguably his best performance for Ireland. The Spartak Moscow winger wasn’t just energetic. He was exceptional, upping the ante in every sense. And thereby exceedingly hard to drop.
The very nature of their double act, however, raises a few interesting points for the Euro 2012 campaign.
Is this, in fact, the way it should be?
Let’s start with the man who came on later, McGeady. Should he actually not start at all? And, by that, we don’t mean that he should be categorically dropped. Rather, that he should always be brought on and allowed to play when games are at their most open?
The Spartak Moscow winger has often come in for criticism because his performances have never quite matched the way many people in the game talk about his technical ability, not least Martin O’Neill.
McGeady himself, however, has regularly spoken of how his game has to be altered to suit Trapattoni’s system as well as his occasional difficulties with the extra demands. While this may sound like an excuse, it does offer a plausible explanation.
McGeady, after all, is a player who absolutely thrives when allowed sufficient freedom — something we saw on Saturday when the game was at its most open.
As we well know by now, though, Trapattoni’s entire formation arguably places the greatest workload on the wingers. Not only do they have to help protect the full-back but they carry the entire creative burden for the team.
It’s little wonder that replacing them is the manager’s most common substitution. By that point, though, most of McGeady’s energy has generally been expended on defensive work, given the nature of Ireland’s contained game early on in matches.
By contrast, such responsibilities don’t seem to really affect McClean’s performances. His entire game, after all, is based on energy, industry and sudden bursts as opposed to more subtle technique. Given the way he can go charging up the wing to create an opening, having just won the ball at the other end, it’s arguable that Trapattoni’s system — early on in games, at least — actually suits the Sunderland player more.
The fact he can do that also tends to tire the opposing full-back more.
As such, Trapattoni may well ask himself whether it might be better to start McClean and, once he makes his customary substitution, to then bring in McGeady to hurt teams in a different — but just as potentially devastating — way.
To give McGeady defensive responsibilities, after all, is to take him away from what he’s truly best at. As games open up and lose an element of shape late on, he will have much less of those responsibilities. He’ll be both fresher and freer.
In that case, as we witnessed against Bosnia-Herzegovina, we may see the real McGeady for Ireland.
The manner in which he checked in and crossed for Shane Long’s winner was adventurous, innovative wing play at its most glorious. And, even before that, he had created the best chance of the game for Jon Walters. He was simply revelling in the freedom.
In the right context, that’s what he’s really capable of for Ireland. And Trapattoni may have found that context on Saturday.
Despite Duff’s unquestionable starting place, McGeady and McClean may not be in direct opposition at all. They may prove a fine double act... in a very different kind of way.
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