O’Neill must find solution to Irish problem

Martin O'Neill gives instructions to Seamus Coleman at Celtic Park. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty

Some of the Irish players allowed the occasion to get to them in Glasgow but, if our Euro qualifying hopes are to improve I believe the onus is on the manager to more clearly define the way in which he wants his team to play

Friday night’s hugely disappointing show and result in Glasgow creates a real question mark in my mind about Ireland’s s prospects in this European Championship qualifying group.

The 1-0 defeat allowed Scotland to get right back into the mix when a draw would have kept them at a distance and a win would have put them out of the equation, certainly for second place. But with the way the group is ~panning out, Friday’s result makes it look like Ireland will now be dragged into a battle for third rather than second.

I had thought before the game that, with the platform they’d built for themselves in picking up seven points from nine, the team would have the confidence to go and play well in Parkhead. Also, because of Ireland ’s advantage on the table, the real pressure was on Scotland to win the match. But I have to say the Scots surprised me in how well they coped with that challenge.

I have previously acknowledged how much they have progressed under Gordon Strachan but, with Poland winning the earlier game in Georgia on Friday, I thought that would only increase the pressure on the home side at Celtic Park . But, as it transpired, they handled the occasion far better than we did.

Going back to the Georgia and Germany games, we were really fortunate to come out of those with the haul of points we did. And I think people got a little bit carried away with those results. I might have done to a certain extent too, because I believed we could go to Parkhead and at least not get beaten. But, on the night, a number of the Irish players got caught up in the atmosphere and the intensity of the game and never played the way they can.

Not so much Aiden McGeady, despite the fact he was under such a harsh spotlight throughout. But he’s a player who depends on service and he didn’t see enough of the ball. I was really disappointed with James McClean, Stephen Ward, Jeff Hendrick and even Seamus Coleman. They didn’t handle the game well. They were making mad, silly fouls and simply didn’t show the temperament required on.

I know it’s going back a long way, but when we won 1-0 in Scotland in that Euro qualifier in 1987, the atmosphere was just as intense at Hampden Park. But we had good heads on our shoulders and we had players who played at the top level of the English game and in Europe as well. The occasion didn’t get to us and the importance of the game didn’t get to us.

But this Irish team is still very much learning how to cope with all that.

I was happy enough before kick-off with Martin O’Neill’s starting side, having predicted in these pages he would make the big call to drop Robbie Keane. But there was always a concern that, in midfield, we were a bit outnumbered. They had Mulgrew, Brown and Naismith — and Jonathan Walters is not a Naismith type of player.

But Martin is very limited in his choices there. He could, perhaps, have sacrificed one of the strikers and played Stephen Quinn to even things up but, on the other hand, going forward we haven’t really got the kind of link-up player we need. Robbie Keane used to be able to do it, used to be able to drop back and play that number 10 role when he had partners like Niall Quinn or Kevin Doyle — but Robbie is no longer able.

Wes Hoolahan wasn’t available on Friday but then I do feel Martin prefers to use him at home and against the lesser teams in the group. It appears he only trusts him to a limited extent. Should he trust him more? The evidence of Hoolahan’s performances in the Premier League and the Championship is he is inconsistently effective yet, when he has played under Martin, he has invariably emerged as one of our best players.

It’s a really difficult one for the manager and symptomatic of a deeper issue. The reason I have always been inclined to dampen our expectations of this current side is the players are really not as good as they used to be. That said, I don’t think it was unfair on Friday for people to expect more from a squad which is, at least, the match of what the Scottish have. For me, the most striking thing about the game was Scotland had a method of playing whereas, in part probably because of the changes Martin made – some of which were enforced, like the real blow of losing James McCarthy – we didn’t seem sure of what we were doing.

It looked as if the instruction was to get the ball forward to Long and Walters, and we’d go from there. But the front men never got good service. They had to battle for it all the time, and the Scottish defenders, Hanley and Martin, really didn’t give them a chance to get it down and bring other Irish players into it.

We were too frantic, too frenetic. It was crash-bang-wallop for long spells throughout the game and yet, despite the intensity, the Scots were able to do much better at getting the ball down and putting moves together. Mulgrew, Naismith, Brown and Maloney did much more on the ball than the Irish lads.

For Ireland to achieve at least that kind of parity, the manager is going to have to get his philosophy across to the team. All the managers who have enjoyed success with Ireland had a definable way of playing. When I first came into the team, John Giles had a certain way of playing, and insisted on it. Jack Charlton also had a clear philosophy, even if his style of play, compared to John’s, was chalk and cheese. But the players knew what the gameplan was. And Trap had that to a certain extent in the first couple of campaigns, with the players also knowing exactly what was expected of them.

I’m not too sure that Martin has put his own stamp on the team in the year that he has been with us. In his defence, he has lost the strength of certain players – one obvious example being at left-back — that other managers of Ireland have had in past. He could do also with this link player that other managers have had in the past. But those players are not there and he is yet to find a solution.

Given that, despite making the decision to start Shane Long and Jon Walters ahead of Robbie , Ireland drew a blank in front of goal on Friday, it might be nice to see what David McGoldrick can do in an international arena and in an Irish shirt, against the USA tomorrow.

But don’t be fooled into thinking there’s anyone out there who’s going to come in and solve our problems. They have got to be solved from within. That’s where the philosophy of a way of playing that the team believes in, comes into the picture. And I haven’t seen that yet in the away games.

It took time for Gordon Strachan to get his ideas across but Scotland have demonstrated that it can be done, with their performances away to Germany and Poland and, in particular, the way they handled what really was a must-win game on Friday.

There are crunch games coming up for Ireland next year, beginning with what, in turn, is now looking like a must-win game ín March. I appreciate that Martin O’Neill doesn’t have much time to work with the players at his disposal — but it’s up to him to find the key and come up with the solution.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

What formation works best?

At first glance, the 4-4-2 used in Glasgow produced Ireland’s first competitive defeat under Martin O’Neill. But Scotland’s goal came during the 9-minute spell during which O’Neill switched to 4-2-3-1-by introducing Robbie Brady and Stephen Quinn for Shane Long and Darron Gibson. For the last 11 minutes he reverted to 4-4-2, with Robbie Keane replacing Jeff Hendrick. Statistically 4-4-1-1 has been the most successful formation (wins against Latvia and Oman, and a draw in Germany, all of which featured Wes Hoolahan). Draws against Poland and Costa Rica were achieved using 4-4-2, which yielded nothing in Scotland. 4-2-3-1 is O’Neill’s most frequent starting system. The six matches played under it have resulted in three defeats (by Serbia, Turkey and Portugal), one draw (against Italy, in Ireland’s best display under O’Neill) and two wins (against Georgia and Gibraltar, against whom Ireland sometimes attacked with a front four).

Should Aiden McGeady play wide or centrally?

O’Neill has used the Everton player in both roles, sometimes switching him during matches. Against Georgia, McGeady started on the left of three advanced midfielders in support of lone striker Robbie Keane and scored Ireland’s first goal from that position. But when Brady replaced Quinn for the last 14 minutes, McGeady moved into a central spot behind substitute Long and fired his brilliant winner from the edge of the penalty area.

In Germany McGeady played off Keane as the advanced midfielder until Jon Walters moved from right midfield to central attack as Keane made way for Gibson. Restored to the right wing, McGeady’s injury-time link-up with substitute Hoolahan led to John O’Shea’s equaliser from Hendrick’s assist.

How important is Wes Hoolahan?

Very. When introduced late on against Germany he improved the quality of Ireland’s attacking play and contributed to the equalising goal. Three days earlier his vision and passing helped to destroy Gibraltar. In tight matches his creative touches could be decisive.

How many yellow cards have Ireland collected?

Seven. This means McGeady, Walters, Quinn, Hendrick, Séamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan would miss the visit of Scotland in June if booked against Poland in Dublin on March 29.

— by Paul Kelly

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