It’s easy to scoff at claims from European stars Dusan Tadic and Robert Lewandowski Ireland are long-ball specialists but the proposition is indisputable according to Uefa’s technical report from the summer European Championships.
Twenty-six years on from Jack Charlton’s “Put Em Pressure” mantra and it seems Ireland’s tactical evolution is stuck in neutral, with only Northern Ireland and Iceland unleashing more scuds from back-to-front as a proportion of their overall passes in France.
One-fifth of the “passing attempts” over the four games against Sweden, Belgium, Italy and France were categorised as long-ball in Uefa’s 51-page report on the expanded 24-nation tournament. That surpassed the volume under Giovanni Trapattoni at the previous Euros.
“I know Ireland will rely on long-balls, playing them to Shane Long in attack,” predicted Serbia attacker Tadic ahead of last week’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland.
Almost a year ago in Warsaw, Lewandowski was even more damning in his assessment after heading Poland to a 2-1 win which sealed them automatic progress to the finals.
“The only thing Ireland offered was long balls,” said the Bayern Munich frontman. “They hardly had a single scoring chance.”
Despite Ireland edging beyond the group stage for the first time, Uefa’s appraisal doesn’t shine a favourable light on their methodology at the showpiece. Their 13 assessors, including David Moyes, Alex Ferguson and former Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner, traversed France over the month watching each of the nations at least once, culminating in this meaty report.
Amongst the key features of their findings were Ireland operating a non-possession game rather building up from the back, the goalkeeper launching attacks with long ball towards the target striker and strong second-ball support with midfielders breaking forward.
Shutting down space was regarded as another theme of the tactics, yet Ireland finished bottom of the class in terms of ground covered with an average of 100 miles.
Italy, whom Martin O’Neill’s side beat to nick a last-16 berth, were the highest of the 24 nations with a distance clocked 10% higher than the Irish. On the positive side, rather unsurprisingly, the work ethic and never-say-die attitude were noted. Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick accounted for Ireland’s main creators of chances, while the darting runs of Seamus Coleman — evidenced for the breakthrough against Sweden — earned an honourable mention.
Although Ireland having inferior possession in all four games is a pattern we’ve become accustomed to, that the ability to retain the ball is getting worse represents a concern.
In Belgrade nine days ago, O’Neill’s side produced a paltry 94 passes, just one per minute, over the entire fixture.
If Trapattoni shipped flak for his one-dimensional style, then the statistics illustrate the change of manager three years ago hasn’t triggered a sea change in approach.
Ireland knocked the ball around with a degree of comfort against the Swedes and, at times, when Italy needed to be slayed, but the default setting tends to revert.
“We’ve got good footballers in our team so maybe we should get on the ball more and show what we’re about,” reflected Stephen Quinn in the aftermath of last week’s 2-2 draw.
“It’s a case of having the confidence to go out and do it; to get on the ball and not panic. We should be putting our foot on it and passing it around for build-up play.” History tells us O’Neill is hardly deemed a proponent of the beautiful game.
Emile Heskey was at the centrepiece of his success at Leicester City and Aston Villa, and his continued selection of Daryl Murphy ahead of Shane Long in the last campaign as the sole striker resonated with that era of a “Route One” policy.
By positing two Dutchmen, Wim Koevermans and Ruud Dokter, in the role of High Performance Director over the past eight years, efforts by the FAI to catch up with their similar-sized peers is admirable. Playing out from the back is the established practice of Ireland’s underage teams, not always effective on the scoreboard but culturally imperative if the reputation of Irish football is to overhaul.
Not even the fluency of Dundalk’s play, at home and in Europe, can rid Ireland of the stereotypes Tadic and Lewandowski highlighted.
The latest black and white ink of the European governing body makes sure of that.
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