Martin O’Neill’s job is under further scrutiny as Ireland face a difficult tie away to Poland. Kevin Boyle discusses the areas that O’Neill has failed to address during his tenure as Ireland boss.
The crisis in Irish football has deepened following Ireland’s abysmal defeat to Wales and the fallout from the Roy Keane-Harry Arter-Jon Walters rift. In typically combative fashion, Martin O’Neill spent his post-match interview pointing out everything his side were lacking.
He referenced the withdrawals of Declan Rice and Harry Arter and the injuries to first teamers like James McClean and Shane Long that had considerably weakened his hand.
And one could sympathise with him on this point. In different circumstances, it is likely that Arter, Rice, Long and McClean would have been starting at the Cardiff City Stadium. Any manager would struggle to plug so many holes and deliver a cohesive performance.
But what is it that a bad workman does?
Throughout his interview, the former Celtic and Leicester City manager refused to accept any of the blame for Ireland’s rudderless performance. He wanted us to believe that the lack of any discernible game plan was the inevitable consequence of having so many absentees.
He did not explain, for example, why he had felt it appropriate to play a static 4-4-1-1 system that saw Cyrus Christie play on the right of midfield, Callum Robinson in an unfamiliar number 10 role and the 35-year-old Jon Walters as an isolated lone striker.
Much like in the disastrous second half of the Denmark debacle, O’Neill watched on helplessly as his tactics were shown to be entirely ineffectual. And much like in the Danish game, he failed to do anything about it.
The banks of four were set so far apart that it provided a potent Welsh attack with an unconscionable amount of space to play in.
For the first Welsh goal Joe Allen was left free outside the box and when the ball arrived at his feet he was unrushed as he picked out the run of Tom Lawrence.
The seventeen-year-old Ethan Ampadu bossed the centre of the park alongside the experienced Allen while Aaron Ramsey floated about, apparently unheeded by the Irish defence. At no point did Ireland’s midfield duo of Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick apply the slightest bit of pressure to the Welsh allowing them free rein to launch attack after attack.
Ryan Giggs, on the other hand, had committed to an attacking formation from the start with his wing-backs pushed high up the pitch, providing an out ball to their midfielders and testing the Irish defence with crosses from either side. It’s the modern way of playing football.
At halftime and 3-0 down O’Neill presumably felt like everything was going well enough as he decided to change neither the shape of the side nor the personnel. It would take another ten minutes of Irish cluelessness and a fourth Welsh goal before O’Neill replaced Hourihane with Shaun Williams.
The very minimum we have come to expect of an Irish side is a certain level of commitment, industry and physicality. But in the Cardiff City Stadium, there was none to be found. Ireland sat off their opponents, failed to compete in the middle of the park and played with fear throughout.
They were outfought in every department of the game.
Jon Walters was outmuscled by Ampadu for the third Welsh goal and it suddenly appeared that Ireland had lost the most basic components of their own game. The lack of physicality and tackling throughout was indicative of a team that are devoid of confidence and perhaps also leadership.
Players tried in vain to apply pressure on a piecemeal basis. There was no joined up thinking, no preordained plan to win back possession as a unit.
Ciaran Clark had another night to forget in a green shirt as he was at fault for both of the opening goals. For the first he was beaten far too easily by Lawrence and for the second he allowed Gareth Bale onto his favoured left foot to unleash a bullet of a strike into the Irish goal.
The lack of communication in the back four was obvious with each Welsh attack and in the end, a 4-1 scoreline flattered the visitors.
Darren Randolph too had a poor night and was twice beaten at his near post.
It is true that Ireland do not have the talent that Wales have. But that is no excuse for being as undisciplined and shapeless as they were in Cardiff. The players on the pitch may not be world beaters, but you can’t help but think that they could at least provide some level of performance if their boss had a plan for them.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that he does not. Martin O’Neill has only a Plan A and it revolves around keeping a game scoreless for as long as possible and gaining a point, or nicking a goal like we did eleven months ago against Wales.
But when things go against Ireland, as they did here and as they did against Denmark, the manager has repeatedly proven that he is not up to the task of fixing things.
The Future Of Irish Football
And at this juncture, it is worth asking if Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have any plan for the future of Irish international football.
For one thing, it’s clear that neither Martin O’Neill nor Roy Keane really wanted to be facing into another international campaign with the Republic of Ireland and did so only out of a lack of sufficiently palatable alternatives.
Following the annual spate of Premier League managerial sackings in January of this year, both men had their heads turned by the vacant position at Stoke City left in the wake of Mark Hughes’s departure.
And while that relationship never quite got beyond a first date, it was hardly O’Neill’s commitment to the Republic of Ireland that prevented him from managing the Potters, but rather concerns about the length of contract on offer from Stoke and the ignominy of only being the club’s second choice, behind Quique Sánchez Flores.
So the manager and his assistant grudgingly returned to the FAI and put pen to paper on a new contract that had already been agreed in principle before O’Neill went window shopping in England.
For most football associations the news that their manager was looking for work elsewhere would have set off screaming klaxons. The FAI, on the other hand, sleepwalked into a new deal with an uncommitted manager.
And in his team selection against Wales, he once again showed how short-term his thinking really is.