Ireland ended the international calendar with a 0-0 draw against Denmark and a fourth consecutive international without a goal. The past year has been one of hurt and disappointment with many fingers pointing towards Martin O’Neill.
Ireland were always going into a transitional period after the playoff loss to Denmark with a huge overhaul taking place. The retirements of Wes Hoolahan, John O’Shea and Daryl Murphy were also combined with the axing of experienced heads, Glenn Whelan, Aidan McGeady and now seemingly Stephen Ward following ‘WhatsApp-gate’.
However, O’Neill was still left with some talent to pick from and still has the bones of a very good international team. Matt Doherty was a Premier League player of the month winner with Shane Duffy a nominee last month. Seamus Coleman is one of the Premier Leagues best right backs with the likes of Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady, Harry Arter and James McCarthy all experienced top flight operators.
In addition to these players are James McClean, whose enthusiasm lifts Ireland, and then the other category of genuinely talented players like Jeff Hendrick and Shane Long who could certainly do damage for the team if they put in that bit more. However, it seems O’Neill is not correctly utilising what he has available to him. Other nations around Ireland’s level are nearly worse off in terms of a player pool but actually manage to make the most of resources.
Northern Ireland are a prime example of that notion. Michael O’Neill’s team showed that, despite having players from lowly sides, they could embrace an exciting and enterprising style. Their quality of play has really been shown up in the last year but it proves that if some of the talent Ireland have can at least make a bit of a dent at a similar style, things could improve drastically.
We have examined five key areas where O’Neill has limited an already limited Irish cohort and offer our suggestion on how things can improve.
1. Losing players
Before the Turkey game, Ireland lost highly-rated, Liam Kelly, as he indicated he wanted to reconsider his international allegiances. The Reading man was widely tipped as Wes Hoolahan’s successor but that was quickly banished. The Declan Rice saga began alongside the news that Harry Arter had chosen not to be considered after a bust-up with Roy Keane.
Although Arter has since returned, another man who has had apparent fallout is David McGoldrick. The technically gifted striker is an alternative option for O’Neill and has been in terrific form for Sheffield United. However, he is another to be isolated. Michael Obafemi’s inclusion brought excitement but O’Neill’s strange handling of the player in the last week reeked of self-sabotage and begged the question, is he doing enough to secure players into the Ireland setup?
2. Top flight problem?
One of O’Neill’s biggest excuses has been the lack of Premier League players at his disposal. Despite this, he has consistently left Greg Cunningham out of his squads. Even before the Cardiff man was a Premier League defender, he was arguably Ireland’s best left back domestically but couldn’t get a look. Michael Obafemi is another example. Rarely have Ireland been able to call on a highly rated Premier League, teenage striker, nor could many national teams. However, O’Neill almost shunned him too and has handed out caps to a number of players who do not look up to international level. In addition to this, the manager’s reluctance to start Premier League regulars like Matt Doherty and Harry Arter has baffled fans and deprived Ireland of their strongest possible starting sides.
3. Bizarre selections
O’Neill’s selections have been extremely bizarre of late. Not one game in the past year has featured a team without at least one player out of position. In the process, this is hurting Ireland and destroying any chance of successfully deploying the 3-5-2. Players like Callum O’Dowda, Conor Hourihane, James McClean and Cyrus Christie have perhaps suffered the most from being played in strange roles in what, essentially, becomes a shapeless Ireland.
These selections set Ireland up for failure before a ball is even kicked, which is not only frustrating for fans but also baffling considering O’Neill can almost always call on a balanced starting XI in which all payers are started in their favoured position.
4. Overreliance on James McClean
Throughout the World Cup qualifiers, James McClean became the focal point of O’Neill’s team. Despite his popularity, McClean is a committed but limited player and should not be immune to criticism. The Derryman is still one of the first names on the team sheet despite real inconsistencies in his game. McClean has come up with crucial goals for Ireland but his overall performances over 90 minutes leave a lot to be desired in the last eighteen months or so. His change to left wing back has not helped but rash decisions in attack have hurt Ireland going forward. His passion cannot be questioned but his role is to create that which he has rarely done. McClean is at his most dangerous as an impact sub attacking tired legs and this role could serve him and Ireland well despite how unpopular it may be with fans.
As aforementioned, players like Liam Kelly, Declan Rice, Harry Arter, David McGoldrick and Greg Cunningham have been distanced from the Irish set up for an array of different reasons. This begs the questions as to what kind of atmosphere is the Ireland set up like at the moment?
Social media accounts will document the odd bit of banter among the players but this has rarely been shown on the pitch. The Irish players look laboured and frustrated on the field of play with clear tensions in the body language of the boys in green. The deflated looks on the players’ faces following the home loss to Wales said it all and given the tension of some of the latest press conferences featuring players and management alike, one would wonder if the Irish set up a vibrant place at present.
Despite the bleakness of the past year, there is still plenty to work with. First and foremost, the question begs as to whether or not O’Neill is the best man for the job. However, given the financial implications of sacking him, it seems that he will be around for at least another while. If he stays on, the manager needs to maximise Ireland’s chances in a number of different ways. Firstly, he needs to improve the morale in the side which has been poor. The players look down and given his man management skills, O’Neill needs to re-establish the team unity that heralded so many impressive results.
Next, O’Neill needs to give Ireland the best chance through selection. Rather than relying on loyalty, the manager needs to pick on form and quality. This could mean doing things like finding a way to accommodate all of his top-flight players and really dig deep and ask himself are some of the players he has introduced to the squad in the last year really good enough for international football.
Finally, O’Neill needs to play players in their position. International football is like a chess match and the more balance that teams have, the better chance they give themselves of competing. Ireland have seen some strange selections in recent times with many of O’Neill’s positional calls unforgivable. Ireland could put out at least two starting elevens of balanced sides based on the last several squads and O’Neill needs to recognise this. The 3-5-2 could work but only with players in their correct position as could a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. The only question is, how enthusiastic is O’Neill at this stage of the job?
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena