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Why O’Neill’s Old Reliable 5-3-2 Should Be Ireland’s System Going Forward

Ireland’s rebuilding process begins with a game away to Turkey that promises to showcase a number of young Irish talent.

Martin O’Neill’s squad announcement saw a number of uncapped and returning players in a panel that saw a number of senior players miss out. Along with personnel, O’Neill could look to shake up the system in which he deploys. The Derryman has alternated between a 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and a diamond formation during his tenure.

However, one system that has been neglected is one that served O’Neill well in the past, the 3-5-2.

During his Leicester and Celtic days, the veteran tactician used this system to great effect with Leicester and Celtic and given the formations popularity in recent years, it could be a time to introduce it to the Irish set-up.

Leicester 1999

Celtic 2003

O’Neill worked against the odds with three at the back and could be doing so again in what is possibly Ireland’s weakest squad in decades.

However, it is certainly a squad that if utilised properly, can achieve results. After all, Ireland are not the only national team that has declined in recent years with very few outstanding countries in world football at present.

Wales, Scotland and England have all embraced the 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 recently with Ireland’s World Cup qualifying opponents Austria, Serbia and Denmark also using it to great effect. It is also popular in Italian football and making a comeback in the Premier League with the likes of Chelsea regularly and Arsenal and Manchester City occasionally deploying it.

O’Neill did try the system against Mexico last summer. However, it was a poorly selected team and this failure should not be read to deeply into. The back three selected that night were poor with Richard Keogh and John Egan looking out of their depth.

Wingers Callum O’Dowda and Daryl Horgan were played in centre midfield and box-to-box Conor Hourihane was deployed as a holding midfielder. This disjointed selection gave a false glimpse of how Ireland could deploy three at the back.

What would make the system attractive to Ireland is the fact that it would accommodate the current crop quite nicely. The squad announced last week saw a worryingly low amount of wingers with no recognised right winger named. Robbie Brady, Callum O’ Dowda and Johnny Hayes remain out but there is still a lack of depth out wide.

The squad did, however, contain a number of talented wing-backs. Matt Doherty has been arguably the best right back in the Championship this season, playing in a 5-3-2 formation at expansive Wolves.

Enda Stevens plays on the left of a similar system at Sheffield United while Derrick Williams, Cyrus Christie and the impressive Greg Cunningham have all experienced playing wide of a back three.

Essentially, it would allow for two of Ireland’s best players to be used more effectively with Seamus Coleman and James McClean fitting all the credentials to be effective wing backs. Coleman is one of Ireland best attacking threats and acting as a wing-back would improve Ireland’s potency out wide. McClean, on the other hand, thrives better attacking from a deeper position and has the defensive capabilities to match.

Robbie Brady could be the superior option at left wing-back when he returns but could be accommodated in a more left central position, the same in which he thrived at the Euros. Both McClean and Brady have played at wing back and provide options down the left.

In addition to using the wing backs to good effect, there could be perfect balance around the pitch. A back three could comprise of Shane Duffy flanked by the right-footed Declan Rice and the left-footed Ciaran Clark.

Kevin Long could also fit into that system as could Derrick Williams or Greg Cunningham who have played as left central defenders in addition to left back. Rice could offer that ball playing balance with Clark and Duffy the muscle. Darragh Lenihan could also fulfil Rice’s potential role given his extraordinary long-range passing ability. Marc Wilson who is currently injured also has experience in a back three system.

In midfield, a flat three of Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter and Conor Hourihane could offer balance and a bit of bite. Right-footed Hendrick and left-footed Hourihane can provide the box-to-box role and long-range threat with Arter holding the fort.

James McCarthy could fulfil that holding role when he returns, the Evertonian has played his best games for Ireland at the base of a midfield three diamond. Alan Browne, Liam Kelly and David Meyler could also slot in well as an alternative three.

In a more open midfield three in the future, Robbie Brady and Alan Judge who are equally adept out wide or more centrally could play either side of a holder. However, this could leave Ireland a little exposed with three more naturally central players more desirable.

A long-term midfield three of Hendrick, McCarthy, Brady would emulate the same combination that heralded fantastic performances against Italy and France at Euro 2016. This combination has rarely been seen since and could be a real quality combo.

Up top, Shane Long’s running and aerial ability could be well matched with Sean Maguire’s finishing and tendency to drop deep and drive at defenders.

Scott Hogan is another who could benefit in a front two with Will Keane, Callum Robinson and Patrick Bamford looking likely to be the other striking options going forward. O’Neill has preferred a front two during his time with Ireland, another incentive to play the 3-5-2 system.

The Turkey clash would be a perfect opportunity to deploy the 3-5-2 given the lack of wide men and should certainly be considered going forward.

Despite Shane Long’s lack of form, his experience and ability to exploit the channels could compliment Maguire of Hogan. Despite his lack of game time, Harry Arter gets the nod over David Meyler but Alan Browne could find his way into the starting XI.

The team going forward barring injuries could look a little bit like this

There is the argument that this formation would leave Ireland vulnerable and quite open. However, it is a formation that can be quickly altered to a 4-2-3-1 given the right personnel and tends to pack the midfield.

The balance of the system allows players to slot into other positions when the team is on the break.

For example, the wing backs can sit back to form a back four when the opposite wing back goes on the attack. The wider central midfielder can also offer defensive cover to the wing back, allowing for more width without becoming too exposed.

Given the players currently at Ireland’s disposal, the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 would offer Ireland balance and the chance to utilise what is available to them, maximising the likes of Seamus Coleman.

Martin O’Neill’s familiarity with the system puts Ireland in good hands and would allow the Boys in Green to follow the trend of other national teams in deploying such a formation.

Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena

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Author: Nick Menezes

Nick is a soccer, GAA and rugby fanatic who has a worrying obsession with the Irish football team. His articles focus on Irish football and he also writes some light-hearted pieces, particularly quirky starting XIs.