Martin O’Neill has come in for some sharp but generally constructive criticism following Ireland’s abject display against Georgia at the weekend.
The first half was the worst 45 minutes from an Ireland side many will remember. There were many problems on the night, the bulk of them originating from a central midfield trio unable to effect the game with or without the ball.
There were other problems too of course. Our talismanic captain Seamus Coleman is still missing following his horror leg break in the Aviva versus Wales, while Shane Long was badly lacking match sharpness. Ireland created chances in the later stages when O’Neill threw caution to the wind withdrawing Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan for Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy respectively, but none of them came from any progressive build up play from Ireland. It was more smash and grab.
Even in the short gap between games, O’Neill is beset by further problems as injury has once again ruled out Jeff Hendrick, a player who offers something on the ball and has the physical capabilities to influence the game without it. McGeady has since been ruled out also.
O’Neill isn’t exactly spoiled when it comes to options, his pragmatic nature suggests he puts a lot more stock in experience and players who give him the same thing consistently, no matter what it is. But every now and then he throws up a wild card. The most obvious case being his team selection for the must-win game against Italy in France last summer.
That night, O’Neill went with a midfield diamond of James McCarthy, James McClean, Hendrick and Robbie Brady. Ireland got what little width they had that day from the full backs. They played through the middle with Long dropping off Daryl Murphy who performed the ugly side of the game excellently.
Against the odds, Ireland achieved the desired result that day.
Tonight’s match calls for a similar change of tactics, we need to play to our strengths. Considering the injuries within the squad and the performance in Tbilisi, central midfield is our weakest area. There was no fulcrum around which the ball could be moved. Most Ireland fans will be extremely worried if Whelan is to keep his place, a duo of Arter and David Meyler sitting in and scrapping would serve us better.
Ireland need to go wide against Serbia if they are to get at their defence with any regularity. Two wingers, both playing on their natural side so they can cross the ball quickly and effectively. Brady on the left, Daryl Horgan (in McGeady’s absence), on the right. Both have the ability to beat the full back at close quarters, there should be no delay. Whip in as many early balls as possible.
Up front, Daryl Murphy is the man for the job, his ability to win headers and hold the ball up is vital in a match like this where we will struggle for possession. James McClean should be selected alongside him. The Derryman always give his all in the green shirt, he can drop off to help out the midfield, he has the pace to run in behind and most importantly he’s no slouch in the air himself.
The match in Tbilisi proved that we do not have what it takes to play possession based football effectively. Even the purists must admit that it’s points not possession that matter most tonight. Get it wide early, whip it in on sight and let Murphy and McClean barrel in on top of the Serbia centre-backs as soon and as often as possible.