The Opel Jersey deconstruct the potential Ireland game plan ahead of the final, and biggest, match of the 2018 World Cup qualification group stages.
In the past few days Martin O’Neill has referenced our performance in the Euros against the Italians saying “I just remember that we went to Lille having to win to get into the last 16 and we did it. So let’s go for this”.
The idea that we’ll approach tonight’s game in the same fashion could be a very misleading one.
O’Neill is so difficult to predict but you could well imagine him hoping to keep it extremely tight with the plan that tonight’s game, a la Lille, is in the balance with 20 minutes to go.
One of the most valid criticism of him during his tenure has been his failure to find a consistent playing style that best suits the players at his disposal. He has gone for containment tactics away to Serbia and Georgia and at home to Wales while the recent home game against Serbia he has sought to take the game to the opposition in setting a high tempo and seeking to play the game in the opponents half a la Lille.
We have rarely shown the ability to play containment football, the horror show in Bordeaux being the nadir of those attempts. It could be said that having a holding midfielder like Whelan who isn’t skilled at managing the tempo of the game is a principal reason for this. However our stirring victory against the world champions back in 2015 was a wonderful example of how to do it. Germany chose to ignore the flanks and play into our diamond midfield that night. Something Wales just will not to do this eve.
Tonight, we don’t expect Ireland to “go for it”, it could well be a game of two approaches, the first 70 and the final 20.
First things first, unless O’Neill goes against his previous actions, those of ex-Norwich manager Alex Neil, current Norwich manager Daniel Farke and what the player himself has previously said, then Wes Hoolahan will not start tonight, what would be his second game in three days.
That was decided when O’Neill picked the XI to play Moldova.
It is also difficult to see Daryl Murphy finishing tonight’s game, which is highly problematic considering our striking options. Playing both until the 77 min on Friday was a very strange move on O’Neill’s part.
Ireland nearly always play with a diamond when Wes plays, and nearly always without one when he doesn’t. It is possible that McClean might play in the front two but it has been a while since O’Neill toyed with that idea.
So a 4-3-3 is expected.
Like often is the case, there is a fairly big chance O’Neill will throw a surprise into the mix.
No discussion here.
Meyler again, has a huge game to play tonight. One of the major differences between him and Whelan or McCarthy is his habit of tracking runners and making tackles in wide or deep areas. He also has the positional sense that sometime eludes McCarthy and nearly always Arter. Tonight his key role (beyond his bread and butter stuff) is making sure Aaron Ramsey does not get into shooting positions in and around the box.
Despite his very poor form, Hendrick should start. He doesn’t seem to know what is being asked of him in an Ireland jersey (or for that matter O’Neill doesn’t seem to either) but that’s not an excuse for his loss of form. This is a player who would call for a ball when marked, roll the guy and pick out a pass/takes a shot. He does none of those things now. God, what a night for him to rediscover his mojo.
While positionally it would make sense for Hendrick to do it, it will most likely be up to Arter to hunt down Joe Allen. Allen is the key player for Wales, he dictated everything for them in Dublin and he will be the hub through which everything flows this eve. Rhythm is everything to Wales and all attacks are sourced back to Allen. Arter ain’t no holding midfielder, he is not about covering space. He’s a presser, he’s at his best getting into opposition players spaces in a way that none of our other midfielders can do. He is the one guy who can really shut down Joe Allen. If he manages this, it really could tip the balance.
Bench options, if a goal is needed, Wes most certainly off the bench with 20 on the clock and perhaps O’Dowda also, driving from midfield.
The main selection issue is whether Brady plays as part of the midfield 3 or the attacking 3. The former is possible, with O’Dowda playing in the attack on the right. However with Murphy up front, Brady’s value as a crosser would probably be best utilised wide on the right (as opposed to his passing ability from midfield searching for a mobile striker).
Brady hasn’t performed to the peak of his talents in this campaign either but has shone for Burnley on the right in recent weeks.
McClean is a banker to start. Let’s hope we get some of the good McClean, that we have seen much of this campaign, and the one who keeps his cool and brings his reliable intensity to the fore tonight.
Murphy showed on Friday, that with good service from the flanks he can be a very profitable striker. The big question about him tonight is how physically fresh the large-framed 34 year old is. Has he 90 mins in him? Very doubtful.
Having striking options with such limited international experience Seani Maguire (10 mins) and Scott Hogan (0 mins) on the bench is far from ideal. That O’Neill put his eggs in the basket of a group of 33-34 year olds has certainly contributed to this issue.
But after Wes, we can certainly expect one of Hogan or Maguire to be introduced in the case that we are looking for a goal. Both will offer totally different option to Murphy and actually suit Wes much more. These guys come alive in the box and their movement and finishing is where their talents lie. A hell of an ask.
The Final Twenty
Rather like a gaelic or rugby side, it is conceivable that O’Neill might be thinking of tonight’s selection with a view to having his ‘finishers’ on the pitch for the final 20.
He made the point after the Serbia game at how much we lost our attacking shape in the final 20 mins and how we “failed to keep the ball alive” Hourihane taking two shots from distance and McClean with a right footed pot-shot, all wasting what O’Neill saw as good attacking positions.
Hoolahan is key to this. With him usually follows calm. Cast your minds back to the horrible moment where his career seemed to flash before our collective eyes as he missed what seemed like THE chance of the match with the meekest of meek efforts against Italy. What could have become his crowning moment, was to be cited as emblematic of a ‘nearly’ career by those writing his obituary.
Luckily for us all, Wes had a much cooler state-of-mind that the entirety of the Irish support in Lille that night (who were still f-ing and blinding him) and was so present and alert to play an utter gem of a ball onto Brady’s noggin and the rest, as they say, is history.
James McClean has had a superb campaign, we know his qualities. But sometimes when things aren’t going well for him, McClean’s concentrating and composure eludes him. Trying so desperately to make something spectacular happen – a galloping run, a ‘robust’ tackle or a shot from distance. Like he’s trying to play himself back into the game. Often at these times he nearly seems like he is playing for the crowd. When he’s in that state of mind, these often go wrong.
If O’Neill’s strategy goes to plan and we are level with 20 mins to go, it will be absolutely manic on the field. What we need at that exact moment is not McClean going renegade, it is lads making the right pass and the right run at the right time.
Tonight above all nights we need fire in the belly but ice in the heads. And perhaps, just perhaps an Alan McLoughlin moment off the bench.
Over to you lads.
This article first appeared on the Opel Jersey, entitled “Cardiff: Shit or Bust for the Boys in Green.”