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Analysis: O'Neill rewarded for finessing formation
30 Mar 2015 22:10
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill waited as long as he was entitled to before naming his much-anticipated and debated starting XI for Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Poland.
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There was a surreal moment on first inspection. Did it really say Wes Hoolahan? Will Robbie Brady start at left-back?
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The manager was true to his word. For months he had spoken about the home games. He talked about taking the game to Poland. Well here it was; an attacking team with nothing but three points on O’Neill’s mind and there was even room for record goalscorer Robbie Keane leading the attack.
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Even the holy trinity of the RTÉ television panel seemed to have been taken aback as they almost purred in anticipation of what might result from an Ireland team playing football against a team who are perceived to be better than them.
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“We’re going to have to do something we haven’t done for a long, long time,” said Eamon Dunphy. “Which is get the ball down and play football.”
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Johnny Giles was also optimistic - but cautiously so - noting that the team had never played together, while Liam Brady called it a “brave, brave selection”.
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Brave, it certainly was, and attack-minded for certain. In fact, it would even have caught out the opposition, who were expecting a physical battle at the Aviva and must have been surprised by the eleven sent out to face their defence-minded line-up.
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Amidst all the talk about the attacking formation, it barely registered that reliable number one David Forde had been dropped for the returning Shay Given having never put a foot wrong during O’Neill’s tenure. But that was a debate for another day.
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When the initial shock and excitement of the attacking formation had been digested, further examination offered other talking points as to what might prove Ireland’s Achilles heel.
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“If the manager wants to play with one up front, I'm not f***ing Niall Quinn or I'm not Shane Long - they are better at that than I am,” said striker Robbie Keane after being dropped for the Scotland encounter.
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“If you play two up front and you want to score goals, that's my game.”
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It could be argued that Ireland were playing two up front with Wes Hoolahan in an advanced role to help Keane get those chances, but in reality that was never going to happen and the Norwich City man was not the striking partner that the Ireland captain referred to when he spoke of two up front.
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But Keane was part of the manager’s masterplan for this vital home fixture, so we would just have to wait and see what transpired.
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Robbie Brady’s selection at left-back was also another that could back-fire. Granted, Brady has played a fair amount of Premier League football carrying out a similar role at Hull City this season, albeit not on a regular basis.
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Aiden McGeady had been shipped across the pitch to accommodate Jonathan Walters’ inclusion. This prompted another cause for concern - that Ireland might be exposed on the left, especially if Brady had been encouraged to attack.
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The Ireland manager had a full week to work with his players, and he spoke before the game of players knowing and doing their jobs, so there is no doubt that the players were well drilled and ready for the task at hand.
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But let’s not forget that Ireland’s last competitive match was over four months ago and their next qualifier does not come around until 7 June, so the manager really only had one chance to get things right.
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The Poland clash was, in essence, O’Neill’s first chance to test his side at home and while the intentions were to be commended, the opening 20 minutes would expose the selection flaws.
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One of the most obvious observations of that opening period was the lack of chemistry between the left-flank pairing of McGeady and Brady.
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Perhaps their games are too similar, but there was no cohesion between the players, resulting in neither player getting to attack the Polish right-back.
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In fact, as early as the 12th minute, Brady played quick ball to McGeady and set off on a run looking for the return pass. But the Everton man turned inside, leaving a gaping hole, which was not punished on this occasion.
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Perhaps it was no coincidence that the manager was hugging the touchline for the duration, almost coaching the pair as the game proceeded.
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In fact, several other scenarios in the opening exchanges indicated that the partnership was not working, none more so than a 15th-minute Ireland attack where Brady and McGeady actually played a one-two before the former tried to skip past Slawomir Peszko (remember that name) but got robbed of the ball leading to a Polish counterattack.
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On this occasion there was time for the midfield to get across and break up the play, albeit a little too enthusiastically, as McCarthy gave away a free-kick, but the warning shots had been fired and O’Neill could only look on from the outside, hoping that it was an early teething problem that would remedy itself.
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Meanwhile, Robbie “I’m not f***ing Niall Quinn” Keane was proving the theory, barely touching the ball apart from a couple of frustrating runs into the corner to pick up throw-ins when he should have been causing chaos in the box.
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Otherwise, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Wes Hoolahan were showing signs that a football match might break out, although Hoolahan’s final ball was not what you would expect, another teething problem for the manager to keep an eye on.
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Possession was key for this system to work but several hopeful punts out of defence, from Wilson and Brady in particular, were finding white jerseys which harked back to the bad old days of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland.
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However, Ireland were holding their own and Poland were not causing many problems, apart from some odd glimpses of Lewandowski brilliance and good wing play from both wide players.
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And more importantly, with 20 minutes on the clock, Ireland had not conceded and Poland had had no real chances, apart from a header from a set-piece that went wide, while Given had not been troubled. O’Neill perhaps felt that things were starting to look up.
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Five minutes later, the Ireland boss would have been encouraged further as Ireland played the ball out of the right side of defence.
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O’Shea found Walters. The Stoke man held the ball up and brought McCarthy into play. A quick one-two was exchanged before Hoolahan dropped into the space and took the ball forward. The tricky midfielder danced past three Polish players, who were pulled out of position to try to deal with the advancing Irishman. Then Hoolahan attempted to roll the ball in to Keane’s feet. The big centre-half read his intentions, stepped out to intercept, and forced the former Shelbourne man to try to atone for his error. But a Paul Scholes-esque tackle resulted in a yellow card for the Irish midfielder.
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But it was good Irish play. The stoppage allowed Ireland to regroup as keeper Lukasz Fabianski would take a long free-kick from the edge of his box - surely bread and butter for the Ireland defence.
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Or so we thought.
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The long ball was missed by Whelan, who challenged in the air under the dropping ball. Suddenly, Brady found himself too close to the bouncing ball and he got himself in a tangle as he tried to turn inside and play a pass to Wilson. The ball was mishit, the Polish pounced and Ireland were punished by a wonder-strike from that man Peszko, exposing the manager’s brave call to play Brady at left-back. The holy trinity would surely call it brave but foolish at half-time.
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Ireland were shell-shocked, but to their credit remained composed and continued to try to play the ball through midfield.
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But McGeady was still looking troubled on the left wing. In the 32rd minute the Everton man gave the ball away and just watched and walked back as Poland broke with numbers, again leaving Brady exposed, not knowing whether to tuck in to cover the centre-half or to pick up the man that had not been tracked.
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That attack came to nothing, but perhaps was the catalyst to spark the manager in to action.
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A break in play allowed the Ireland boss to move McGeady away from his touchline and banished him to the far flank. Walters was pushed up to play alongside Keane and Hoolahan was told to cover the left side.
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It was as if O’Neill flicked a switch, as this new-look Ireland team immediately kicked into shape.
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Brady was re-energised, running at the Polish full-back, while a minute later, Hoolahan went on a mazy dribble through the middle of the park before picking out the advancing Coleman with a threaded pass, precisely played into the stride of the attacking full-back.
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Keane dropped back into the midfield to get involved in his more natural position, Walters gave the centre-halves their first bit of contact of the game, upending Lukasz Szukala and even McGeady looked like a new man, getting on the ball and running inside at pace.
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Moments later, the Everton winger sent a fine long ball to the back post for Walters, which caused the Polish keeper to punch clear. Ireland kept the pressure on, leading to the McGeady effort, which was Ireland’s best chance, just before half-time – ironically the pass to McGeady came from left-back Brady, who had joined in with the attack with his former wing buddy.
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It was nine minutes showcasing what this Ireland team were capable of and what the manager had planned for this run of home games.
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In international football, the manager rarely gets a second chance to rectify losing situations.
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But it was only half time.
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