Could we embrace an Irish version of an Iniesta-Xavi type partnership in midfield? Is Martin O’Neill prepared to transform the Republic’s style of play, and with it, our fortunes? Here’s ten talking points after a big week in the new manager’s reign.
Some feel a midfield made up of McCarthy and Hoolahan or Reid lacks physical strength. Certainly there’s a height factor there. The Everton man is the taller at 5ft 10 with Reid (5ft 7) and Hoolahan (5ft 6).
Martin O’Neill’s predecessor blatantly shunned all three during his tenure, only integrating McCarthy following humiliation at Euro 2012. Trapattoni favoured Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews to add strength to the centre of the park but as we well know, for most of the Italian’s reign, our midfield was non-existent. They either failed to show for possession or were consistently bypassed by wasted punts from defence.
But let’s allow our fantasies some freedom here. Martin O’Neill has said he wants his players to express themselves. What if the Derryman uses the time between now and the serious business of qualification to completely transform Ireland’s style of play?
Imagine a midfield made up of all three of our diminutive dynamos. A central pairing of McCarthy and Reid with Hoolahan replicating the role he played last Wednesday looking to splice the defence and send a lone striker away, whether that’s Keane or Long.
Both McCarthy and Reid are well capable of breaking up play and hard tackling. If our only concern then is height, why can we not embrace an Irish version of an Iniesta-Xavi type partnership? What a shift in approach that would be from the traditional ‘British-style’ we keep getting labelled with. Is it not worth experimenting in the immediate friendlies to come?
McGeady is in danger of losing the spark that came with O’Neill’s arrival. The new Everton signing was ineffective for large parts of the game with Serbia after a blistering start in the new manager’s first two games in charge.
It’s still early days at Goodison Park but the 27-year-old has largely been restricted to substitute appearances. It remains to be seen if he can force his way into the starting line-up on a regular basis. We’ll also have to wait and see if O’Neill finally gets the best out of the winger. He also needs to massively improve his defensive contributions.
Beaten on a Technicality
Serbia again showed that Ireland are lacking in technical ability compared to continental opponents, something even lower ranked sides demonstrated under Giovanni Trapattoni when we were getting over-run in midfield.
Roy Keane recently dismissed the Premier League as the best in the world, saying it was the most marketed. Certainly the teams where the majority of our players operate could hardly be classed as technically impressive. O’Neill and Keane need to bring out our other attributes and this was referenced by the players who said emphasis had been placed on getting in the faces of the opposition.
Serbia may be technically superior but can we say Poland and Scotland are? Definitely not.
Try Hard II, Try Harder
James McClean continues to suggest the O’Neill factor can raise his game. The manager who took the Derry City flyer to Sunderland took a leap of faith and McClean looks a player determined to repay that trust. He could prove to be a real potent threat in the crucial games ahead.
Those saying Dunne’s days in an Irish shirt are nearing an end may need to think again. With Ireland’s back-line in tatters in the second half, the first seeds of doubt crept in about Martin O’Neill’s casting as our saviour. His church of redemption will be built on the rock returning to the Irish defence.
Long and the short of it
Much of the reaction to the Serbian defeat has centred on Shane Long’s two misses rather than his lead goal. The second in particular when he chose to try to loft the ball home from the edge of the box with acres of space in front, has caused some to question his finishing ability. But the player himself has said he will learn from those mistakes. Better to miss in a meaningless March friendly than a must-win game on the road to Euro 2016. Chances were so rare under Trapattoni. With Wes Hoolahan in particular, we were unlocking the Serbian defence and creating one-on-one opportunities. If he gets the same break in a qualifier, Long is more likely to keep a cooler head.
It was interesting to see the contrast in fans’ opinions regarding our skipper who missed the game due to the start of the MLS season. Many said Keane would have converted the chances missed by Long. Others continue to say the LA Galaxy striker’s days are up for Ireland. But Keane’s just signed a new multi-year contract and says he feels stronger than ever following ankle surgery. He just picked up the Irish player of the year award for his eight goals in 2013. Remember, for virtually all of Trapattoni’s reign, Keane watched centre-halves to his left and right swallow every long ball intended for him. Potentially, we now have a Reid or Hoolahan to pick a pass and play to his feet. Do we still think Keane has no more goals to come?
Earlier on Wednesday, the U21s crashed to a terrible 2-1 defeat having led against Montenegro in Tallaght and they kissed Euro qualification goodbye. But the star of the show was 19-year-old winger Jack Grealish. Currently on-loan at Notts County from Aston Villa, his performance will not have gone unnoticed by Martin O’Neill. The Irish boss had previously spoken about unearthing a teenage gem and we may have found one. A senior call-up can’t be far away.
Doom and gloom
In his pre-match remarks, Roy Keane told journalists he saw no need for doom and gloom when assessing the pool of talent he has inherited. So why does it hang in the air? Why are many supporters so quick to highlight the deficiencies in last Wednesday’s performance? Two reasons. Firstly, despite the blame Trapattoni shouldered, many are still questioning “Do we have the players?” Too many poor performances by a squad that is largely unchanged has Irish fans worried. Secondly, the wounds of heavy defeats at Euro 2012 and subsequently costly losses against Germany, Sweden, and Austria are far from healed. We need to be convinced, and three games under O’Neill are simply not enough.
Over 37,000 paid into the Aviva Stadium last Wednesday. In the old Lansdowne Road, that would have been a sell-out, as it consistently did for friendlies and qualifiers. The cars, buses, and trains pointed towards Dublin from all corners of the country again and slowly but surely, the buzz is returning around the Irish team. One Dubliner taking his young son said he wouldn’t have brought him along under the old manager. The second half performance disappointed many but by the time September rolls around, tickets are set to be in high demand.
Keane’s reputation still precedes him and his caustically blunt assessments on ITV’s football coverage paint him as uber-critical. Many, then, can’t marry that persona with the assistant coach fulsome in his praise of the Irish squad. “Everyone keeps saying we’re gonna be up against good teams, but we’re a good team,” he said this week. “Roll on September. We’ll be ready.” You can’t help believing him.
Images: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com