O’Neill: A two-way trust?

20 Nov

 

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Well it’s been a decent start in the opening two friendly matches of the Martin O’Neill era as Irish national team manager.  With no play-offs to endure (or break our hearts), O’Neill had to be content with friendly matches, consisting of a timid enough debut opposition of Latvia in Dublin (3-0) and a creditable if pretty dull scoreless draw away to Poland tonight in Poznan.  So, have we learned much about how the team is likely to fare in the Euro 2016 qualifiers that will kick off after next Summer’s World Cup?  I believe the answer to that is a resounding yes.

 

The end of the Trapattoni era as we all know was akin to a long-suffering pet being finally given a humane farewell by the family vet.  The bulk of the 25,000 or so fans who invaded Poland in 2012 had abandoned the team during the dismal World Cup campaign just finished.  Trapattoni’s strait-jacketed system had become even tighter around the necks, torsos and feet of a confidence-sapped team.  The new Lansdowne Road resembled a Celtic Tiger ghost estate.  The nation had fallen out of love with our football team and Trapattoni’s contract had to be terminated once David Alaba’s winning goal for Austria had finally nailed our slimmest World Cup qualification hopes to the crucifix.

 

O’Neill’s appointment and his decision to employ Roy Keane as his assistant immediately gave the nation’s football fans a real shot in the arm in terms of excitement, hope, anticipation and curiously among some fans who can’t let go of Saipan, anger.  The past week or so however has surely dissipated that anger as Keane has done his press conference, demonstrated that he isn’t fact a scowling, snarling wannabe Number 1 and slipped into the background as best he can and let O’Neill do what he was employed to do, lead the Irish team back up the rankings and to compete for European Championships and World Cups.  Make no mistake here, O’Neill is the Manager, Keane is the assistant and it’s clear Keane is very happy with that.

 

The difference in the footballing philosophy of Trapattoni and O’Neill was evident after a mere 15 minutes of O’Neill’s debut against Latvia last Friday.  From the off, Ireland’s team were encouraged and allowed to pass the ball from the back.  Goalkeeper Kieren Westwood passed the ball to his defenders or when the option was there, passed the ball 30 yards into midfield to Glenn Whelan.  Gone was the tired, predictable and hopeful hoof from the Irish keeper.   Gone was our central midfielders’ neck strain as the ball no longer flew over their heads for 90 plus minutes.  The aforementioned Whelan was permitted to enter the opposition half and probably suffered several nosebleeds as he had the temerity to get into the Latvian box.  Wingers McGeady and McClean were encouraged to mix up their game by cutting inside into dangerous areas.  Around them, McCarthy, Whelan and in particular, Wes Hoolahan moved into good positions to take passes and give passes as Ireland now probed and passed instead of lumped and jumped.  Full backs Coleman and Ward also provided outlets in attack instead of being numbed by Trapattoni’s rigidity.  Hoolahan’s freedom to roam from O’Neill was a both a delight and annoyance to watch.  Delight in that now he was playing for a Manager who trusts him, annoyance in that Trapattoni never trusted Hoolahan (and other players) to have the football intelligence we know he’s had for several years.  But then, Trapattoni clearly had pre-conceived ideas that all Ireland had to bring to a game was heart, graft and passion and his “system” would put paid to Hoolahan’s hopes of having any international impact for the past five years.  Shameful really.

 

In addition to the immediate contrast in how the Irish team played with the ball, it was glaringly obvious also that O’Neill wanted his players to pressure Latvia as high up the pitch as possible, rather than drop off and encourage teams to come at us as in the Trapattoni era.  O’Neill’s pressure game paid rich dividends as two of the Irish goals came from such tactics.  The high pressure and energy game also got the fans interested and vocal, something that was pretty much absent in the past few years.  So with and without the ball, the differences in the two philosophies were stark.

 

O’Neill has his own pre-conceived ideas of the current Irish players.  They are ideas that will encourage and accommodate the likes of Hoolahan and (hopefully) Andy Reid and others.  O’Neill identifies and shares the Irish psyche.  He is aware Irish players possess far more ability than Trapattoni allowed himself to believe they had, or more pertinently, allowed himself to see in person such was the shameful amount of matches the Italian bothered to watch during his five year stint.  Roy Keane will be a massive help to O’Neill in terms of attending matches to check on the players’ form and identifying other players who can make the step up to international level.  O’Neill will endeavour to marry the natural and traditional Irish fire and passion, with a high energy but all action style which will allow players to pass and move.  The “system” will be no more.

 

While the Poland draw was a pretty uneventful game, the terrible Poznan pitch made passing very difficult and the home side themselves were trying to impress a new boss, but the positives from the second game were Ireland never got opened up, a clean sheet was again attained and the players again showed a real attitude to scrap and compete and everyone got the chance as O’Neill promised.  It’s worth noting that in Trapattoni’s first two matches, similarly played within a few days of each other (a 1-1 draw with Serbia in Dublin and a 1-0 win over Colombia in London), he used 17 players.   O’Neill has used 21 players as he endeavours to familiarize himself with the players’ various strengths and weaknesses and come up with a formula to bring the national team back to the forefront of Irish sport and supporters back to Lansdowne Road.

 

The key word here for me is trust.  O’Neill clearly trusts his players to carry out his footballing philosophy.  He has brought Roy Keane in because he trusts Keane to instil a collective attitude among the players to be the best they can possibly be and adopt a “why not?” attitude in those players to buy into his (O’Neill’s) philosophy.  I think it’s fair to say the players already trust O’Neill as he said he’d give his players a chance in the two games and he patently did. 

 

There will be a few more friendlies for O’Neill to prepare his group of players before the long-awaited competitive campaign begins next August/September.  For O’Neill and Keane, for the FAI money-men,  for the Irish fans and most of all, the revitalized players, these games cannot come quickly enough. 

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