Martin O’Neill: Irish Tinkerman?

13 Oct
O'Neill got his mojo back in the win over Germany

O’Neill got his mojo back in the win over Germany

What to make then of Martin O’Neill’s first ten qualification matches as Irish gaffer? A record of five wins, three draws and two defeats has been enough to progress Ireland to the perilous play-off situation next month and with a goals record of 19 scored and only 7 conceded, I think it’s fair to laud the Derryman on making the play-offs in a group containing World Champions Germany, an always formidable Poland and an improving, if ultimately careless Scotland under Gordon Strachan.

Much has been made of O’Neill’s team selections since the group got under way thirteen months ago away to Georgia. The big questions before that opener in Tbilisi were would he go Trapattoni-like with a rigid and strait-jacketed 4-4-2? Would he play three at the back as he often did at Celtic? 4-5-1 (when defending) or 4-3-3 (when attacking)? Would the mercurial and forgotten (under Trapattoni) Wes Hoolahan finally find a regular place in the starting eleven?

In that first game away to Georgia, he elected to play three in central midfield with Whelan, McCarthy and Stephen Quinn getting the nod, flanked by McGeady and Walters, with Robbie Keane on his own up front. Ireland won the opener 2-1 in what was a very patchy performance, rescued by McGeady’s injury time wonder goal. In eight of the subsequent nine qualifiers he went for the three in the middle. The game he didn’t was Scotland away where Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick made little impression with Long and Walters getting no service up front and McClean and McGeady totally ineffective out wide, where Scotland deservedly won 1-0 at Celtic Park.

O’Neill always kept everyone guessing as to his starting eleven and I would wager that includes his players. Below are the amount of changes he made to the starting eleven from game to game following that opener in Georgia:

Gibraltar (home), five changes,won 7-0

Germany (away), three changes, drew 1-1

Scotland (away), five changes, lost 0-1

Poland (home), seven changes, drew 1-1

Scotland (home), two changes, drew 1-1

Georgia (home), two changes, won 1-0

Gibraltar (away), one change, won 4-0

Germany (home), four changes, won 1-0

Poland (away), five changes, lost 1-2

While losing players to injury and suspension is always an issue in international football, I’d be doubtful that many teams with the same pool of players available as Ireland would make as many changes from game to game as O’Neill did. The five changes from the memorable win at home to Germany to the disappointing loss in Warsaw three days later were in my opinion unduly excessive. In my opinion, Christie (superb against Germany) should have been retained and moved to left back for the exhausted Ward with Brady remaining in midfield where he excelled against Germany with Hendrick and McCarthy That midfield three showed more than enough in that remarkable victory to merit being kept together in a match where a victory or 2-2 draw was very much attainable and thus avoiding the shark-infested waters of the play-off. With O’Neill breaking up that trio, reverting Brady to left back (a position he is still coming to terms with) and not convincing Hoolahan to give it socks for an hour or more in Warsaw stunted the massive momentum the team created after beating the World champions. In a game we should have taken to Poland from the off, the return of Whelan alongside McCarthy and Hendrick saw us return to ponderous and predictable midfield graft rather than the mobile and progressive stuff we saw with Brady, McCarthy and Hendrick three days previously. While not in the social media league of Glen Whelan-bashing, I really feel a corner was turned in terms of midfield passing and mobility in that Germany victory and bringing Whelan back handed over a pre-kick off initiative in Warsaw and our attacking play on the night bore that out in what was as bad a performance as the Glasgow defeat (which Whelan missed to be fair!) in terms of the dearth of attacking play and chances created.

So Martin O’Neill has many conundrums and dilemmas ahead of next month’s play off, the draw for which is next Sunday.

Over the ten games, he started twenty four different players.  Those ten games didn’t reveal a clear identity or philosophy of play under O’Neill apart from the expected honesty of effort and pride in the shirt. A philosophy seemed to be emerging with the Herculean performance over the Germans, or was that merely a one off or false dawn given the subsequent disappointment in Warsaw?

O’Neill really needs to find the correct blend in his midfield three that makes this team more threatening coming forward. Performances such as in Warsaw, Glasgow and the first half at home to Poland cannot be allowed to continue. He must do without Walters (and John O’Shea) for the first leg of the play-off. Walters has been a real stalwart in the campaign for his application , tenacity and nicking of crucial goals such as the winner against Georgia and the opener against Scotland at home. He will be missed, but maybe it gives Hoolahan another chance as a roving wide player with (hopefully) a fully fit again McGeady on the other side and and the central trio of Hendrick, McCarthy and Brady given their head again.

A bold approach can see us on that plane to France, leaving Scotland at home next Summer to mind the two islands. Ruthless and brave decisions have to made by O’Neill. Let’s hope he gets those decisions right over the next 180 minutes of football.

Footnote:

For the record, below is the list of players who started matches in the qualifying group.

John O’Shea 10

Jonathan Walters 9

Glen Whelan 7

James McCarthy 7

Jeff Hendrick 7

Seamus Coleman 6

Robbie Keane 6

Wes Hoolahan 6

Robbie Brady 6

Aiden McGeady 5

Shay Given 5

Marc Wilson 5

Stephen Ward 5

James McClean 4

David Forde 4

Richard Keogh 3

Cyrus Christie 2

Shane Long 2

Daryl Murphy 2

Darron Gibson 2

Stephen Quinn 2

Ciaran Clarke 2

David Meyler 2

Darren Randolph 1

*************************************************************************************************************************************************

Phelim Warren, 13th October 2015

@freewheeler12

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