Only perfection will do for Ireland in October

by Feargal Brennan

Following the highjinks and and heady days of France this summer, Martin O’Neill’s Ireland team returned to the bread and butter business of qualification with something of a bump in Serbia.

The 2-2 draw against Serbia in a rain-soaked Belgrade earlier this month was lauded in equal measure for the heart shown by the players and for their inability to deal with their technical opponents.

Ireland were camped in their own half for unsettlingly long periods of the second half, as they again struggled to hold on to a lead.

It does at times appear to be a fault in the psyche of many Ireland teams, that they find the position of controllers of the game as an uncomfortable scenario, preferring instead the boost of a comeback.

 

However in the cold light of day, the performance will be analysed as a good point against difficult opponents in tough conditions, as much of a cliche as that may sound.

What Ireland simply cannot afford to do is leave any room for anything other than six points when they face Georgia in Dublin and Moldova away next month.

Both games are simply must win and should represent no problem for O’Neill’s side. Seven qualification points will put Ireland in confident mood when they head to Austria in November for their final game of 2016.

Ireland’s downfall in qualification in recent years has been surrendering points against weak opposition, then requiring gallant and against-the-odds performances against more established nations.

This policy does seem to be dying out with O’Neill, despite the memoranle qualification win against Germany in 2015 and the beating of Italy this summer.

He prefers instead to prepare his team akin to that of a club side, where chances are not taken and risks are managed.

He does not remove the element of heart and streetwise tenacity from Ireland’s game, but he is removing the need for the ‘hail Mary’ pass or the glorious injury time goal.

Ireland now look to be in the mould of a competent club side, organised and playing to their strengths, with the capability of star quality from individuals.

What Ireland need to do is manage expectations following their exploits in France, as the Serbia performance showed that they are still a work in progress.

Patience will be needed in both games, and Ireland will have to adapt to being favourites and react accordingly.

 

The pre-existing concern for Ireland will be the dearth of attacking options, however the focus will be on creating chances and demanding that the midfield shares the goalscoring load with Shane Long.

O’Neill looked to deploy James McCarthy as a lone holding midfielder at this summer’s European Championships, with a combination of Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter and Robbie Brady in front of him.

This tactical adaptation is with the intention of finding a solution to the striker problem, Brady in particular will look to provide the craft behind Long, with the pace and physicality of James McClean and Jon Walters utilised on the flanks.

This move is something of a necessity for O’Neill as the need for goals in his side is something of a concern, Brady as a playmaker is not his natural position, however it places one of Ireland’s most talented players in an area when that can cause damage.

Following their performances in France, Ireland are not a side that teams will take lightly in qualification.

However against Serbia that took a step back into the past, squandering possession and passing the initiative over so they could adopt a comeback role.

This needs to be reversed as Ireland gave flashes in France of a side that a now maximising their resources, rather than papering over the cracks.

And only with a clean sweep of points next month will O’Neill’s team show that they are progressing in a new direction.

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