Trapattoni – The indefensible

by David Costelloe

In the aftermath of Ireland’s disappointing Euro 2012 campaign, many fans looked forward with a degree of trepidation to the qualifying route Ireland would have to take in order to get to Brazil 2014. Germany, Sweden, even a decent Austrian outfit we no longer felt confident about taking on as much as we may have at the start of the summer.

But at least, some might have consoled themselves, there is the two lowest seeds. The Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan. There should be 12 points in the bag right? And even better, our first competitive game since Poland was against one of them.

Today, Irish football fans wake up wondering just what happened last night, as a team bereft of leadership, stable formation and competent team selection or positioning came within minutes of a result on par with the Cypriot disaster of 2006 that precipitated the end of Steve Staunton’s tenure. The late late show from Kevin Doyle, scoring one and creating another has partly spared the blushes, but that cannot completely hide what we were subjected to.

Going over that result would be to join the sea of other voices, so instead I’d like to direct this piece at those who defend Trapattoni’s tenure and his future employment with the FAI. The divide between those who wish to see “Trap” continue and those who wish to see him gone is becoming ever more clear as time ticks by. For the record, ever since the final whistle went against Italy in Group C, I have considered the Italian’s time in the Irish dugout to be of the borrowed variety, and nothing that he and the Irish team have done since has changed that fact.

When you speak to those who defend Trapattoni, in person, on Twitter, in forums, you come to notice three distinct lines that are put out as the main salvo against those who think it is time to consider other options. Taking them all in turn:

“The result is all that matters”

I’ve certainly heard this a lot, the idea that performance in individual games is irrelevant – all that matters is the final scoreline and the amount of points that come with it.

And Trapattoni has gotten results. In 50 games as Ireland manager, he has won 21 and drawn 17, a win rate of 42%. But this statistic, as they tend to do, masks realities.

Which is that Ireland under Trapattoni, taking away friendlies and the meaningless distraction that was the Nations Cup, have underperformed. Trapattoni has been able to – frequently by the skin of his teeth – get the winning result against the 6th 5th and even the 4th seeded teams, but when it comes to opposition of equal or greater standing, “Trap” has failed.

Bulgaria, Slovakia, Italy, Russia, France, Croatia, Spain have found little to fear in Ireland, with Trapattoni hoodwinking the Irish football watching public into praising him for a consistent series of draws or dismissing defeats, even when victory was sometimes within their grasp  only to be squandered through long ball tactics and toothless attack. Added to those better than Ireland are teams like Georgia, Montenegro and now Kazakhstan who have either claimed points against Ireland or come very close to doing so. The poor performances that saw Ireland settle for draws against Bulgaria and Slovakia did not get the sufficient amount of critique or notice because it didn’t matter, not to the followers of the great God of “the result”. As long as we thought the result was good, we didn’t have to worry too much about the actual display.

Of course, we no longer just easily dismiss that, not when you see Stephen Ward and John O’Shea hoof endless ball over the midfield to the Kazakh defence, and suddenly realise just how bad things have gotten in the Irish set-up. Better opponents outclass us at every turn, and it doesn’t have to be so. The rude awakening at Euro 2012 was such a shock to many partly because we had gotten so used to being the team that could get “the result”. But that was a myth.

We got results in the big games: bad ones and a lot of us didn’t even realise it at the time. Defeats at home to Russia and France were flukes, squandered opportunities at Slovakia, Bulgaria and Italy were unlucky, Paris and Moscow deflected by over-emphasis on individual performances or refereeing errors. Excusing Trapattoni because of his overall success rate, not taking into account the very significant trend of who we are unable to get successes against, is a cover-up. The game against Kazakhstan will go down in the annals as a win, but if we treated it as just that we would be ignoring the gigantic problems the game showed us.

That success rate was better at the start of the year but suddenly looks far less impressive. As it stands, it now places him behind Mick McCarthy (42.6%), Jack Charlton (50%) and Brian Kerr (53.1%) in the list of the most successful  (win rate) Irish managers of recent times. That statistic is not the be all and end all.

“He got us to the Euros”

He sure did. Remember what happened there?

We managed to scrape though a qualifying group that, if some initiative had been taken against Slovakia in the two draws played against them, we would have won. A frantic 2-1 home win against Armenia (then 25 places below Ireland in the rankings) secured second spot. Ireland lucked out when pitted against an undisciplined and nerve-filled Estonian outfit in the play-offs. A place in Euro 2012’s Group C was the prize.

The optimistic mood in the country was infectious. A result achievable against Croatia. Trap was experienced when it came to Italy and we’d beaten them in a friendly under him. Even Spain weren’t totally invincible, didn’t Switzerland beat them in South Africa?

Because we had gotten so used to being the team that got “the result” and didn’t care how the team actually played to get there – and who they failed to play well against – it was all the more devastating to see Ireland completely outplayed in all three games, easily the worst team in the tournament.

Yes, Trapattoni got us to the Euro’s. Quite the achievement, playing the way we did. Once there, on the biggest stage, in the most important games of his tenure, Trapattoni played the wrong players the wrong way and couldn’t get “the result”. It could have been different.

If getting to the finals is the very limits of our ambition, with everything after treated as some kind of inconsequential affair that has no bearing on the manager’s job performance, something is seriously wrong. Which brings me to:

“The players aren’t there”

That is, Trapattoni is only doing the best that he has with what he has got. If the talent pool isn’t there for attacking football, then Trap simply has to rely on older hands and a more stringent gameplan.

Except, the players are there. Trapattoni’s man management and player relations failures are fast becoming legendary, with the likes of Stephen Ireland, Andy Reid, Marc Wilson, Kevin Foley, Darron Gibson and Shane Long all having run-ins of varying levels of seriousness with the Italian. Then there are others, like Westwood, McClean, Coleman, Hoolahan, Walters and Cox, good players whose appearances in the first team have only been facilitated by retirements or injuries, if they have even been that lucky.

Trapattoni has options, but doesn’t even watch English football and has exhibited an extraordinarily dismissive, even callous regard for many players who should have been playing regularly for Ireland a while ago. While some are certainly debatable – Gibson has had his chances for example, and (Stephen) Ireland was always troublesome – others are not. The sight of forward Simon Cox switching haphazardly from wing to wing yesterday while McClean sat on the bench, or Paul Green getting a run out against Spain while Hoolahan stayed at home are ones seared into the consciousness of those no longer enamoured with Trapattoni and his system.

Trapattoni has his favourites and has clung to the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given, even as time started to show up their deficiencies. When better options for those players were available, Trap refused to budge, choosing his system – the one that failed so spectacularly in Poland -  and the form of past glories  (the only reason Robbie Keane is still picked) as the basis for his selection choices. I wouldn’t even call it sentimentality to put a clearly unfit Shay Given out to play against Croatia, just stubbornness.

Simply put: we can be better than this. Claiming Ireland cannot compete with Spain is one thing, but Ireland were outplayed for 89 minutes by Kazakhstan yesterday. This is not a case of respecting limitations. If you think otherwise, I suspect it might be because of what we have watched in terms of performances over the last four years. That doesn’t have to be our limit and you shouldn’t believe it is either. Better players, younger players are available. Better formations, more effective tactics, based on retaining more possession, more use of the midfield as an offensive option, utilizing assets like Long, McClean and Walters rather than keeping them on the sidelines can be implemented.

In conclusion, it is clear to me that Trapattoni will no longer be Ireland manager at some point before Brazil 2014. We lack the ability, under him, to qualify for that tournament, and judging by what we saw yesterday, may struggle to even cement our current seeding position. While Trap has, through the exuberance of Kevin Doyle, gotten a stay of execution from his position, it simply won’t last. “The result” is no longer the trump card it once was. The memory of successful Euro qualification is blotted by the embarrassment that happened afterwards. The players are either not performing to their best under him, or not being allowed the opportunity. Germany, Sweden, Austria, teams far better or equal to Ireland’s current level are to come. The future is bleak. Options, both financial and in terms of successors, have to be considered. When it comes to Trapattoni, we are rapidly reaching an indefensible point.

6 Responses

  1. Cooney says:

    I’m not one of those wanting “Trap Out”, that’s a fact ok, but still I can agree with this article on some points, especially about the tactics and style of play. Trap is a bit “old” tactically, in some ways, and I certainly criticizes him for not being able of changing the gameplan during a match. He’s still too much linked with the man-man substition. If a winger doesn’t perform, he’ll put on another winger. He doesn’t try to change the formation and sometimes we simply can’t change the result of the match.

    But, when I hear about the fact we could have some football genius left at home, I seriously cannot hold a laugh. I agree Coleman and Gibson should be in the team, but then?
    Wes Hoolahan? Foley? Andy Reid? Come on, they can’t be better than Whelan or McGeady.
    Hoolahan is almost 30 and someone call for his name just because of a good EPL season with Norwich. Andy Reid? I’ve been a fan of him, but he was class 5 years ago, not now. Foley? Wilson? Please. Cox? Come on..
    We can’t talk of these players like they were Redondo or Gazza. We must face the reality, imho.
    Our player base is small and certainly poorer than 10 years ago. But still Trap gave the team an organization we didn’t have before.
    We probably had our best team of the last 20 years at the WC2002 and still we played long balls to Niall Quinn.
    Now I can see the lads trying to pass the ball everytime, even when under pressure. Is this not an improvement?
    Then Trap is too stubborn on some aspects, I certainly agree on that, but I also can’t see other great managers unemployed and ready to come.
    We need to be serious, we just put too much expectations on our Euros campaign this summer. And now many people think that with another manager and 3 or 4 different players (who cannot find a place in their own clubs) we could have done what, winning our group? Reaching the semis?

    Too easy to criticize Trap now.
    And to hear that even Brian Kerr did a better job, sorry, but it’s almost ridicoulous.

  2. Alan Moore Alan Moore says:

    Well written and posited article David, some obvious flaws (lauding the genii left at home like Andy Reid?) though overall well constructed. You do, however, overlook the most serious problems in Irish football and watching the game on Friday carefully it was painfully obvious what they were. Almost none of the Irish players could control, move with and pass the ball cleanly, basic skills that are bred into footballers from an early age. By contrast the Kazakhs, who were greatly underestimated by players, fans and media alike, were cohesive and controlled. The failure that is the British academy system and the need for Irish football to prostrate itself at the altar of football in Britain, means that our players are incomplete, lacking in basic ability and therefore self-belief when they come up against better tooled opponents.

    Irish football is done a great disservice at home by it’s almost complete lack of vision. The insular nature of the Irish footballing media and public is handed down from generations watching a “foreign” game. The FAI have not moved on with the times, are wasting the opportunity to learn from one of football’s greats and our players will continue to under perform so long as there is no development available at home.

    The Kazakhs are investing heavily in sports and youth development, they have the oil and gas money, from top down. In Ireland we squandered ours on botox and 3rd cars.

  3. David says:

    The point about Brian Kerr was to emphasize how deceiving statistics can be, not to claim he was a better manager. No one would call Brian Kerr a success, but he has a better win record than Trapattoni right now.

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