We’ve been here before. A wonderful, unexpected performance against a better team in a high stakes situation. Admittedly, the stakes were a little higher when Ireland drew 1-1 against France in Paris in the playoff for the 2010 World Cup, but the reactions to the performance that night was similar to what we have all read, said and heard since the magnificent – and still faintly unbelievable – victory over Germany last week.
After Paris, of course, we all had the distraction of Henry and his hand to get worked up over. Last Thursday brought no asterisk, no if, buts or maybes. Just a glorious night in Dublin where Ireland ‘bet’ the world champions with half the team made up of Championship players.
The true legacy of Paris, however, was the raised expectations for that Irish team. They had showed the world what they could actually do. Trapattoni had spent two years telling them that they were not good enough to play anything more intricate than getting the ball away from the goals as quickly as possible, but when their collective backs were against the wall, the team went for it themselves and showed what talent they had. After that game every time Trapattoni sent Ireland out to hoof and harry their way through a game, pundits and fans cried out to remember Paris, remember what this team could actually do.
The win over Germany has now been discussed in similar terms, – this squad of players stepping up to the mark and showing just what they are capable of. The next step, however, is now key. That Paris display became somewhat of a millstone around the collective neck of the team. Every poor performance which followed was made worse when viewed through the prism of what the team had showed that night.
It became almost a stick with which to beat the players and the management. We see this pattern emerging again already after the Poland defeat, the enormous good will generated by beating Germany forgotten as people trip over themselves to criticise Martin O’Neil and his players.
The positive energy from the victory against Germany must now be harnessed by this squad for the play-offs and into the next qualification campaign. They cannot allow the performance from last Thursday to be a once off, they must carry forward the lessons learned and apply them.
Fans and pundits cited Paris as the way forward for Trap’s Ireland but declined to acknowledge that it was a stand-alone game, a free shot at the World Cup where to lose whilst taking chances would mean the same as to lose whilst taking none. As such, despite the encouraging nature of that display, it was never truly a template for that Ireland team. The tactical set-up and gameplan from Thursday night against Germany, however, can be this squad’s template for the play-offs and beyond.
Trapattoni often talked about Ireland not having players of sufficient quality to play anything more than an exceptionally limited gameplan of simply trying their best to not concede, whilst not keeping the ball for any period longer than it took for them to kick it out of their way. He was fond of saying “We have no the quality”.
He moulded his Ireland team into an outfit which was obdurate and hard to beat because he believed we were not good enough to be anything else. However, against Germany last week, Ireland were obdurate and hard to be precisely because they were good enough.
Trap’s Ireland made it through qualifying by ceding possession at every possible turn and toughing it out. This tactic was cruelly exposed not only at Euro 2012, but also by Germany themselves when they came to Dublin in October of 2012 and laid waste to everything before them. Giving very good teams the ball all of the time, it turns out, is a very good way to concede a lot of goals.
Nobody can say that Ireland dominated the ball against Germany last week. Quite the opposite in fact. However, there was a key difference in approach for this Ireland team than we had seen for many years. In important stages of the game, when the ball needed to be retained, to relieve the pressure on the defence if nothing else, the midfield possessed sufficient courage and calmness to put a foot on the ball and dictate their own tempo. There was nothing overly complicated asked or delivered. It was not tika-taka. However, it was calm, measured and comfortable.
James McCarthy, playing the defensive pivot role he so excels in at Everton, but rarely plays for Ireland, had his best performance in a green jersey. Finally we saw leadership and character from one of our best technical players.
Robbie Brady was once of Manchester United and, at times, his touches and passing showed exactly why. It should be a priority of O’Neil’s to find a left back capable of releasing Brady further up the pitch. Jeff Hendrick may play in the Championship, but when a player is comfortable in retaining possession, it shows through regardless of level.
Jon Walters has established himself as perhaps Ireland’s player of the campaign, acting as both a second striker and a tireless winger as required by any particular situation in a match. And Wes. Well, Wes was simply Wes. Ireland’s most creative player should his technical ability was matched by a ferocious appetite to tackle and work as hard as was needed.
This midfield five possessed a wonderful balance of work-rate and technical ability and it is these five O’Neil should look to as his first choice going forward.
The template set by Ireland’s display is one based on work-rate and commitment as much as anything else. For all the great work done by the midfield in holding onto the ball when it was most needed, it was matched by a whole-hearted willingness to hassle and harry Germany in possession. In this at least, it was very much a traditional performance.
Ireland have shown over the course of this campaign that they grow into games and have developed a helpful knack of scoring late goals. While it is not ideal to walk the tightrope until this late breakthrough happens, it shows that Ireland can afford to remain calm deep into matches and not abandon their gameplan. Already we have seen some backward steps in this as, in search of a goal that would bring automatic qualification against Poland, they began to bypass the midfield and fell back on less and less hopeful hoofs forward.
Thus far I have painted a very rosy picture of this Ireland side, based off only one performance. I could be accused of falling into the very same Paris 2.0 trap which I criticised earlier in this piece.
Ireland are far from perfect – amongst many deficiencies in their game is the lack of a killer instinct in creating goal-scoring opportunities. At times, Ireland look very limited in how they can attack. There is no obvious outlet, no go-to plan. Instead, what we see is a mixture of set-pieces, long balls and an occasionally well worked move.
There is no easy fix for this problem, but it should certainly be helped if the midfield five from the Germany game are given more responsibility within the gameplan. A calmness and a willingness to commit to a plan is needed to change our attacking approach. As I have mentioned, our default response to chasing a goal is to still too soon resort to aimless long balls.
The Euro 2016 qualification campaign was dominated by negativity. I wrote before the last round of games about how much seemed to go wrong for Ireland during this campaign (both self-inflicted and issues forced upon them) and how the public had fallen somewhat out of love with its football team.
All along, the senior players strongly rejected suggestions that the team was still searching for true identity under O’Neil and Keane. They always maintained that the squad knew what they were about. Though some performances suggested very much otherwise, games like the two against Germany and the last gasp draw against Poland maybe support these claims in hindsight.
Regardless of whether they have had an identity all along or if the victory over Germany was the starting point, this Ireland squad now have a viable template to work off. Unlike six years ago, we must not use a great performance as a stick with which to beat the Irish team. It is time to embrace the positives.