Not only was Walters Ireland’s best performer throughout the qualification campaign, but he’s also become a critical element in the formation that allows Wes Hoolahan play, thereby allowing us field our best creative talent.
Walters performs a range of functions in Martin O’Neill’s set up that makes his absence a serious matter for concern.
To provide a suitable shape to bring Hoolahan in, the manager plays a midfield diamond.
Hoolahan’s excellence on Monday showed clearly the benefits of the shape in terms of ensuring his involvement.
Backed by Whelan at the base, and Hendrick and McCarthy left and right, the former Shelbourne man has a platform to drift, float and create.
The narrow nature of the midfield shape also allows Ireland try and get the best out of the attacking instincts of Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady.
Both had their moments against the Swedes, most notably the Donegal man’s brilliant run and pull back for the opener.
However, as the Swedes upped the tempo in their search for a way back into the game on Monday, an inherent weakness in that formation – one often negated by Walters – was exposed with alarming regularity by Martin Olsson who consistently found space to drive into down Sweden’s right flank.
With McCarthy apparently struggling with his positioning – uncertain of whether to go and help the increasingly harassed Coleman or stay to avoid the Swedes making hay in the middle – Ireland struggled to stem the tide.
McCarthy rightly took a lot of flak for his performance, but while the system may bring the best from Hoolahan, it doesn’t suit the Everton midfielder.
McCarthy looks a lot more comfortable as one of the midfield two in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, as we most often see him at his club.
Against the Swedes, he looked bewildered at times, unsure of how to help the harassed Coleman, indecisive on and off the ball.
And while he must take the criticism on the chin and should be capable of much better, the constant Swedish pressure on that side of the pitch wasn’t entirely down to him.
The space Olsson attacked was also a function of the often unbalanced nature of the side caused by Hoolahan’s tendency to drift to the left and the fact that Walters was unable to cover the right-hand side as he has so ably done on other occasions.
The Stoke man’s running power and game intelligence has allowed him to fill that gap when it appears, helping those behind him, whilst also staying in touch with Shane Long or Daryl Murphy in attack.
In Paris, Walters was clearly suffering. His lack of fitness was crucial in that period after Hoolahan’s 48th minute goal when Ireland lost their grip on their game.
Had he been fit and firing, we may well have weathered the storm.
And now, unfortunately, it looks as if Walters will miss the rest of the tournament.
If that proves to be the case, then his influence on the pitch and in our most effective formation will be sorely missed.