Much of the attention in the lead up to Ireland’s Euro 2016 play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina has focused on the ever expanding list of players either doubtful or certain to miss at least one of the two legs.
Ranging from players unlikely to have featured too heavily – Rob Elliot and Paul McShane – to certain starters – John O’Shea and Jon Walters – to whatever category one could hope to put Shane Long in, Martin O’Neill faces a challenge in putting together a starting XI capable of withstanding what is sure to be a hostile atmosphere in Zenica.
However, with his team selections in Ireland’s campaign thus far, O’Neill has taught us to expect the unexpected, often pulling a rabbit out of his team selection hat which stumps and confuses.
While at times, it has been extremely frustrating to read through the team sheet and find three or four changes from the side sent out a few days previously, perhaps now, on the cusp of a difficult play-off assignment, O’Neill’s unpredictability will be an asset.
Attempting to foreshadow Irish teams under O’Neil has become somewhat of a fool’s errand. Newspapers and websites will confidently declare the morning of a match that they have the expected Irish line-up licked, only to be proven wrong in two or three positions when the actual team becomes available.
Much of what we expected from O’Neill when he took over the Irish team has been turned on its head over this qualification campaign.
The smart prediction upon his appointment was that O’Neill’s history with Aiden McGeady would bring out the best in the mercurial winger. He was expected to be a key player in Ireland’s hopes to reach Euro 2016. Two goals in the opening game against Georgia, including a world class strike to win the game in the last minute, seemed to back up this suggestion. However, that was where the good news for McGeady and O’Neill was to end.
Though he played in key games such as the loss away to Scotland and the draw at home with Poland, McGeady was ineffective. As the campaign wore on, injury curtailed his involvement in games but it has been his lack of games for his club, Everton, which kept him from the team in recent international windows.
From match winner to club after-thought, it now appears that McGeady needs a move away from Everton to re-establish himself in O’Neill’s thoughts.
It is not just in the selection of McGeady that O’Neill has provided surprises. Upon taking the job, there was an apparent willingness from the manager to see Robbie Keane eased slightly out of the team for certain games, the first time an Irish manager had been prepared to do this.
Fans rejoiced as it seemed inevitable that Shane Long, he of the excellent work rate, actual pace and Premier League employer, would be Ireland’s first choice striker.
O’Neill, however, had other ideas. In some of the most important games in the group, Scotland away and Germany at home, O’Neill went for Ipswich forward Daryl Murphy, only calling for Long off the bench. Even Keane, who O’Neill had been looking to phase out of the starting 11 bit by bit, got the call ahead of Long away to Germany.
In midfield too, O’Neill has continually taught us to expect the unexpected. This campaign has finally seen Wes Hoolahan establish himself as an Irish international and produce several eye catching displays.
However, just when we thought we had seen the emergence of Wes as a key to Ireland’s game plan, most notably after the victory after Germany, O’Neill has sent out teams where he has been left on the bench or out of the match day squad entirely.
Similarly, with the Germany game in Dublin seeing James McCarthy’s most impressive game for the ‘Boys in Green’, fans and pundits alike believed that finally he would be played as the defensive pivot he works so wonderfully as for Everton. Instead, for the very next game, Glenn Whelan was reinstated as the team’s defensive midfielder and McCarthy was once again thrust forward, asked to be the sort of midfielder he so clearly is not.
We have yet to see a definitive style of play or consistent tactical approach from O’Neill’s Ireland. This is a function of the sheer number of different teams he has picked over the qualifying campaign. For an illustration of this, think back through Ireland’s qualifying games and make note of how the team scores goals. Do they score from set pieces and balls into the box? Yes, on occasion. Are long balls to the strikers an important part of the tactical approach? In certain games. Do they look to play to feet and work neat passing moves? Not very frequently but it has happened through the campaign.
Ireland’s approach changes from game to game, depending on who is in the team. If Shane Long starts up front, expect him to be chasing balls into the channels, if it’s Daryl Murphy then a more direct long ball might be used. A side featuring James McClean will see plenty of crosses delivered into the box, while if Wes Hoolahan is picked a more considered and measured attack will ensue.
It has been a source of frustration over the qualifying campaign to see changes, often unexpected ones made to teams, especially after encouraging performances. However, these constant changes, while preventing a development of a clear style of play under O’Neill, have meant that the priority has been the fostering of squad-wide values, applicable to the side no matter which players wear the jerseys.
The clichéd view of Irish teams from visiting managers over the years (especially those from strong teams) has been that Ireland were tough to beat, that they battle hard and were resistant. While these all may have been through to varying degrees over the years, no matter how hard to beat Ireland were, they usually ended up beaten. The resilience was in holding out for as long as they could before scumming to the opposition’s pressure.
Ireland under O’Neill have developed a battling, never say die attitude uncommon in Irish sides through the years. Though there have been many heroic defeats, falling just short of a late charge to grab the goal that would mean an unlikely draw or win, we have arguably never seen an Irish side with the propensity to score late goals like this one.
ital last gasp goals against Georgia, Germany and Poland, as well as the all-round excellence of the home performance against Germany, suggests O’Neill has successfully instilled values of commitment and bravery into the squad. While never hailed as a master tactician as a manager, O’Neill has always been championed as a man-manager and it appears he has justified this reputation with Ireland.
Whatever Ireland side Martin O’Neill does send out on Friday in Zenica and again on Monday in Dublin, they will be in for a tricky night. The much vaunted duo of Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic will be readily supported by Lazio’s Senad Lulic and a team made up of players from across Germany and Italy’s top flight.
The Derryman will have something – or several somethings – up his sleeve for a number of eventualities, but good luck figuring out what they will be ahead of time. O’Neill’s rabbit from a hat routine has gotten the team this far in the campaign but one feels the attitude and values which bond this squad together will be tested to breaking point if Ireland are to make it to France next summer.