Ireland’s victory over Germany was our first competitive win against a high-ranking nation since Mick McCarthy’s team turned over a star-studded Dutch squad in September 2001 on the way to qualifying for the World Cup. It was also an occasion and performance that finally created a night to remember at the new Aviva Stadium. The fact that Ireland followed it up with such an anaemic performance against Poland three days later was hugely disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. Irish teams have traditionally struggled to replicate big performances when presented with such a short turnaround. A classic example of this was when McCarthy’s team beat Yugoslavia at home in September 1999 in a performance that was full of attacking verve, and then followed up with a defeat away to Croatia three days later in what was an ultra-cautious and frustrating performance.
There is little doubt that the physical and emotional energy that went into beating Germany made it difficult for the team to reach the same heights in Warsaw. Notwithstanding this, we learned a lot about the Irish team over the course of the two games and one would hope that the Germany game will provide some key principles that should form the template for our tactical approach in the play-offs.
Rugged defensive performance
The back four selected by Martin O’Neill for the Germany game had a makeshift look to it and one that appeared wholly unsuited to dealing with the intricate and subtle attacking play of the world champions. Injuries to Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark meant that O’Neill was forced to pick the Derby County duo of Cyrus Christie and Richard Keogh. Stephen Ward was given the nod at left-back, despite having only played one game this season, that being against Port Vale in the Capital One Cup. The only member of the first choice back four was John O’Shea, who captained the side.
The lack of familiarity in Ireland’s defence was particularly evident early on, but Germany failed to convert the opportunities that presented themselves. Jérôme Boateng missed a free header after 8 minutes, whilst a shot from İlkay Gündoğan in the 13th minute was deflected over. The Irish defence certainly rode its luck with both André Schürrle and Thomas Müller missing gilt-edged opportunities in the second half.
Despite the good fortune, both O’Shea and Keogh got to grips with the fluid German front line and both put in a rugged defensive performance. It was refreshing to see the Irish defence use their physicality in such a controlled manner. In recent years we have become accustomed to the Irish back four sitting back in crucial qualifiers and allowing the opposition space to play. To their credit, the two centre-halves retained a good defensive shape in the second half at a time when Ireland could have easily retreated and invited wave after wave of German attack.
It was somewhat surprising that Germany didn’t try to attack down the flanks more often. There were occasions in the second half when Christie’s positioning was poor and Marco Reus could have exposed his naivety. Ward played well up to the point at which he was substituted and he was well supported by Robbie Brady who worked tirelessly. A clean sheet against the world champions was an outstanding achievement and is something that the team can build on going into the play-offs. The experience will be particularly beneficial to Keogh who is likely to be alongside Ciaran Clark in the first leg of the play-offs due to O’Shea’s suspension.
James McCarthy’s enhanced role
James McCarthy is a player that has been the subject of much criticism during the course of his Irish career. The criticism tends to focus on what is perceived to be a passive approach in midfield and a failure to stamp his authority on games. However, McCarthy’s performance against Germany was characterised by pace, physicality, tactical awareness and controlled aggression. Put simply, he was pivotal to Ireland’s defensive performance. With Glen Whelan suspended, McCarthy slotted into the main holding role in midfield and shielded the back four with the type of athleticism and urgency that we probably haven’t seen in an Irish team since Roy Keane was close to his peak.
McCarthy set the tone when he dispossessed Mesut Özil after just two minutes of the game. That was the first of ten successful tackles that the Everton man completed over the course of 90 minutes, which is a phenomenal rate of tackling at this level of international football. He dispossessed Özil three times in total and also dispossessed Marco Reus on three occasions. McCarthy’s tackling style could be described as accurate, with just the right level of aggression. One particularly robust challenge on Mario Götze in the first half led to Götze being substituted minutes later. However, McCarthy only gave away one free-kick over the course of 90 minutes and that was when his feet became entangled with Özil early in the second half. It is notable that the Everton man never once went to ground in trying to win back possession, which allowed him to use the ball effectively when he secured it.
McCarthy also provided great support to Keogh and O’Shea on those occasions when the Germans sought to cross the ball from wide areas. He cut out three crosses that came into the Irish box and blocked a goal-bound shot from Özil in the 15th minute. This means that through a combination of tackling, interceptions and blocking, the Germans lost possession to McCarthy on a total of 14 occasions.
Everton form translating to Ireland
It was clear that McCarthy relished the opportunity to play in the role that he performs so well at Everton and he could be clearly seen shouting instructions to other Irish players and organising the midfield structure. His importance to the Irish midfield was particularly evident in the ten minutes preceding Shane Long’s goal. McCarthy first snuffed out a German counter-attack when he intercepted a Schürrle pass on the hour mark. Less than two minutes later, McCarthy dispossessed Thomas Müller before transitioning the play into an attacking opportunity for Jon Walters.
The victory over Germany could be described as a coming of age for James McCarthy. However, such a suggestion would be a disservice to a player that has shown previous signs of what he is capable of in an Ireland shirt. He put in man-of-the-match performances away to the Faroe Islands in October 2012 and away to Sweden in March 2013. On both of those occasions, it is worth noting that Glenn Whelan was also absent from the team. Whelan’s return for the Poland game last weekend coincided with a less prominent display from McCarthy. As the main holding player against Poland, Whelan was exposed for his lack of pace on more than one occasion. The Stoke City man has been a great servant to Irish football, but it is increasingly evident that he and McCarthy cannot be accommodated effectively in the same team. McCarthy’s time has arrived and O’Neill needs to empower him to be the main man in Ireland’s midfield for the play-offs.
Technical players and pace in attack
McCarthy’s performance against Germany laid the foundations for the more advanced midfield trio of Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady. With Germany dominating possession, all three struggled to get on the ball. However, when they were in possession, they tended to use it well. In particular, Hoolahan and Brady demonstrated that they have an ability to hold possession of the ball and played some decent passes into the feet of Daryl Murphy. It would be fair to say that the advanced midfield trio are more technically proficient players than we’ve tended to see in Irish teams in recent years. The opposition that Ireland meet in the play-offs will not be of the same calibre as Germany and this should present the opportunity for Hendrick, Hoolahan and Brady to get on the ball more often.
If Ireland want to progress, there needs to be an increased emphasis on technical players that are comfortable in possession. Whilst James McClean is strong and direct, his introduction to the team for the Poland game resulted in a complete lack of cohesion on the left flank.
Against Germany, Daryl Murphy worked hard, but was forced to live off scraps. The attributes of Shane Long seemed to be better suited to this type of game. Long has the pace and energy to run into the channels and would have offered a better outlet when the likes of Hoolahan and Brady had possession. Ultimately, it was Long’s pace that split the German defence and resulted in the only goal of the game. Long’s composure and finish were excellent and he seemed to carry that confidence into the Poland game until he was forced off through injury. The early signs are that he should be fit for the play-offs and similar to James McCarthy in midfield, it is time for O’Neill to place his confidence in Shane Long to lead the line for Ireland.
Jon Walters’ work rate
Any review of Ireland’s performance against Germany needs to consider the crucial role played by Jon Walters. He might not be the most fashionable player, but his work rate, desire and professionalism cannot be underestimated. On a different night one would expect Walters to be substituted late in the game to allow fresh legs to take over. On this occasion such a luxury was not afforded to Martin O’Neill due to the need to replace the injured Shay Given and Stephen Ward. In hindsight, the fact that Walters remained on the pitch was vitally important. As Ireland defended their lead in the closing minutes, it was Walters’ ability to hold up the ball and retain control at the corner flag that helped the Boys in Green to secure the famous win.
The fact that Jon Walters picked up a booking against Poland means that he’ll join John O’Shea in missing the first leg of the play-offs. It could be argued that Walters has been Ireland’s most consistent performer during this qualifying campaign and his experience will be missed in the first leg.
Emergence of new leaders and confidence
After waiting so long for a significant win against high-ranking opposition, there was a sense that the second half of the Germany game represented a ‘changing of the guard’ for the Irish squad. With Glenn Whelan absent, Robbie Keane on the bench and Shay Given going off injured before half-time, this was a victory that was achieved by a younger generation of players. Of the 11 players that finished the game, John O’Shea was the only one to feature during the Euro 2012 Finals. On this occasion, the likes of McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady and Long took ownership of the team and it was their energy and desire that helped Ireland to grind out what was an unlikely win.
The subsequent loss to Poland and the manner of the performance will have disappointed the management and players. However, the double-header has provided some useful lessons regarding the personnel and tactical approach that is likely to work best. The knowledge that the team can overcome the world champions should provide the confidence needed to take on a decent side like Bosnia in the playoffs next month.
- Author: Alan Hannify