Same old story as Ireland’s qualification hopes fade
The build-up to Ireland’s crucial qualifier against Scotland was dominated by soundbites about this being a must-win fixture and an opportunity to kick-start the Martin O’Neill era. Ultimately it was to be a familiar story for the Irish team and their fans as Scotland secured a valuable point. The draw felt more like a defeat and the air of resignation was apparent amongst the Irish crowd as they drifted away from the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.
Martin O’Neill’s team selection surprised many with both Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy retaining their places following the friendly against England. Unfortunately Aiden McGeady failed to overcome the hamstring complaint that kept him out of training in the days prior to the game, but the player most aggrieved to be left out was Shane Long. After Long’s impressive cameo as a substitute against Poland and his form for Southampton in the final weeks of the season, he would have expected to lead the line against Scotland. There is some speculation that Murphy was simply more impressive in training in recent weeks, but the decision to leave Long on the bench would suggest that like his predecessor Martin O’Neill harbours some doubts about the Tipperary man’s ability at this level.
The positive aspects of the starting eleven included the selection of Wes Hoolahan and the relatively settled look to the back four, which had also started the England game. The official UEFA team-sheet listed the Ireland players in a conventional 4-4-2 formation with Hoolahan on the left wing, but in truth, it was a narrower midfield formation that Ireland adopted with the Norwich man in a more central role.
The Scotland team also included a couple of surprise selections, with Craig Forsyth picked ahead of Andy Robertson at left-back and the emerging Matt Ritchie picked on the wing. This meant that there was no place in the side for the Watford speedster Ikechi Anya.
Irish pressing sets the tone
From the opening minute Ireland made their intentions clear by pressing the Scottish players when they were in possession. Indeed, it was notable that Murphy, Walters and Hoolahan covered a lot of ground in closing the space available to the Scottish back four. Despite this, the first attempt on goal was from Steven Naismith after five minutes but he dragged his shot well wide of Shay Given’s goal.
Ireland began to assert their authority with some assured passing and in the 17th minute created Ireland’s first chance of worth. The back four and midfield retained possession well before working the ball towards the final third of the field. Some intricate passing from Murphy, Hoolahan and Brady led to a shooting opportunity for Glenn Whelan but his shot fizzed just wide.
Roared on by a raucous home support there were a few robust challenges from the Irish midfielders. James McCarthy was fortunate to avoid a booking after an early kick on Scott Brown and was perhaps even more fortunate to escape with a just yellow card when he led with his arm in challenging Russell Martin. Glenn Whelan was also booked for a rash challenge as Ireland sought to impose themselves on the game.
At the mid-point of the first half it was clear that Ireland were growing in confidence and mixing up their game to good effect. Both Murphy and Walters were holding up the ball well and bringing players into the game. However, it was also evident that Ireland were lacking width at times with both Hendrick and Hoolahan playing quite narrow. This meant that the opportunities for switching the play were limited. At one stage Glenn Whelan played a long pass towards the left wing where he would ordinarily expect to find Aiden McGeady or James McClean. However, in their absence, the pass was about 20 yards ahead of Robbie Brady and went harmlessly out of play.
The absence of conventional wingers afforded opportunities for both Brady and Coleman to get forward and both of them were influential. Most of Ireland’s attacks in the first half came down the right wing where Coleman got behind Craig Forsyth on a handful of occasions. However Coleman’s final ball failed to live up to the impressive build-up play with the best achieved being a series of corner kicks.
Indeed, it was to be a corner that would lead to the opening goal after 38 minutes. The in-swinging ball from Brady was met by Murphy, whose powerful header was saved by David Marshall, but the ball landed at the feet of Jon Walters who couldn’t miss. Replays indicated that Walters was in an offside position but it was a lead that Ireland deserved. Six minutes later Brady whipped in another dangerous corner which bounced inside the six-yard box. However it evaded Murphy and the score remained at 1-0 as the teams left the field at half-time. At that stage Scotland looked rattled and the half-time whistle arrived at the right time from their perspective.
Change of approach from Scotland
The half-time break afforded Gordon Strachan the opportunity to make a tactical change and he replaced Matt Ritchie with Ikechi Anya. The Scots duly started the second half with an increased tempo, putting together a decent phase of possession which was to result in an equalising goal after just a minute of play. Naismith started a move that involved a one-two between Shaun Maloney and Anya. Maloney’s shot was well off target but deflected off John O’Shea’s back and into the corner of the net.
Ireland looked shell-shocked but almost had the perfect riposte in the 49th minute. Hoolahan threaded a pass through to Murphy who found himself on his stronger left foot. However, his shot was straight at Marshall and the follow-up by Walters was turned behind for another corner. Unfortunately this was as close as Ireland came to regaining the lead. The threat that Coleman posed in the first half had evaporated as he was forced to keep a close eye on Anya.
Hoolahan continued to impress in midfield with his intricate passing and his ability to turn in tight areas. He looked the most likely player to create a chance and as such it was surprising to see him replaced by Robbie Keane after 73 minutes. Keane looked sharp when he came on but was forced to drop deep to get on the ball as the quality of Ireland’s build-up play declined.
Imagination and urgency absent
With the withdrawal of Hoolahan Ireland lost all imagination in the final third of the field and whilst the arrival of James McClean and Shane Long added some pace there was a disjointed look to the team in the final 20 minutes. To audible groans from the home crowd the team resorted to long, hopeful balls towards Long and Walters. This approach was not helped by the fact that Shay Given’s kicking was not of the requisite standard and Scotland retained a relatively high line in defence, thereby reducing the danger posed by any knock-downs. Ireland’s strategy never really looked like yielding a winner and both Russell Martin and Charlie Mulgrew looked comfortable in dealing with it.
The 1-1 draw looked likely well before the final whistle and Ireland’s first half efforts in pressing the opposition may have impacted on their ability to inject some much-needed urgency into the final minutes. Despite the disappointing nature of the result Ireland’s overall performance was perhaps the best we’ve seen under Martin O’Neill. That in itself is an indication of how the standards and expectations in Irish football have dropped in recent years.
Lack of creativity
Last week on this website, we focused on Ireland’s abysmal record in competitive home games against meaningful opposition since beating Holland in 2001. It has been evident for some time that this Irish team neither has the belief nor the creative nous to grind out victories. There can be no faulting the effort of the Irish players but it was telling that the team relied heavily on crosses from the full-backs and set-pieces to build attacking momentum. Even though they had a total of 13 corners the deliveries lacked variety or quick thinking.
Both full-backs are undoubtedly good footballers and the emergence of Brady at left-back is one of the positive points to be taken from the last couple of games. Wes Hoolahan once again demonstrated his class and is one of the few Irish players with the vision and guile to create opportunities. However, Ireland’s midfield problems are more apparent in the combination of Whelan and McCarthy, which is conservative and lacking in personality. McCarthy was particularly disappointing and his contributions in possession of the ball were ineffectual. It is becoming increasingly clear that McCarthy isn’t comfortable playing in a more advanced midfield role and would prefer the holding role that he has at Everton. In this regard it is worth noting that McCarthy’s two best performances in an Ireland jersey were on occasions when Glenn Whelan was unavailable (versus the Faroe Islands in October 2012 and versus Sweden in March 2013). In the longer term it may benefit Ireland to drop Whelan and move McCarthy into the holding role where his athleticism, ability to break up the play and simple passing allow him to take a more prominent role.
Qualification hopes hang by a thread
Following Saturday’s result Ireland’s hopes of qualification hang by a thread. Scotland have a two point advantage but the fact that they lead on the head-to-head results means that it is effectively a three-point lead. Notwithstanding this the double header of fixtures on the first weekend in September could alter the complexion of this group. Ireland will expect to pick up six points against Gibraltar and Georgia, but Scotland face the prospect of playing Georgia in Tbilisi before meeting Germany 72 hours later in Hampden Park. Scotland have struggled in Georgia in the past and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they may only pick up one point from this combination of fixtures. This would leave it all to play for as the teams enter the final round of qualifiers.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given, Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Marc Wilson, Robbie Brady, Glenn Whelan (James McClean, 68 mins), James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan (Robbie Keane, 73 mins), Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy (Shane Long, 80 mins).
Scotland: David Marshall, Alan Hutton, Charlie Mulgrew, Russell Martin, Craig Forsyth, Scott Brown (James McArthur, 85 mins), Darren Fletcher, Shaun Maloney, Matt Ritchie (Ikechi Anya, half-time), Steven Naismith (Christian Berra, 90+ mins), Steven Fletcher.
- Author: Alan Hannify