Football

Ireland And O'Neill Stuck In The Past And Shown Up By Giggs' Attacking Plan

Ireland And O'Neill Stuck In The Past And Shown Up By Giggs' Attacking Plan

by Gavin Cooney at the Cardiff City Stadium 

The louring sky that settled over the Cardiff City Stadium ahead of kick-off never spat the rain it threatened, but all that was baleful did not restrict itself to overhead.

And nor did Wales rely only on their star player on what proved to be a wretched night for Martin O'Neill and the Republic of Ireland.

What began as a return visit to Cardiff on the anniversary of the Richard Dunne Resistance in Moscow ended as an ignoble comparison to such doughty Irish nights.

It was 4-1 but the scoreline flattered Ireland: Wales released their foot from Irish throats once they had their fourth goal.

Wales, of course, have better players for Ireland, but this was an Irish performance in which there is not even the sense of anything tried and thwarted. Even set-pieces were taken short: with the cavalry forward, a free-kick went short to Cyrus Christie. One poor cross on his weaker foot and thirty seconds later, Darren Randolph was pulling off a save at the other end.

Whereas Ireland were muddled, rudderless and clueless, Wales did everything with the sharpened, enthusiastic zeal of the converted.

Advertisement

The reality was that Wales looked better coached than Ireland, if nowhere else than in attack.

Wales had a genuine attacking plan, whereas Ireland persisted in knocking the ball into channels for Jon Walters to chase. Walters - lacking match fitness as O'Neill admitted afterward- seemed to grey with every futile run.

At one stage in the second half, O'Neill came to the edge of his technical area to chide Callum Robinson for failing to run wide in pursuit of one of these hopeless clearances; that a Championship player's instinct was to drift centrally for a ball into feet feels instructive of the level Ireland's football is currently at.

Compare that to Wales.

They played something resembling a 4-1-4-1, with Gareth Bale up front but given a provisional licence to roam. The wide players behind him - David Brooks and Tom Lawrence - were sent to get some chalk on their boots, giving Joe Allen space to slide passes to bisect the Irish defence. It took all of five minutes for Wales to score using exactly that tactic.

Another of their ploys was to allow Bale to drift out to the right when Ireland attacked, so as to be able to capitalise on raking diagonal passes. This ended in the second goal. The third goal stemmed from Ethan Ampadu's insouciant swatting aside of Jon Walters, a man literally twice his age.

Advertisement

Ampadu was regal all night, but Ireland barely hassled him all night, as Hourihane and Hendrick frantically rushed to quench fires either side of them.

With Ampadu the only midfielder in front of the Welsh defence, Ireland allowed a potentially major flaw in the Welsh system go completely unexamined. That Shaun Williams' later scored by applying the lightest of pressure to Aaron Ramsey in the same position felt as much an indictment as a relief.

Williams and Enda Stevens impressed as substitutes, though even this was degraded by lament: why did talented players who played with Ireland at underage level, and stayed in the League of Ireland until 21 and 24 respectively, have to wait seven and eight years for a senior cap?

That's an indictment of a neglected youth development system, and its legacies are felt by the squad now at O'Neill's disposal.

That, along with tonight's list of injured players, gives O'Neill some legitimate excuses, but the reality is that tonight O'Neill found himself on the wrong side of an elision of past and present.

On one side was a team with a plan to win the game by attacking, and on the other side was Ireland, who resorted to lumping it long in the hope that it would work as well as last time, and that our amazing 'spirit' would once again conquer our limitations.

Advertisement

It didn't: this time Wales had Gareth Bale from the start and Joe Allen for the full game, while Ireland's much-trumpeted spirit was broken by the time David Brooks was allowed pick his spot from outside the penalty area to make it four.

O'Neill spoke on Monday of the spirit in the camp amid another series of stories about Roy Keane, and said the squad unity was necessary to make up for faults elsewhere. Judging by Thursday night in Cardiff, it's a denuded spirit: there was no reckless resolve on show here, as Brooks and Bale were given full sight of Darren Randolph's goal to give the Welsh fans something to sing about.

Sing they did: 'You're just a shit Northern Ireland' was evidently deemed too flattering by the time Ireland were 3-0 down, with the refrain then changed to 'You're fucking shit'.

O'Neill told the press after it that "we will learn from this", but Ireland's last competitive game ended in a 5-1 defeat that was marked by the same craggy defending, outnumbered midfield and non-existent attack.

The idea that this will breed change was then undermined by his returning to a famous topic.

I have been saying this for some time, but we have to be more positive, be stronger on the ball. Deal with it. When it comes into you, don't start panicking.

Try and get on the half-turn, to get ourselves going forward, but play the right ball, and deal with it.

To be able to deal with the ball under pressure is the sign of a player.

Advertisement

This has become such a staple of an O'Neill press conference that it has been stripped of all meaning, and it belongs with 'Strong and Stable' and other such morsels of empty rhetoric. If you want a vision for the future, imagine the Irish football manager wishing a boot would stamp on a football, get on the half-turn and "be more positive"...forever.

It all feels particularly hollow now.

Ever since Denmark equalised in Dublin ten months ago, the national team has given precious little to get excited about. That trend wasn't bucked in Cardiff.

In spite of some heady nights and fine achievements, Martin O'Neill's Ireland team has become like his ashen post-game rhetoric: denoting outrageous limits, superannuated ideas, the shortcomings of 'spirit' and long-since stilted youth development, all the while connotating....nothing.

See Also: Irish Player Ratings From A Horror Show Against Wales

See Also: First-Hand Experience Leave Mick McCarthy Pitying Martin O'Neill's Plight

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

You may also like