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2018 Is A Lost Year And Nothing Has Been Achieved. 2019 Won't Be Any Better

2018 Is A Lost Year And Nothing Has Been Achieved. 2019 Won't Be Any Better
By Gavin Cooney Updated

Thus ends 2018 for the Republic of Ireland, the year in which even the nihilists learned to despair.

If the aim of international football is to leave opponents wishing never to face you again, then it can be counted as a success. Christian Eriksen was so exasperated by full-time in Aarhus last night that he told Sky that Ireland were "too scared to go forward".

This stripping from the sport all of its possibilities and delights and attendant denuding of the opponents' sense of self-worth is a long-term strategy, but it's just about as much damage as Ireland and Martin O'Neill have caused all year.

If you were to look at the year in any other way, it has been wretched.

In nine games, Ireland won a single game, drew four, and lost four. They scored four goals, and conceded ten. In nine games, they had a total of 19 shots on target. If you take out the end-of-season friendly with a largely hopeless, Pulisic-less USA, that drops to 14 in eight games. Or, if you look at the four competitive Nations League games: no wins; one goal; nine shots on target.

Of the four goals we have scored, the scorers of the first two - Graham Burke and Alan Judge - weren't in the most recent squad. Of the remaining two, only Aiden O'Brien got onto the pitch in the last week and then spent 65 minutes learning what loneliness truly means.

In only one game all year (four of which were played at home) did Ireland enjoy the majority of possession, and that was at home to said hopeless, Pulisic-less USA. The best player in that game has since decided he isn't so sure he wants to play for Ireland anymore.

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Martin O'Neill said that Ireland did not pick easy friendly games to improve their stats but France aside, they did not face any truly great teams this year, and were even fortunate with the competitive games they were saddled with. Christian Eriksen only had 45 minutes against Ireland with which to blacken his soul this year; Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey didn't play in Dublin at all.

In his final post-game same interview of 2018, O'Neill used the clean sheet in Denmark as a starting point for the upcoming qualifiers, but this merely accentuates the total lack of progress made in 2018.

Ireland's issue has not been keeping clean sheets.

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They conceded five goals against Denmark not because they didn't know how to defend, but that they didn't know how to attack. Denmark's critical second goal came from Stephen Ward dallying on the ball on the left touchline, with no passing options around him in the absence of any kind of attacking pattern.

O'Neill then panicked, whipped off his two central midfielders and the night ended with the Denmark manager literally thanking O'Neill for making that decision.

It remains the problem.

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John Giles' old adage that everyone is an attacker when the team has the ball and a defender when they don't does not apply to this Irish team. When this team doesn't have the ball, they all defend; when they have it they merely prepare to defend again.

2018's product has largely been the 3-5-2, which in reality is a 5-4---(*takes a breath to wait to see how isolated the striker is)----1. It does not feature any kind of attacking plan: it's just the flooding of bodies in front of Darren Randolph to avoid another humiliation.

As soon as Ireland fall behind and have to chase a game, it is abandoned. The Wales game at home ended with a kind of 4-3-3 featuring James McClean at left-back, Cyrus Christie in midfield and Shane Long playing wide.

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They sit deep but can't counter-attack as they don't have any passing patterns to weave. Instead, the hoof it long and listen to Roy Keane roar "Get Up", only to have to retreat once more when the ball comes back.

Pep Guardiola understands how exhausting this is, and it's the reason his side play short passes: when they lose the ball it can be won back quickly without having to sprint long distances.

Ireland have to change their attitude. If they want to sit deep, they need to realise they have to makre short, sharp passes in order to get the team up the field and give themselves a break. At the moment, they are like hamsters in a wheel: running hard and going nowhere.

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To do this O'Neill needs somebody in midfield to get on the ball and weave a passing triangle of some kind, to "try and get on the half-turn, to get ourselves going forward, but play the right ball" in the manager's own words.

Troublingly, the only midfielders to have done this in 2018 have been Rice and Glenn Whelan. The rest of his midfielders are either not midfielders (Cyrus Christie) or bereft of confidence. In Aarhus, rather than move and take a simple pass off Richard Keogh, Jeff Hendrick pointed up the field to Aiden O'Brien. The ball duly went... and returned soon after.

Perhaps James McCarthy can rescue Ireland in that position, but Hendrick has enough quality to take simple passes like the one he shirked in Denmark. He just needs the confidence in himself and his teammates to do it.

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This may be the biggest indictment of O'Neill, who styles himself as a master motivator. His players look enervated and confused; terrified to play short, quick passes or get forward lest they be shredded once again on the counter-attack. There is no system or pattern, and as a result there is no trust between the players to pass the ball to one another. Hence it goes long, and nothing happens.

O'Neill can at least encourage short passing by changing the mindset in other parts of the game. Why not allow Darren Randolph to take a quick kick-out for once, or a throw-in to be taken quickly rather than persist with this eternal wait for a full-back to trot over and then chuck it hopelessly up the line.

The team has become a Rory's Stories sketch: they are doing something Irish people are meant to vaguely relate to that ultimately goes nowhere and then randomly ends.

2018 is a lost year: nothing has been achieved. There is no sign that 2019 will be any better.

See Also: Danish Stewards Confiscate Anti-John Delaney Banners At Nations League Game

 

 

 


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