Robbie Brady must start
The FIFA World Cup 2014 Technical Report highlights the growing importance of set-pieces in the international game. 11% of all goals scored at the tournament resulted from corner kicks, as compared with 2-3% in other elite competitions such as the UEFA Champions League. This statistic is by no means a one-off and continues a trend observed at prior major international tournaments. Both of Ireland’s goals on Wednesday night came from Robbie Brady corners. He also went close from a direct free-kick, very nearly repeating his feat from the previous clash with the mighty Omanis. While Brady may have struggled in open play, owing to a long injury-enforced absence, Ireland cannot afford to do without his dead-ball prowess in the upcoming qualifiers.
We’re never going to be a pressing side
Oman were set up to frustrate, configured with a flat back five behind a flat midfield four and a lone striker. They defended deep and looked to stay super-compact from back to front to deny Ireland and Wesley Hoolahan space between their lines. Despite facing a side with such negligible attacking ambition, the home side were still extremely reluctant to engage them high up the pitch. Ireland’s pressing began in their own half, through midfielders Gibson and Quinn, and the defence held a line close to the edge of their own penalty area.
Now, given that we don’t possess central defenders blessed with any pace, this makes sense. This is the way in which we will look to address the qualifiers against Poland, Scotland and Germany (and indeed the game away to Georgia too) – denying space in behind, keeping it tight in our own half, winning the ball, and breaking with pace. This is a style of football that Martin O’Neill is extremely comfortable with. However, given that we had to rely on two set-pieces to score against a poor Omani side, a variation of approach in games that we are expected to win comfortably may be more appropriate. We don’t want a repeat of Kazakhstan away, where two late goals saved us from a deserved defeat after 80 minutes of defensive, long ball football.
Spare man at the back is seen as important
When Oman introduced a second striker late on, moving to a 3-5-2, O’Neill reacted by moving Ward in to a left centre back role, with Brady and substitute McGeady fulfilling the left and right wing-back roles respectively. David Meyler, who had featured well in an attacking sense at right back, moved into midfield. This meant that Ireland themselves were now 3-4-1-2:
O’Neill, of course, used a 3-5-2 regularly throughout his run as Celtic manager. This late switch suggests that he’s willing to be a lot more flexible with the shape than previous managers have been, switching from two centre backs to three when necessary in order to preserve a spare man against the opposition frontline.
This was one of the key principles employed by Greek manager Otto Rehhagel throughout their successful Euro 2004 campaign, swapping between a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-1-2 depending on whether the opposition was fielding one or two strikers.