The decision to select Stephen Quinn and go with a 4-1-4-1 came as a surprise before kick-off. O’Neill had been expected to continue with the 4-2-3-1 that he had used almost exclusively throughout the friendly internationals that he had presided over thus far. Instead Ireland’s starting eleven looked like this:
Very early in the game it became apparent that this was a mistake. While Georgia were attacking in a 3-4-2-1 formation with two attacking midfielders, they were defending in a flat and narrow 5-4-1, in much the same fashion as Oman had in midweek. This is really the most negative of defensive shapes and it showed that the home side were not exactly bursting with attacking ambition. In this circumstance, using an anchorman ,in the shape of Glen Whelan, was completely and utterly pointless. It meant that Ireland were a man lighter in the attacking phase. It also meant that lone striker Robbie Keane had no support in the number ten position, rendering him anonymous.
Keane as a lone striker
Of all the strikers on Ireland’s panel, Robbie Keane is without question the least suited to the role of lone striker in a 4-3-3. A number nine, with no support behind, must be able to provide a focal point for the attack – holding the ball up for onrushing midfielders and generally providing a target in the box. These attributes are even more important when up against a side sitting as deep as Georgia, as pace in behind and movement in the channels are rendered difficult to execute, and the emphasis is instead on crosses into the box.
Keane attempted only six passes in his 76 minutes on the field, completing five. He had only one shot on goal – finally getting on the end of a Walters cross, only to miss the target.
Left side of defence a worry
The combination of Wilson at left centre-back and Ward at left-back must be improved upon. Wilson has not impressed at centre back for Stoke this season, and his defensive performance today echoed his league form – getting too tight both for the Georgian striker’s chance midway through the first half and in the lead up to their goal. Ward’s contribution to that concession, inexplicably backing off five yards and allowing the strike, was typical of his contributions in an Irish jersey.
Wilson has impressed more for his club in midfield and particularly at left-back. His distribution is very good, his one redeeming feature today – finishing with a 100% pass completion rate.
Aiden McGeady is a much maligned player when he pulls on the green jersey. Yet it can’t be denied that he is one of the very few genuinely creative outlets that we possess. He won this game singlehandedly today with two excellent strikes on his weaker foot – the second representing one of the best Irish goals in recent memory. Remember – this is also the player that topped the assists table for Ireland during the successful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. He can be frustrating but Irish fans need to learn to give him more latitude.
Failure to change
Arguably the most worrying thing about the way in which the game developed from an Irish perspective was the unwillingness from the sideline to make a change. The pointlessness of fielding an anchorman and the need for a number ten was obvious to all observers – yet when the subs came they were straight swaps – Brady went into midfield for Quinn and Long continued in the lone striker role that Keane toiled in.
There is a fear that the turgid, negative, defensive football of O’Neill’s Sunderland tenure will be the order of the day here, rather than the incisive, counter-attacking verve of his Villa side. Let’s hope that isn’t the case – but his stubbornness in the face of glaring on-field evidence this evening suggests otherwise.