Ireland target Durm in the first half
Germany’s Erik Durm didn’t exactly cover himself in glory for Poland’s second goal last Saturday evening. The Dortmund left back effectively put a cloak around the back of Robert Lewandowski, before kindly ushering him into the penalty area for his layoff to goalscorer Milik. Martin O’Neill undoubtedly would have seen this display of physical ineptitude from Durm – Ireland’s attempts to transition from defence to attack last night were solely based on exploiting it.
Rather than attempt to counter-attack in behind Germany’s advanced full backs with pacey widemen a la Scotland, O’Neill elected to field Jonathan Walters on the right wing, instructing his players to go long to the Stoke player when necessary. Unsurprisingly, given the effectiveness of Germany’s midfield press, this was quite often – Walters contested 13 aerial duels in the first half, winning 9 of them, a success rate of 69%. His marker, the aforementioned Durm contested seven of those duels with him, winning only one.
So the bosses plan was broadly a success then? Not really. Winning the second ball is just as vital to a long ball strategy as winning the first. Ireland had Aiden McGeady in an unfamiliar number ten role and the increasingly static Robbie Keane upfront. In addition, due to the depth of Ireland’s defensive unit, the centre midfielders Whelan and Quinn were not pushing up to win the second ball either. As a result, Ireland’s counter-attacking strategy was a failure – attempting a grand total of zero shots in the first half.
Loew forced into half-time change of shape
Germany began the game in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Kroos and Ginter holding, Draxler and Bellarabi in narrow wide roles and Mario Gotze playing off Thomas Muller.
Toni Kroos dominated the game in the first half, completing 64 out of 68 attempted passes, almost twice that of any other German player. Most of those passes were benign in nature however, as Ireland did well to maintain their defensive shape. Glenn Whelan was Kroos’ opposite number in the first period and he made sure to get close to him when he entered his zone, allowing him to go free in deeper areas. This proved effective – Kroos completed one through ball, inside David Meyler, in the 15th minute that came to nothing. Indeed, the hosts were remarkably uncreative in general in the first period, managing only two shots on target – a weak header from a set-piece from Rudiger, and Draxler’s effort from an acute angle right on the whistle.
Loew changed it at half-time, removing Kroos’ more defensive partner Ginter, and introducing Arsenal’s Lukas Podolski to play on the left. Julian Draxler, therefore, moved into the centre alongside Mario Gotze in a 4-1-4-1, with Kroos now playing as the sole holder.
The idea here was to break Ireland’s lines both by fielding two dribblers in midfield and by utilising the more direct Podolski on the wing, making the opposite runs to false nine Thomas Muller. It was Toni Kroos, however, who would benefit most from the switch.
Kroos influence increases
Kroos’ direct opponent on the field of play was now Ireland’s novice number ten Aiden McGeady. McGeady, unsurprisingly, performed pretty poorly in the defensive phase in the first half, failing to cut off passing angles or make successful challenges – the phrase headless chicken comes to mind.
Kroos quickly began to turn the screw from his new deeper position – in the 53rd minute he was free to loft a perfect cross-field field ball to Bellarabi on the right of the area. Ireland’s left back Ward had taken up a very narrow position, leaving winger McClean to pick up the German. Bellarabi beat the Derry man, before shooting straight at Forde, continuing Saturday’s profligacy in front of goal.
Two minutes later, Kroos was left free again – this time just outside the area, where he fired in a stinging drive that Forde had to beat over the bar. Two big harbingers of what was to come in the space of 120 seconds.
O’Neill switches to 4-5-1
It was then, with a sigh of a relief, that this observer greeted Darren Gibson’s introduction, in place of Robbie Keane, in the 63rd minute. I assumed, as did Ronnie Whelan on commentary for RTÉ, that Gibson would slot into the midfield in place of either Hendrick or Quinn, allowing one of them to push up to the number ten position and effectively man-mark Kroos.
Unfortunately this didn’t happen. Gibson slotted in between Hendrick and Quinn in a 4-5-1. While Hendrick moved forward sporadically to press Kroos, the German playmaker now effectively had no designated direct opponent on the field of play. No surprise then when he was again left free to fire in off Forde’s post in the 71st minute. Stephen Quinn was substituted for not closing him down quickly enough, but if Ireland still had a number ten that may not have been necessary.
O’Neill switches back to 4-4-1-1
Wes Hoolahan was the man that replaced Quinn, and Ireland were again configured in a 4-4-1-1 shape, with the Norwich man playing just off Jon Walters. Walters was far less aerially effective upfront than he was on the right – he only won two out of nine aerial duels in the second half, with Mats Hummels getting the better of him more often than not. He was also caught offside three times in fairly short order.
Hoolahan didn’t fare much better. He was dispossessed twice in only fifteen minutes on the field of play and wasted an excellent Irish counter-attacking opportunity late on due to dwelling too long in possession.
He did however, have one of Ireland’s two big chances – getting on the end of James McClean’s left wing cross in the 85th minute, only to be foiled by an excellent Erik Durm block.
Hoolahan was also involved for the goal – delivering an overhit left-footed cross from the right that Jeff Hendrick did brilliantly to rescue for O’Shea to prod home. Not one to remember for Wes.
Given that Ireland scored from the their only shot on target, it would be easy to conclude that this result was unmerited. On the contrary – Germany only created one clear-cut chance in the game, coming after Toni Kroos’ goal. This arrived in the 80th minute, when Forde did well to foil Gotze after Muller’s through ball. Ireland, by way of comparison, created two clear cut chances, including O’Shea’s winner and Hoolahan’s blocked shot.
Apart from the freedom afforded to Kroos in the second half, Ireland’s defensive structure was extremely effective. Marc Wilson did well to come out and close Muller, enjoying a 100% tackle success rate. Muller lost possession four times throughout the game, and the aforementioned through ball was the only occasion on which Wilson failed to get out to him in time. Germany simply didn’t have enough players making the reverse movement to Muller, in behind the Irish defence, anyway – even after the half-time introduction of the more direct Lukas Podolski.
The performance of James McClean, a player who has made only two competitive starts in the English Championship this season, typified Ireland’s approach. Fielded on the left-wing, it was his defensive contribution that was most impressive, finishing as the game’s top tackler with five. That is not to diminish his attacking contribution mind you – despite not being renowned for his technical ability, the Wigan man had the better of right back Rudiger in this regard too. He completed four dribbles and managed to attempt eight crosses, despite the paltry amount of time that Ireland spent in German territory. One of those crosses should have been converted by Hoolahan in the last five minutes. Another forced an excellent claim from Manuel Neuer, with Keane homing in just behind.
This wasn’t a perfect night for Ireland of course. Robbie Keane was as predictably ineffective in the lone striker role as he was against Georgia. The insistence on going long to Walters was ultimately a failure, as was the use of McGeady in a central role against much stronger opposition. The aforementioned failure to use the substitutions to shut down Kroos was also extremely disappointing, although O’Neill does deserve ample credit for acting quickly after the concession, something that his predecessor consistently failed to do.
Bring on the Scots.