1. O’Neill selection cedes midfield to Scotland
Martin O’Neill began this qualifying campaign by selecting a 4-1-4-1 away to Georgia. Against a side with five defenders and a lone striker, this was rightly seen as an overly conservative approach. Ireland eventually avoided punishment for that decision courtesy of a fantastic late Aiden McGeady winner. McGeady then went on to find himself in an unfamiliar number ten role away to Germany as O’Neill switched to a 4-4-1-1. This too was a poor tactical decision from the Irish manager and again his side had to bail him out with a late goal.
O’Neill stuck with the 4-4-1-1 for this game, albeit with the selection of Jonathan Walters as the number ten – with McGeady returned to his more traditional right wing role. Walters hasn’t played regularly as a ten for some time – his last stint in that position came behind Peter Crouch for Tony Pulis’ Stoke, feeding off the big target man’s knock-downs. Gordon Strachan’s 4-4-1-1, on the other hand, featured a totally different type of number ten – Everton’s Steven Naismith. Naismith is a far more technically competent player than Walters and is primarily regarded for his excellent movement off the ball – a player highly adept at finding space to receive a pass.
As such, despite nominally having three men apiece in the middle of the park, Scotland dominated that area of the field. The top two passers in the game were Mulgrew and Naismith with 44 and 37 respectively. No Irish player featured in the top five. Walters, by way of interest, completed only 15 passes, less than half his opposite number’s total. The home side enjoyed 58% of the possession and completed a whopping 50% more passes than the boys in green.
This midfield dominance translated into territorial dominance and meant that Scotland could get their danger men into potentially productive positions more often than Ireland could. Hark at how many overlapping runs that left-back Andrew Robertson was able to make in comparison to Seamus Coleman on the same flank. Robertson pinned back Ireland’s primary creative outlet in Aiden McGeady and forced the Everton man to rely on his more questionable defensive qualities. McGeady was dribbled more than any other player on the pitch, completing only two out of seven attempted tackles.
O’Neill belatedly acknowledged his error after 67 minutes by introducing Stephen Quinn and Robbie Brady and going man-for-man in midfield with a 4-1-4-1. Jeff Hendrick, already on a yellow card and close to a red, was inexplicably chosen to drop on to the dangerous Naismith at this point. Unfortunately for the visitors, Scotland went one up from a set-piece within ten minutes. This instigated another change of shape from O’Neill – this time to a 4-4-2, with Keane introduced in place of Hendrick. The sluggish strike partnership of Walters and Keane allowed Scotland to hold a relatively high line to see out the remainder of the game.
2. Scotland win the physical battle
This was no exhibition of technically competent football. The game quickly degenerated into a blood-and-thunder, kick-and-rush affair – the first action of the game was a foul from Grant Hanley on Jonathan Walters under a long punt. Both sides were culpable in this regard. While Ireland’s pass success rate of 68% is pretty pathetic, Scotland’s, at 74%, is not much better. There were long balls aplenty from both sides, with Scotland booting 69 and Ireland wellying 65. Attacking play occurred almost exclusively on the flanks, where both sides looked to get to the byline and deliver crosses to their respective target men. Ireland attempted 29 crosses, to Scotland’s 28. Obviously, due to their territorial dominance, Scotland were generally crossing from more dangerous areas. Recall Shaun Maloney’s first half effort that Steven Fletcher failed to convert. Maloney was the game’s most dangerous attacking player ever before he curled in the winner – he created five chances, far more than any other player on show.
In a game of this nature, the side with the stronger physical characteristics has the advantage. So it proved for Scotland. They completed 19 tackles to Ireland’s 12 and won 31 aerial duels to Ireland’s 19. Grant Hanley must have been delighted with the way the game developed. He won nine aerial duels, more than any other player, and was allowed to play to his very limited strengths. Scott Brown was the game’s top tackler with five – the Scottish captain providing a nice ball-winning complement to Mulgrew’s intelligent use of possession.
3. The importance of set-pieces in international football is underlined once again
In my piece on the Oman friendly in September (here), I argued for the inclusion of Robbie Brady in the Irish side, solely on the basis of his ability with a dead ball. The most recent World Cup saw 11% of goals conceded resulting from corners, as compared to 2-3% on average in the elite club competitions. This discrepancy is presumably down to the relatively low levels of preparation that national sides are able to engage in. Brady created two goals from corners in that Oman game and went very close from a direct free-kick. Upon his introduction on Friday night, Ireland’s dead ball delivery, which had been dreadful up to that point, improved immensely. This is not an area of the game that Ireland can afford to neglect, particularly given their lack of creativity from open play. Scotland know this – Strachan credited his coach Stuart McCall for devising the wonderful short corner routine that produced the only goal of the game.