Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland turned in a passable impression of Premier League table-toppers Leicester City to triumph over Switzerland on Saturday evening.
Having cited the success of his former employer as cause for Irish hope on the eve of the game, it was not entirely surprising that O’Neill opted to select a 4-4-2 for the first time in his tenure. Kevin Doyle and Shane Long led the line, with Aiden McGeady and the debuting Alan Judge tucked in on the left and right of midfield respectively.
Like Claudio Ranieri’s side, O’Neill’s 4-4-2 featured two very narrow, compact banks of four, which proved extremely difficult for the Swiss to break down in their congested 4-3-2-1 configuration. Impotent in open play, the best opportunities for the visitors stemmed from corner kicks, with both Haris Seferovic and Michael Lang going close with headers in the first half.
This suggestion of vulnerability at set-pieces should represent cause for concern for the Irish management. 11% of goals at the 2014 World Cup were scored from corners, as compared to 2-3% in the UEFA Champions League, continuing a long-observed trend of the growing importance of set-pieces at international level.
Luckily, thanks to the technical ability of one Robbie Brady, Ireland have looked just as deadly from such situations throughout the qualifying campaign. Tonight was no different, with Ciaran Clark’s 2nd minute opener provided by a Brady corner and a towering Shane Duffy header.
This centre-back combination proved just as effective at the other end of the pitch. Duffy, the Championship’s most prolific aerial duellist this season, was positive in the tackle when the Swiss breached the midfield line. Clark, who shone alongside Richard Keogh in the double header against Bosnia, swept up behind admirably with some key interceptions; including his 56th minute intervention to prevent Breed Embolo connecting with a through pass in the box.
Yet, despite this Leicester-esque resoluteness in defence, Ireland did not come close to matching the Premier League leaders’ incision at attacking transitions. Key to the Foxes’ counter-attacking success have been the imperious ball-winning prowess of N’Golo Kante and the passing range of Daniel Drinkwater. Ireland’s centre-midfield partnership of David Meyler and Stephen Quinn represented poor substitutions for the Leicester pair. Neither player has started half of their respective sides’ Championship fixtures this season and it showed as they struggled to cope with an aggressive Swiss press. The off-colour Aiden McGeady and the out-of-position Alan Judge were also poor replacements for the hard running of Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton on the flanks.
As a result, there was little for Shane Long to feed off in the channels, as Ireland struggled to initiate attacks from deep in a coherent manner. Indeed, the hosts looked far more threatening on the rare occasions they were on the front foot and could get their full backs forward. The goal arrived from the second of two Brady corners, the first of which he won himself at the byline when Aiden McGeady played him in on the overlap. Later, Shane Long’s brush with the woodwork emanated from a left-footed Seamus Coleman cross in the final third.
This sporadic danger carried by Ireland’s attacking full-backs suggests that O’Neill might be hasty to dispense with the 4-3-1-2 diamond formation that has served him so well since June’s 1-1 draw at home to Scotland. The Irish manager may well be fretting about the damage the likes of Belgium and Italy can do in wide areas against a shuttling bank of three in midfield. But, he should recall that this was the shape in which Ireland inflicted an unlikely home victory over Germany, withstanding a hairy opening quarter to finally get to grips with the German full backs and secure a famous victory.
This is the tactical set-up that not only brings the best out of Coleman and Brady, but also allows the side to safely carry the creative talents of one Wes Hoolahan. While there are doubts about Hoolahan’s ability to play three tournament matches in a short run, O’Neill also has the option of Alan Judge as an understudy. Judge, who has had a direct hand in 23 of Brentford’s goals this season as a number ten, deserves a chance to show what he can do in his natural position.
Whatever the system that O’Neill plumps for may be, we can safely assume that Ireland will not enjoy the majority of possession in any of their competitive games this summer. And despite the hand wringing of Setanta’s Keith Andrews on commentary last night, this is okay. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from Leicester’s success this season, it’s that the folly of the primacy of possession must be dispensed with. O’Neill’s former employers, 18th in the average possession table, have no truck with the kind of benign ball retention that the Swiss treated us to last night and neither should we. If we play to our strengths in June, anything could happen.