The Republic of Ireland’s 2-2 draw with Slovakia on Tuesday evening highlighted both the benefits and drawbacks of Martin O’Neill’s preferred 4-3-1-2 formation.
After experimenting with a 4-4-2 against Switzerland four days earlier, the Irish manager reverted to the diamond formation that inspired Ireland’s dramatic turnaround in qualification fortunes last year. This tactical switch coincided with the return of the man whose talents that system was designed to exploit. Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan turned in another starring performance in the number ten role, varying his position intelligently to escape the attentions of his marker Jan Gregus.
Ireland’s extra man in the centre of midfield, against the Slovak 4-1-4-1, allowed them to see far more of the football than they had on Friday evening. This possession dominance was exacerbated by the tireless pressing of strikers Shane Long and James McClean, who forced the Slovaks into an even greater reliance on the long ball to Robert Vittek.
Ceaseless harrying from the Irish front two indirectly led to both of the hosts’ penalties. McClean and Long combined to dispossess the inexperienced midfield duo of Gregus and Erik Sabo to instigate the move that led to Ireland’s first. The second, again won by Long, saw the Southampton striker conjure up memories of victory over the Germans by deftly controlling a Darren Randolph long ball; Martin Skrtel reprised last week’s performance against Long at club level by getting too tight in the box. Randolph, incidentally, had received possession of the ball courtesy of another Slovak giveaway under pressure from McClean.
Eunan O’Kane’s role in the first penalty award, breaking the lines with a penetrative run from midfield to provide Long with the key pass, was a hallmark of Ireland’s first half play. Friday’s slender victory over the Swiss saw very few Irish attempts to run in behind the opposition defence, with O’Neill looking to keep it tight in a counter-attacking 4-4-2.
The primary benefit of utilising a 4-3-1-2 is the number of players that naturally feature in the attacking phase; both Irish full backs were perpetually committed very high up the field to provide the width, in the absence of wingers. Although his first touch failed him on several occasions in the first half, right back Cyrus Christie was a particularly consistent feature of Ireland’s attacking play with his overlapping runs. The full back’s performance on the ball improved in the second half, with his 66th minute cross very nearly putting the winner on a plate for Hoolahan to head home at the back post.
Unfortunately, this game also demonstrated the potential drawbacks of using such a narrow system. Both Slovak goals arose from Ireland’s left flank, with the visitors gleefully exploiting the formation’s obvious weakness in wide areas on the break. Committing one’s full backs high up the pitch is particularly risky when their colleagues at centre back are relatively immobile and likely to be exposed on the cover. Paul McShane fell victim to such a fate on the left touchline for the first goal, with Glenn Whelan also culpable for not staying with Sabo – the midfielder that stole past him.
The second goal was a far more conventional example of the type of concession that a 4-3-1-2 is prone to, with James McCarthy, playing on the left side of the diamond at the time, too slow to shuffle across and prevent Stephen Ward falling prey to the overload. McShane capped this collective defensive failing with his second error of the game, turning in the ball at Randolph’s near post. Safe to say he won’t be boarding the plane in June.
Ireland’s diamond continued to look vulnerable in wide areas on the break in the second half, with Miroslav Stoch going close to his second goal on the hour mark. Substitutions predictably saw the last half hour degenerate into a keep ball morass, from which it was difficult to draw anything meaningful. It is worth mentioning the tactical flexibility demonstrated by the Irish management in this period however, with the hosts switching to a 4-4-1-1 upon Anthony Pilkington’s introduction up top; and then to a 4-1-4-1 when Jonathan Hayes arrived on the field. Robbie Brady continued to personify this newfound tactical versatility – unseen in the Trapattoni era – by playing in the number ten role, on the left wing and at left back in his 45 minutes on the field.
Despite the obvious defensive frailties on display, there was enough evidence here to support the continued use of the 4-3-1-2 system in France. Save for a hairy opening quarter at home to Germany, when Ireland failed to get a handle on their full backs, this is a system that served us well on the way to securing one of the strongest defensive records in Euro 2016 qualifying; let’s face it, McShane is unlikely to feature in June! Moreover, it is the system that best exploits the talents of attacking full backs Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady. And, most importantly, it allows us to incorporate the technical ability, flair and guile of the incomparable Wes Hoolahan in the position from which he can be most deadly.