“It is extremely important that every single player follows our plan. The more organised the team is, the bigger the chances to win. That is why football is the only team sport where a third division team can beat a first division team.”
The words of Lars Lagerback, manager of the Icelandic national team, extolling the virtues of meticulous planning earlier this year. On June 27, in Nice on the south coast of France, the Swede’s hard work paid a rich dividend in the form of victory over an old mentor in Roy Hodgson and a place in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
The ultra-compact 4-4-2 system favoured by Lagerback was first introduced to Sweden by Hodgson and his colleague Bobby Houghton in the 1970s. Previous heavily wedded to the Germanic 3-5-2, the English duo’s success convinced the Scandinavian country to move away from man-marking and loose elevens with oceans of space between the sweeper and the most advanced striker. Zonal marking, pressing, counter-attacking and the offside trap became de rigeur, and were all integral to the Swedes’ dramatic exit from the international football doldrums in the 1990s.
Although the recently deposed England manager moved away from that creed over the years, Lagerback very much kept the faith, using it to lead Sweden to five consecutive international tournaments before stepping down in 2009.
Since assuming the Iceland helm in October 2011, Lagerback’s methods have remained as steady as his side’s impressive progress. When he arrived, Iceland were still welded to the back five, let’s-not-get-beat, mentality of which their fellow Nordics had long divested themselves. Implementation of the usual prescription – a hard-working 4-4-2 – was immediate and the athletic islanders took to it like ducks to water.
The subsequent upward curve in Icelandic football fortunes of course reached its apex in Nice, when the tiny nation comprehensively defeated Hodgson’s England. In a moment rich with irony, student defeated master with his own plan, rigorously coached into his players for almost five years. Hodgson, meanwhile, fielded an incoherent side, with no intended style of play evident whatsoever. At no point did the man who transformed Swedish football appear to have any idea of his strongest team, or how best to exploit its talents.
Hodgson wasn’t the only manager on these isles to fit that description. The work of Martin O’Neill, who presided over the Republic of Ireland’s round of 16 exit – widely lauded by those with horrible memories of the evisceration in Poland four years ago – also compares unfavourably to that of Lagerback.
Ireland’s November 2014 defeat to Scotland, in which O’Neill disastrously fielded Jonathan Walters in a number 10 role, was unquestionably the low point in what had been a pretty haphazard tenure to that point for the former Celtic manager. A fortunate draw away to the Germans papered over the cracks, with O’Neill showing no signs of hitting upon a coherent strategy to move forward with. His first competitive fixture, in which Aiden McGeady bailed out an incredibly negative 4-1-4-1 approach, against a Georgian 5-4-1, set the stage for what was to follow.
In June 2015, O’Neill eventually hit upon a potentially successful strategy, with Ireland looking completely transformed in the first half at home to Scotland in a 4-3-1-2 system. This shape, commonly referred to as a diamond, looked perfectly calibrated to safely exploit the attacking talents of the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady. Although the result was ultimately a disappointing draw, the tactical way forward appeared to be very much plotted.
Amazingly, despite persisting with the system for the famous home victory over Germany, O’Neill’s innate conservatism drove him to switch back to 4-1-4-1 for the final group game, a pathetic 2-1 reverse to Poland. After a switch to 4-4-1-1 produced a fortunate draw from the Zenica fog in the first leg of the playoff, O’Neill thankfully switched back to the diamond for the impressive 2-0 victory that secured qualification for France at the Bosnians’ expense.
One would imagine that O’Neill had learned his lesson, and would use the March and May pre-tournament friendlies to bed in the system that clearly best suited his charges. One would be wrong. An inert 4-4-2 was trialed in the first of four friendlies against the Swiss, while the 4-1-4-1 was disastrously reverted to for the defeat to Belarus in Turner’s Cross. Ireland improved in that game upon the switch to a diamond during the second half. They also performed well against the Slovaks and the Dutch in the same configuration.
The opening group game, against a Lagerback-less Sweden, encouragingly saw Ireland again line out in a 4-3-1-2. Despite the shape being paired with a needlessly defensive outlook, Ireland outperformed a poor Sweden side on the day, only failing to win thanks to a familiar mental breakdown in the aftermath of Hoolahan’s opener. James McCarthy’s positional incompetence, paired with Ciaran Clark’s lack of composure helped the Swedes to accrue their only point of the tournament.
An Achilles injury to Jonathan Walters, who looked nowhere near fit enough to perform one of the two striker roles in that Sweden game, encouraged O’Neill to lose conviction again. Rather than slot James McClean into the vacant split striker role alongside Shane Long, a partnership that looked fruitful in its energetic harrying of defences in the pre-tournament friendlies, the Irish manager instead introduced left back Stephen Ward into the Bordeaux fray, to face Belgium in a 4-4-1-1.
Long was rendered completely isolated up top, with a tired-looking Hoolahan incapable of providing second-ball support in behind. Ireland were non-existent as an attacking force, and more catastrophic errors from McCarthy and Clark resulted in a crushing 3-0 defeat.
The desperate flitting from system to system did not abate. Ireland lined out in a third different shape for their third group game against already anointed table-toppers Italy. O’Neill’s 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3, with Daryl Murphy up top and Long in a narrow right wing role, was lucky to face a much-changed and disinterested Italian side, to which it is culturally unacceptable to try too hard in a dead rubber. Brady’s dramatic late winner enthralled a nation, masking the fortune with which the fixtures had fallen and obscuring the scattershot approach of its football manager.
The same system and starting eleven miraculously appeared again against host nation France, but that too proved to be a fatal error in the second half, when holding midfielder McCarthy awarded Antoine Griezmann the freedom of Lyon when he moved into the number 10 role at half-time. The lack of a natural covering defender, in the shape of John O’Shea, also contributed significantly to Ireland’s capitulation and subsequent exit from the tournament.
After the horrors of four years ago, the Irish nation has been understandably quick to hail the romance of its national side’s achievements in France this summer. But the truth is rather more prosaic. Unlike Lagerback, who selected the same eleven for each of Iceland’s first four Euro 2016 games, O’Neill has never had a consistent plan in which every single player knows his role. His approach, from day one, has been the tactical and organisational equivalent of attention-deficit disorder, flitting from one shape to another without any reasonable rationale for the constant change.
Ireland, like Iceland, are a nation that must punch above its weight to achieve success beyond the sum of its parts. To achieve this end, as Lagerback says, organisation is key. The successful 4-3-1-2 system that O’Neill eventually hit upon therefore should have featured in every game and training session from June 2015 on, and every single football man and woman in this country should have been able to pick the starting lineup prior to Euro 2016.
In a form of football where contact with players is low and regular drilling impossible, consistency is absolutely paramount. Lagerback and Iceland have reaped the rich benefits of that consistency, while Ireland, and England, have already returned home. Whenever it is that O’Neill is deemed to have outstayed his welcome at the helm of the Republic of Ireland, it is the qualities of Lagerback that our illustrious football administrators should seek.