Four quick thoughts from the Showgrounds, where Sligo Rovers avenged their opening day caning at the hands of Limerick FC.
1. Lyttle brings balance to the Bit O’Red
Presiding over only his second game in charge of Sligo, Ger Lyttle’s compact 4-4-2 system has already rendered the Bit O’Red unrecognisable from the Dave Robertson side that capitulated at the Markets Field on the opening day.
Replete with fish-out-of-water, Robertson’s narrow 4-2-3-1 left those implementing it looking toothless in attack, and super-vulnerable in wide areas.
Asking both wide players, Daniel Kearns and Kieran Sadlier, to play as inside-forwards, deprived Sligo’s predictable attack of a wide outlet, while veteran midfielder John Russell looked completely wasted in an unfamiliar number 10 role.
Meanwhile, Gary Boylan, fielded that evening as a left-sided centre-back, struggled to assist left-back Regan Donelon, who was completely overwhelmed by Limerick’s touchline-hugging outside-right Ian Turner.
What a difference two months makes. On Saturday evening, at the Showgrounds, it was Willie John Boland’s side whose approach looked less than optimal, with Lyttle’s charges finally arranged in an order befitting their respective abilities.
Both Boylan and Russell shone in their natural holding midfield roles, with both displaying accurate distribution and a relentless determination to press. Liam Martin, fielded on the right of midfield, did drift inside to facilitate Tobi Adebayo-Rowling’s overlapping runs.
But Sadlier, still stationed on the left, interpreted his role very differently, staying wide until he received possession of the football — and running at a ragged Shaun Kelly just as often as he cut inside to torment Tony Whitehead.
Elsewhere, the evergreen Raffaele Cretaro, who struggled as a number nine asked to lead Robertson’s press in February, appeared far happier drifting around beside — and behind — on-loan target man Jonah Ayunga.
The Tubbercurry native scored the first goal, assisted the second, and instigated the third with a marvelous reverse-pass to tee up Martin’s resultant byline cross.
2. Midfield pressing confounds Limerick again
For the second successive week, Limerick were completely unable to cope with the opposition of the day’s rabid middle-third commitment to hunting down the football.
Six days after Shamrock Rovers so comprehensively smothered the Shannonsiders in midfield, Lyttle’s ultra-compact eleven repeated the feat.
With strikers Ayunga and Cretaro both dropping back to cut-out passing angles, and Russell and Boylan running tirelessly, Shane Duggan and Paul O’Conor found time on the ball difficult to come by.
O’Conor, fortunate to start the game after aggravating a calf injury in Tallaght Stadium, was particularly anonymous. Duggan, meanwhile, resorted to a string of fruitless, overhit, balls over the top of Adebayo-Rowling’s head that Chiedozie Ogbene had no chance of doing anything with — particularly with the impressive Kyle Callan-McFadden so alive on the cover.
With few options available, centre-back Robbie Williams was often forced into employing his long-diagonal party trick; but with Dean Clarke persisted with on the right — and Turner joining Stephen Kenny on the bench — Limerick did not have an out-and-out winger to profit from this emergency strategy.
With neither Rodrigo Tosi or Lee J. Lynch willing or able to offer penetrative, vertical, runs, an outside-right to service the former with crosses is a must. That service was a key plank of the tactical plan that spurred Limerick on to that 5-1 triumph over Sligo in February, and it desperately needs to be revisited.
3. Defending set-pieces remains an Achilles heel for Limerick
Since Ronan Curtis’ early-season strike for Derry City in the March game that was ultimately abandoned, murmurs have spread about the rather haphazard manner in which Limerick address opposition set-pieces.
The 2-0 victory at St Patrick’s Athletic — Boland’s first game in charge — masked the string of chances that the Saints created from corner-kicks; especially the late first-half chance that an unmarked Lee Desmond spurned at the back-post.
In Tallaght last week, it was the failure to pick up Roberto Lopes at the near-post from corner-kicks that spurred the Lims’ downfall, with the centre-back scoring once in the first-half, and very nearly repeating the feat early in the second stanza.
Here, once again, it was the failure to pick up the free man at the back-post that hurt the visitors. Cretaro’s second-minute opener was wholly attributable to Callan-McFadden’s freedom to head on Russell’s back-post free-kick.
Either Callan-McFadden or central defensive partner Mick Leahy remained free at the back-post throughout the game’s remainder, demonstrating a criminally poor ability to respond to in-game problems from the visiting sideline.
4. Whitehead inexperience exposed by Sligo front-two
That his side had only conceded 10 goals throughout Tony Whitehead’s previous 11 consecutive SSE Airtricity Premier Division appearances, is as much down to the 21-year-old’s performances as it is to any of his three fellow, ever-present, defensive colleagues.
But a then-dysfunctional Galway United aside, Limerick’s rearguard had yet to face a two-striker system from the start in a league game this season.
Dominated by the imposing physical presence of Ayunga, the Charleville native’s covering positions were also extremely poor; most notably when Cretaro outfoxed Williams for the second goal, flicking off to his completely unmarked strike partner.
As poor as Kelly was with Sadlier — the game’s standout performer — running at him, Whitehead did not fare much better, showing the former Peterborough midfielder inside for a clear shot on goal time and time again.
As impressive as Whitehead has been throughout his first significant run of games in top-flight football, it is clear that the challenge of facing two out-and-out strikers is not a familiar one for the young defender — who is probably not helped by the fact that every youth coach under the sun employs some variation of 4-3-3 these days.
Hopefully this will be a traumatic experience that the promising centre-back will learn from.
Don’t forget to join Alan O’Brien (@alanob2112) and former LOI manager Noel O’Connor next Saturday evening for live coverage of the Shannonsiders’ clash with Kenny Shiels’ Derry City — bookmark Limerick Soccer Live now so you don’t miss out! And, if you do miss out, you can listen back to old shows here.