Limerick 1-1 Derry City: Shiels’ Bielsa impression a qualified success at best

Four quick thoughts on Limerick’s last-gasp point at home to Derry City on Saturday evening.


1. Shiels’ 3-3-3-1 a qualified success in the defensive phase…

Apparently, the League of Ireland managerial corps numbers a bielsista in its ranks. In opting for the unusual 3-3-3-1 formation that then-Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa popularised at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Derry manager Kenny Shiels sprang a tactical surprise to which Limerick’s Willie John Boland utterly failed to react.

Bielsa’s avant-garde system, subsequently used sporadically by devotee Pep Guardiola at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, features a back-three, a midfield diamond, two extremely attack-minded wing-backs, and a lone striker.

As is customary in this stratagem, Shiels’ chosen wing-backs, Ronan Curtis and Joshua Daniels, effectively played as wingers — pushed ultra-high to pin back Limerick full-backs Shaun Kelly and Tommy Robson.

In theory, this risked affording the hosts a lot of space in the channels, if outside centre-backs Conor McDermott and Dean Jarvis were dragged laterally to confront Limerick’s wide-midfielders.

Yet, in practice, and rather fortunately for Shiels, McDermott mainly faced the prospect of following the ineffectual Dean Clarke on the attacker’s many fruitless infield sorties, while Jarvis regularly beat Chris Mulhall in the air to repel Robbie Williams’ frequent long diagonals.

Meanwhile, Aaron Barry — the opening goalscorer and arguably the game’s standout performer — comfortably bested Brazilian target-man Rodrigo Tosi in the pair’s ongoing one-on-one physical tussle, while the returning Scottish holding midfielder Nicky Low sometimes dropped into the back-line to provide some (mostly unnecessary) cover.

All of the above meant that Limerick’s chance-creation was scant. The Shannonsiders only really began to threaten in the game’s final quarter, after the substitutions had commenced, when the gap Barry and Jarvis allowed between them — designed for Low to drop into — began to pose a real problem for the Candystripes.

Replacements Chiedozie Ogbene and Chris Mulhall both ran into that gap late on to waste a pair of potentially gilt-edged chances with some maddening hesitation. But, eventually, the former popped up in a similar position, in injury-time, to scuff home Williams’ deflected effort.

2. …but toothless in attack

Arguably the most memorable feature of Bielsa’s 3-3-3-1 interpretation was the rapier-quick speed of his Chile side’s transitions.

Flitting from the defensive phase to carrying up to seven players into the opposition final-third in seconds, Chile’s counter-attacking stood as one of the more eye-catching features of that dull, vuvuzuela-drenched, South African summer.

It is in this sense that Shiels’ attempt to ape Bielsa’s success fell extremely, and embarrassingly, flat. Far from transitioning from defence to attack with great speed, Derry’s chosen eleven instead moved — and thought — with the velocity of an oil tanker.

Hamstrung by a lack of support for the wing-backs, the 3-3-3-1’s attacking success or failure hinges on the ability of the central midfielders to move rapidly from box-to-box. Here, only Aaron McEneff made sporadic third-man runs, as evidenced by the former Spurs youth collecting Curtis’ 40th-minute through-ball and testing Brendan Clarke.

Harry Monaghan, stationed on the diamond’s right, was extremely restrained in his positioning, as was number 10 Barry McNamee — a regular thorn in Limerick’s side — who spent more time running backwards to maintain Derry’s death-grip on possession, than he did running in advance of striker Nathan Boyle.

And therein lay the second source of the Candystripes’ attacking dysfunction — their manager’s possession obsession. Stung by the manner in which Shane Keegan’s Galway United pressed Monaghan and McEneff into submission throughout the second-half of Monday’s deadlock, Shiels clearly instructed his side to prioritise ball retention more than ever here.

Few risks — undue or otherwise — were taken in possession, with forward passing at a minimum, and dull-as-dishwater possession recycling taking precedence. Little surprise then, that Barry’s 79th-minute opener did not arrive from open-play.

3. Width and penetrative running both remain absent for Limerick…

If Derry’s new tactical approach at least looked functional in its own half, this is only because Boland’s failure to react — in what looks like his final game in interim charge of Limerick — made it look that way.

With Derry’s outside centre-backs tasked with minding Limerick’s wide players, the potential for a touchline-hugging, out-and-out winger to stretch the trio further was glaringly obvious.

Instead, both genuine outside-rights, Ian Turner and Stephen Kenny, continue to be overlooked in favour of players with attributes that are more suited to alternative deployments.

Not only does the continued sidelining of this Cork duo deprive Tosi of the wide service he requires, it also made a perilously-stretched Derry back-three’s task a lot easier.

Still, even if a constant touchline presence was in place to enlarge those channels, Limerick would not have had the players capable of making penetrative runs into them.

The insistence on continuing to field Lynch, who favours lateral movements, behind the pedestrian Tosi, means that it’s extraordinarily rare to witness a blue shirt run beyond Limerick’s top goalscorer.

Perhaps trialing Clarke, who looks completely ill-suited to either an outside-right or an inside-left role, in the number 10 position might pay dividends. Meanwhile, either Turner or Kenny must be given an opportunity to add balance to Limerick’s attack — and add more goals to Tosi’s current six-strong tally.

4. …as does a coherent plan for the defence of set-pieces

Rather than repeat myself on this front, why not check out last weekend’s treatise on Limerick’s visit to the Showgrounds? Suffice to say that Barry’s headed finish from McEneff’s 79th-minute corner-kick saw Limerick’s failure to mark man-for-man at set-pieces cost them a goal for the third game in succession.

Whatever the identity of their new manager, this perpetual Achilles heel is one of the first deficiencies that long-suffering Limerick fans will want to see addressed.

You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112; and don’t forget to join him, and former LOI manager Noel O’Connor, next Friday evening for live coverage of the Shannonsiders’ clash with Stephen Kenny’s resurgent champions Dundalk — 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.


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