Three quick thoughts from the champions’ comfortable Markets Field victory over ten-man Limerick.
1. Centre-back O’Conor an error in judgement from Boland
Enforced as it was by Shaun Kelly’s suspension, breaking up his back-four’s unbroken 13-game run was a must for Willie John Boland. Making two changes, however, rather than the necessary one, proved a costly misstep from Limerick’s outgoing interim-manager.
Rewarding 18-year-old defender Barry Cotter for his star EA Sports Cup turn against Cork City took many by surprise here, especially when the teenage sensation started in Kelly’s right-back position.
Widely expected to assume that role, as he often has in the past, midfielder Paul O’Conor was instead fielded at centre-back — in place of the curiously-benched Tony Whitehead.
This translated to an all-new right-side of Limerick’s defence, manned by two out-of-position players. Pity O’Conor, therefore, who had to cope with his own fish-out-of-water floundering, and cover for a debuting youth that’s more accustomed to a central role.
When referee Paul McLaughlin played advantage for an 18th-minute foul in the Dundalk half, it was little surprise to see Limerick’s needlessly makeshift defence get caught by the resultant lofted through-pass to Jamie McGrath.
That collective error forced Limerick goalkeeper Brendan Clarke to leave his goal, execute an excellent sweeping header, and illegally stop Michael Duffy’s resultant goalbound effort. One imagines that the former St Pat’s stopper would not have been forced to earn a red card had one of his defenders ran to the goal-line in his wake.
O’Conor continued to struggle at centre-back for the game’s remainder, diving in on Patrick McEleney to concede David McMillan’s penalty-kick opener, and botching a series of second-half clearance attempts — one of which teed up Chris Shields for a big chance.
2. Ten-man Limerick handle their numerical disadvantage poorly
O’Conor’s crazy penalty-kick concession aside, ten-man Limerick were collectively very poor in slowing Dundalk’s inexorable march to victory.
Sacrificing number 10 Lee J. Lynch, and operating with a 4-4-1 system in his wake, necessitated a big effort from striker Chris Mulhall in the defensive phase. And, to be fair to the Birmingham native — in for the benched Rodrigo Tosi — he did expend a lot of energy in pursuit of the Lilywhites’ ultra-comfortable defence.
But, Mulhall’s efforts could have been targeted better, to say the least. With his side’s midfield light on numbers in Lynch’s absence, and lacking a natural number six as usual, Mulhall should have been instructed to drop goal-side of Shields and Robbie Benson — to prevent penetrative passes in behind the hosts’ rearguard.
Dundalk’s simple, and rapier-quick, second goal highlighted this failing, when the excellent Duffy collected an unpressed through-pass at the byline and crossed for McMillan to beat Robbie Williams at the near-post.
Limerick’s bizarre second-half 5-2-2 shape, which may or may not have been the brainchild of new manager Neil McDonald, rendered the trailing Shannonsiders even less secure.
Now, central midfielders Shane Duggan and Bastien Hery were forced to cover even more ground either side of them, with no wingers in-situ to track Dundalk’s always-free full-backs.
Dean Clarke, who started at right-wing, but spent the first 15 minutes of the second-half at right-back in this shape, was particularly overwhelmed — as McGrath and Dane Massey continually overloaded the natural attacker.
McMillan hit the crossbar with a header from a 51st-minute Massey cross, and Duffy should have converted a gilt-edged chance after a McGrath dribble and key-pass.
Eventually, Clarke was moved out of the line-of-fire…but only to left-back! Sean Gannon was his man after Niclas Vemmelund’s injury-enforced departure, and the former Pat’s full-back underlined the folly of Limerick’s tactical approach in injury-time by finishing a wonderful Dundalk team-move.
McDonald’s desire to trouble Dundalk’s oft-exposed centre-backs with two strikers was understandable, but there are better — and more conventional — ways to do it when hamstrung with a one-man disadvantage.
The 4-3-2 formation, for example, achieves that dual-attacking threat end, while also featuring an additional central midfield body to aid in the task of shuttling across to help one’s full-backs.
3. Dundalk take the optimal approach to playing against ten
The old cliche counsels one to “use the width of the pitch” when faced with a necessarily narrow, compact, ten-man unit. And, Stephen Kenny’s side certainly followed that advice here, with both first-half goals stemming from tormenting Limerick down the flanks.
Determined to move the ball briskly from side-to-side, to tire out the hosts’ undermanned troops and create gaps, Dundalk toyed with Limerick — before showing no mercy when those gaps inevitably appeared.
Never was that strategem more obvious than for Gannon’s aforementioned injury-time cake-icing, when a bewildering three-figure string of unbroken passes finished with a McEleney through-ball and a nutmeg of Freddy Hall from the returning right-back.
You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112; and don’t forget to join him, and former Limerick FC stalwart Conor Molan, on Tuesday for live coverage of the Shannonsiders’ visit to Keith Long’s Bohemians — 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.