Three quick thoughts from the champions-elect’s demolition of Limerick FC at Turner’s Cross.
1. Defenders at McDonald’s disposal not fit for his purpose…
Recently-appointed Limerick manager Neil McDonald best hope for a busy summer transfer window. For the second successive game, the Tynesider has been presented with stark evidence that a back-three will not prosper with the players currently at his disposal.
The end of Tommy Robson’s loan-period, coupled with Shaun Kelly’s absence, did not persuade McDonald to revert to a back-four for this one. Instead, two midfielders-by-trade were fielded in the vacant wing-back slots — with mixed results.
Winger Dean Clarke, stationed on the right, fared quite well up against Cork City’s left-flank pair of Stephen Dooley and Kevin O’Connor. With the help of Paul O’Conor’s committed shuttling, Clarke’s defending was a big factor in encouraging the hosts to use the obvious out-ball that Jimmy Keohane represented.
But, on the opposite side, captain Shane Duggan was all-at-sea in a completely unfamiliar role.
Unlike Clarke, Duggan was continually faced with an overload, as Bastien Hery’s conditioning prevented the Frenchman from performing the same shuttling miracle as O’Conor.
Moreover, Duggan was also paired with a centre-back, in David O’Connor, that again looked completely ill-suited to manning one of the back-three’s outside berths.
Sheppard beat O’Connor to tee up Sean Maguire’s headed opener, and skinned Duggan on the outside in the lead-up to Stephen Dooley’s late first-half stunner.
Meanwhile, at the back-three’s heart, Limerick’s most consistent 2017 performer also looked uncomfortable. Maguire’s first big headed chance, from one of many Keohane crosses, saw the soon-to-be Preston North End striker unmarked in Williams’ zone.
And, for the opener, Williams’ poor positioning broke Limerick’s defensive line, forcing Tony Whitehead to rush across in vain to prevent Maguire’s near-post glance. Finally, the less said about Williams’ catastrophic error, that led to Maguire nipping in for the third goal, the better.
2. …nor are the midfielders, for that matter!
Faced with a back-five struggling to stem the Cork tide, McDonald’s choice of midfield structure only exacerbated his side’s massive problems.
The back-three’s rejuvenation at football’s highest-level has seen the 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) formation grow in popularity. Resembling a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase, this system prevents precisely the kind of wide-overloads that Cork so profited from here.
Again eschewing that option, McDonald simply flipped the central midfield triangle that started against Bray, fielding Lee J. Lynch as a number 10 — closer to Rodrigo Tosi’s knock-downs — with Hery and O’Conor forming a holding pair just behind.
While Lynch did drop back sporadically, to form a trio in the defensive phase, this kamikaze midfield shape asked both O’Conor and Hery to cover a crazy amount of ground to protect their wing-backs.
As mentioned above, O’Conor largely succeeded in this big ask, but Hery absolutely did not.
As a result, Keohane was to be the game’s most influential actor, as the versatile former Sligo Rovers star used his perpetual freedom to create an unending string of chances.
Incredibly, McDonald failed to address this glaring deficiency from the sideline — by introducing a left-winger to pin Keohane back, or otherwise. His 75th-minute switch to a 4-3-1-2 diamond, with Garbhan Coughlan behind the strikers, only maintained Keohane’s advantage.
Now, Lynch, on the left of the diamond, was the man tasked with shuttling across to deny the right-back. And, well, you only need to watch a rerun of Keohane’s wonderful late goal to see how that went — as both Lynch, and Duggan, failed utterly to close down that magnificent strike.
That Cork finished up with a staggering 12-strong corner-count, to Limerick’s three, shows exactly how dominant the Leesiders were in wide areas here.
3. Tosi and Ogbene’s blossoming partnership must be maintained
Throughout the current season’s first-half, much was written about Tosi’s limitations on these pages.
Often fielded alone up top, with Lynch in behind, Limerick’s attack looked fatally one-dimensional, and bereft of a threat in behind.
McDonald’s arrival at the Limerick helm immediately met calls for the Brazilian to be given a partner. But, the narrow 4-4-2 that featured against Bohemians and Finn Harps, saw the bulky Chris Mulhall get the nod — not exactly the pacey archetype that might best complement Tosi’s aerial prowess.
Eventually, against Bray, Chiedozie Ogbene got his chance to lead the line — with instant results. And, the teenager built on that magnificent first-half double here, by again dovetailing brilliantly with his new 34-year-old partner-in-crime.
The few chances Limerick did create stemmed from the burgeoning understanding between the two. A Tosi headed flick-on, frequent against a Cork centre-back pairing that failed to compete with him, teed up Ogbene to win a dubious first-half penalty.
And, it was another Tosi route-one victory (and Ogbene ball recovery) that produced Limerick’s best chance of the second-half. O’Conor’s failure to deposit Duggan’s back-post cross stands as real what-if for the ground’s impressively large away contingent.
Ogbene’s anticipation to get on the end of Tosi’s knock-downs, paired with his unrivaled ability to get opposition players booked, merits an extended run in this role for the former Leesider.
If McDonald persists with a two-striker system, particularly these two strikers, Limerick will get goals, and plenty of them. But, if the Englishman also insists upon this defensive structure, that so completely capitulated at Turner’s Cross, the Shannonsiders will ship plenty of them too.
You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112; and don’t forget to join him, and former Limerick FC manager Noel O’Connor, on Saturday, for live coverage of St Patrick’s Athletic’s visit to the Markets Field — 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.