Three quick thoughts on the richly-deserved point that St Patrick’s Athletic extracted from the Markets Field on Saturday evening.
1. McDonald’s Limerick will struggle to quell a genuine wide threat
Tony Whitehead’s dead leg forced Neil McDonald’s tactical hand on Saturday evening. The narrow 4-4-2 system, with which the Englishman started his Limerick tenure in Dalymount Park, returned here, in all its glory. Thanks to a paucity of centre-backs, the 3-4-1-2 that was so overrun by Cork City last Friday, was out.
This enforced change immediately improved Limerick’s defensive shape, with the hosts limiting Pat’s to precisely zero first-half shots on target. But, it did not help the Super Blues’ cause in wide areas.
As seen against both Bohemians and Finn Harps, McDonald’s 4-4-2 requires both wide midfielders to narrow up in the defensive phase. Designed to prevent the opposition from overwhelming his outnumbered central midfield charges, this narrowness largely frustrated the Saints’ intricate passing game.
But, one Saint in particular reveled in this state of affairs. Holding his width on the right-touchline, Conan Byrne found himself in a continual one-on-one mismatch with Limerick left-back Shane Tracy.
Starting his first league game of 2017, after a protracted injury lay-off, Tracy could not prevent a much pacier Byrne from doing his thing. The former Shelbourne and UCD winger delivered at least six tempting first-half crosses, all of which evaded his penalty-area-shy colleagues.
On the opposite flank, Ian Bermingham was the man tasked with tormenting Limerick’s narrow defensive unit. But, thanks to the dedicated shuttling of Dean Clarke, the always-overlapping left-back had far less fun than Byrne.
Until, that is, that McDonald asked his wide midfielders to swap in the second-half. Free of Clarke’s shackles, Bermingham switched it up with J.J. Lunney — underlapping to head-home the unmarked wide-midfielder’s left-wing cross.
Byrne’s direct free-kick then leveled the game, but the game’s standout performer will surely reflect on the five glorious second-half chances his imperious wide play created for his profligate team-mates.
With Tommy Robson returned to Sunderland, McDonald desperately needs to recruit an out-and-out left-back if he wishes to persist with this narrow 4-4-2 system. If, on the other hand, he wishes to revert to a back-three as soon as possible, the shopping list of players required becomes infinitely longer.
2. Pretty Pat’s were bottom of the heap for a reason
Many present at the Markets Field on Saturday evening opined with puzzlement upon Pat’s relegation-threatened status. Treated to an attractive, possession-dominant, showing from Liam Buckley’s strugglers, few doubted the Saints’ ability to escape the drop-zone in time.
But, for those who look closely enough, the 2013 champions’ disastrous season-to-date is not a complete surprise.
In losing 2-0 to Limerick in April, Pat’s performance bore all the hallmarks of a defensively-naive side who over-emphasize retention of the football (sound familar, Limerick fans!?). Not much has changed since then.
Chiedozie Ogbene’s 17th-minute opener was eerily similar to the counter-attack that finished Pat’s off in Inchicore. Once again, Buckley’s side converted an attacking set-piece into a concession, as a Bermingham corner quickly transitioned from Brendan Clarke’s fists to Ogbene’s right foot — by way of a lovely assist from Lee J. Lynch.
Defensive transitions have been a problem for Pat’s all season. Indeed, in last week’s 3-1 home defeat to Bohemians, both Dinny Corcoran’s winner, and Georgie Poynton’s insurance goal, were also attributable to fast-breaks that the hosts were not ready for.
All three goals also owed something to errors from either Lee Desmond or Rory Feely, as the Saints cohort of error-prone centre-backs continue to let them down.
Restored to Feely’s side after suspension, it was the rash Gavin Peers who stood out here. The ex-Sligo veteran was roasted by Ogbene in April when covering in behind Michael Barker.
On Friday, he fared much better in a direct one-on-one skirmish with the in-form teenager — only to blot his copybook with a crazy foul on Rodrigo Tosi, that gifted the Brazilian’s penalty-kick goal. Peers, booked for a late foul on Dean Clarke, was also fortunate not to get his marching orders for one of several second bookable offences.
Meanwhile, in attack, Pat’s hybrid 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation failed to get enough bodies in the Limerick penalty area to translate Byrne’s deliveries into goals.
Young, technically-gifted, attacking midfielders like Lunney, and the influential Darragh Markey, need to add penetrative runs to their respective lockers if Pat’s underwhelming goals tally of 21 is to be improved upon.
Encouragingly for Saints fan, those runs finally did happen in the second-half, as the likes of Lunney, Bermingham, and the disappointing Christy Fagan, missed a string of chances to win the game for the visitors. Even the excellent Pat Cregg got forward to head a Byrne cross wide!
3. What exactly do Limerick fans want?
A former apostle of Sam Allardyce, McDonald’s direct plan-of-attack is unsurprisingly simple. Simple can be effective, however, and asking Ogbene to feed off Tosi’s route-one knockdowns has proved fruitful for the Shannonsiders in recent weeks.
But, getting the best out of his strikers, both of whom looked lost at times under the tenures of both Martin Russell and Willie John Boland, is already disquieting some of Limerick’s more demanding fans.
Long frustrated with Russell’s possession-obsession, unrest is already growing among his detractors about his successor’s fondness for “hoofball”.
Cognitive dissonance abounds at the moment in Limerick, as the club’s most ardent fans try to reconcile their delight at Russell’s departure, with the realisation that the grass is not always greener.
An insistence upon playing the football out from the back at all times under Russell, with defenders not up to that task, rightly got under the fans’ skin. Yet, now that they have a manager who understands that folly, they appear to have changed their minds. It is difficult to keep up.
There are many things that McDonald has gotten wrong since taking the Markets Field reins last month. But, a more direct style of football, that has transformed the fortunes of two of his squad’s most dangerous attacking players, is not one of them.
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 Friday for live coverage of the Shannonsiders’ visit to Pete Mahon’s Drogheda United — 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.