Three quick thoughts on Dundalk’s completion of a 2017 clean-sweep over misfiring Limerick.
1. Goalless Limerick fail to support Tosi again
Friday’s trip to Oriel Park saw the Shannonsiders draw a third consecutive blank in front of goal. And, on the basis of this blunt showing, that mini-drought is no coincidence.
Neil McDonald’s decision to reunite Rodrigo Tosi and Chiedozie Ogbene’s productive partnership initially looked promising — particularly in light of Stephen Kenny’s decision to pair an error-prone Brian Gartland with the inexperienced Sean Hoare.
Tosi, stranded up top in a 4-1-4-1 at Maginn Park last week, was comfortably Limerick’s most effective performer here. The Brazilian target-man comprehensively outfought both Gartland and Hoare, winning the majority of his aerial duels, and making direct passes stick.
Unfortunately for the 34-year-old, and for Limerick, that physical dominance ultimately came to naught for the visitors.
Ultra-compact, and effective, in defence, Limerick’s supremely-narrow 4-4-2 completely failed to get bodies around Tosi, and profit from his individual success.
Ogbene, denied space-in-behind by Dundalk’s canny defensive-line, appeared incapable of adjusting his flat positioning accordingly. This is where John O’Flynn’s injury problems become relevant, as his experience, and imperious off-the-ball movement, could have proved potentially decisive here.
It was noteworthy that Limerick’s best chance of the game, created in second-half injury-time, saw the substitute O’Flynn pull cleverly off Gartland’s shoulder to tee-up Lee J. Lynch.
Elsewhere, both of Limerick’s central-midfielders — namely Lynch, and captain Shane Duggan — were reluctant to advance in support of Tosi, for fear of exploitation between the lines.
This understandable reticence stood in stark contrast to the attacking abandon demonstrated by Dundalk’s Robbie Benson. The former UCD midfielder’s third-man runs saw him regularly pop-up in advance of striker David McMillan; safe in the knowledge that the number six Limerick so sorely lack, in Chris Shields, was minding the house behind him.
Finally, neither Limerick wide player, both of whom were again instructed to interpret their roles narrowly, had the confidence to run beyond Tosi either. Henry Cameron, who disappointed in a left-of-midfield role, at least made a handful of penetrative runs early in the second-half, only for his first-touch to let him down.
The manner in which McDonald uses his wide midfielders appears designed to get the best out of Tosi. But, in reality, the fear of exposing their already-outnumbered central-midfielders prevents them from playing high enough to regularly interact with the Brazilian.
Moreover, as discussed on these pages ad nauseum, the absence of an out-and-out winger, to add balance to the side’s attacks, robs Tosi of precisely the kind of service he really thrives on.
2. Lifeless Lilywhites rely on McEleney magic to prosper
Contrary to the final scoreline, Dundalk huffed and puffed here, prior to Patrick McEleney’s stunning 32nd-minute free-kick.
Slow to move the ball forward through the thirds, Kenny’s side found a seemingly impenetrable lime-green defensive-wall in front of them.
With the effective-but-limited Shields again favoured over the more cultured Stephen O’Donnell, Dundalk found it hard to manufacture passing angles — particularly in light of the manner in which both Tosi and Ogbene dropped back to deny them.
As such, the Lilywhites once again relied on string-puller-par-excellence McEleney to drop off and dictate the play. And dictate he did, to an extent, arrowing a series of long diagonals in Michael Duffy’s direction.
Targeting teenage right-back Barry Cotter seemed a wise move from Kenny, but the injury-returnee was up to the one-on-one task posed by the former Celtic winger — until a recurrence of that injury impacted his performance in the second-half.
Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, Dylan Connolly again flattered to deceive, blasting a string of poor crosses off David O’Connor’s misfortune shins. Like Duffy, Connolly only began to prosper in the second-half, when Dundalk’s lead, and Cameron’s new-found sense of adventure, opened up Limerick, and exposed O’Connor, respectively.
Indeed, it was Connolly who won the two quick-fire set-pieces that trebled Dundalk’s lead before the hour-mark; and ended the game as a contest.
But, it was McEleney who really pulled his underperforming side up by its bootstraps here. And not for the first time either.
3. Individual errors, and set-piece dysfunction, do for Limerick again
Well, McEleney and Limerick’s incredible set-piece largesse, that is.
In the wake of the Super Blue’s early-season zonal-marking madness, the McDonald regime had seemed to stablise set-piece-related matters.
Those of an attacking variety are still putrid, mind you, as evidenced by the string of promising dead-ball situations that Limerick wasted here in the opening half-four.
But, after clangers dropped at home to Bray, and away to Finn Harps, the last six games have seen a vast improvement in the Lims’ defensive organisation in the face of free-kicks and corners.
That improvement was tossed decisively out the window here, however, and — unfortunately — the Limerick faithful’s new scapegoat O’Connor was the prime culprit.
Still fielded out of position at left-back, the centre-back-by-trade committed two silly fouls to concede the free-kicks that prompted Dundalk’s first and second goals.
And, crucially, the 25-year-old also appeared to be the man assigned to Gartland, allowing his defensive counterpart to head home the second goal, and tee-up Benson’s third.
That third goal stemmed from a corner that O’Connor conceded; cutting out a Connolly-led counter-attack that Limerick’s failure to support Tosi prompted. Generally, O’Connor’s open-play defending was excellent, especially considering how little support he received from Cameron, which made his game-changing errors all the more disappointing.
Following hot on the heels of the individual clangers dropped by Joe Crowe and Dean Clarke away to Derry City last week, O’Connor’s dead-ball showing here fits a pattern. If a misfiring Limerick are to break their four-game winless run away to Cobh Ramblers next weekend, that pattern desperately needs to be curbed.
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 the Shannonsiders’ FAI Cup visit to Cobh Ramblers — 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.