Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Almost one year ago, in October of 2016, Martin O’Neill engaged in a head-scratcher of an interview with RTE‘s Tony O’Donoghue.
Fresh from escaping two brushes with the woodwork to steal a scarcely-merited win at home to Georgia, the Irish manager bemoaned his side’s willingness to cede the possession battle to their lowly-ranked visitors.
O’Neill suggested that he asked his side to press higher, and use the ball better, at half-time, and they duly delivered — to an extent. What a shame he apparently failed to inculcate that same desired style-of-play during the five-day training camp leading up to this one.
Brady lost in morass of O’Neill’s making
Telling people to do something, and training them to do it via persistent instruction, are two very different kettles of fish. And it’s been grimly apparent, throughout O’Neill’s tenure as the Republic of Ireland’s manager, that the latter is not one of his top priorities.
Once again here, as in Dublin, Ireland were ragged, and comprehensively outplayed by their less-heralded, but infinitely better-organised, hosts.
Ireland, lined out in a vague 4-2-3-1, started positively, with James McClean closing down an Otar Kakabadze clearance in the opening seconds.
Shane Duffy’s set-piece goal followed, however, enticing Ireland into the usual fate-tempting low-block. Robbie Brady, like Jeff Hendrick in June’s Austria encounter, looked lost in a shuttling midfield role. Expected to fill the number-10 position in attack, and the space to Harry Arter’s left in defence, the Burnley man did neither.
Should I stay or should I press?
Vako Qashaishvili’s equaliser stemmed both from this crazy central-midfield hodgepodge, and the players’ pressing confusion.
Not knowing if he should go and press, or hold his position (because, presumably, he wasn’t told), Glenn Whelan chose the former — rushing out to confront Georgian centre-back Guram Kashia. Kashia then played the ball into the feet of Brady’s man, Valerian Gvilia, who was free as a bird in an inside-right position.
The BATE Borisov midfielder, who also shone in Dublin, then fed the ball behind Whelan, to fellow attacking-midfielder Jano Ananidze, who was also free between-the-lines.
This danger, in turn, drew right-back Cyrus Christie out of position, which allowed Qashaishvili, the San Jose Earthquakes man, to crack a massive fissure in Ireland’s World Cup qualification hopes.
Whelan’s will-I-won’t-I moment encapsulated his side’s usual haphazard approach to pressing the opposition; which simply consists of a lone headless midfielder rushing forward to harass a bemused opponent in vain.
Georgia force the direct approach
Vladimir Weiss’ side were not beset by the same pressing-related indecision. The Georgians pressed high as a unit throughout, forcing Ireland’s defence into an unending string of fruitless long balls.
This enforced route-one approach did create one big chance for the Irish — when Shane Long nodded down for Jonathan Walters to cross for McClean — but, by-and-large, Ireland’s threat was limited to set-pieces until Georgia opened up late on.
Ireland again fail to defend wide areas
Pressing, and central-midfield structure, were not the only two obvious areas of dysfunction in O’Neill’s ranks either.
Having watched on as Walters and McClean failed to track the wing-backs of both Serbia and Wales earlier in this campaign, the former Leicester City manager obviously felt they would learn their lesson eventually, without his learned input.
Ireland’s wingers were continually outfought by Weiss’ marauding full-backs, with both Kakabadze and Giorgi Navalovski combining to produce three very dangerous first-half crosses from which Ireland were lucky to escape.
The visitors developed into a counter-attacking threat in the second-half, mind you, but not because of any tactical ingenuity from their tetchy supremo. In search of their first victory of an ill-starred campaign, a gung-ho Georgia became stretched after the hour-mark, resulting in two huge wasted chances from Long and McClean.
O’Neill’s substitutions were odd, to say the least. His first gambit, the same which failed to break down ten-man Wales in March, was to introduce Aiden McGeady in a left-wing role, and shift the technically-woeful McClean into the number-10 slot — of all places.
Then, with ten minutes remaining, Daryl Murphy’s introduction saw O’Neill’s rough 4-2-3-1 estimate give way to a 4-4-2, featuring the perilously naive central-midfield pairing of McClean and Brady. And this was before the nothing-to-lose Georgians had shut up shop and accepted a point!
After the match, O’Neill and O’Donoghue went at it again, with the former betraying his own rampant insecurities by brutally dismissing a broadcaster that he can clearly scarcely stand.
This general knows exactly how lucky he is. O’Neill’s ill-prepared side got out of jail here, in the reverse fixture, away to Serbia, away to Austria, and at home to Austria too. The emperor has no clothes. Tony knows it. I know it. And you know it too. His luck will eventually run out.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112