Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Two quick thoughts from Finn Harps first win in four SSE Airtricity Premier Division games.
1. Harps fail to handle Limerick’s first-half gameplan…
Neil McDonald’s decision to reintroduce captain Shane Duggan to the starting lineup raised more than a few pre-match eyebrows.
Breaking up Bastien Hery and Lee J. Lynch’s blossoming central-midfield partnership seemed unnecessary. But, asking Lynch to instead assume Stephen Kenny’s narrow right-wing role paid a rich first-half attacking dividend here.
With natural number-10 Lynch mining the space to Paddy McCourt’s left — aided and abetted by Peter Berki’s rightward drifts, and Barry Cotter’s timely overlaps — Limerick battered Harps’ left-hand-side before half-time.
Ollie Horgan’s side failed to stop these attacks at source in two ways. Firstly, inexperienced striker Ibrahim Keita failed to occupy centre-back Tony Whitehead as requested.
Hopeful of forcing the hosts to play out through Joe Crowe, Horgan instead watched as Whitehead played a string of well-executed forward passes — including that which tempted the dismissed Kilian Cantwell into fouling Berki in his own box.
That key pass arrived after the 21-year-old Keita had been swapped with the 20-year-old Eddie Dsane, underlining exactly how lacking in nous this callow Harps side really are.
Secondly, Cantwell was completely destroyed in the aerial battle against Rodrigo Tosi, allowing the effervescent Berki to profit from a rake of second-balls.
Limerick’s first two big chances arrived from this avenue, with Berki passing the baton to an untracked Lynch on both occasions. Lynch stood up an ultimately wasted back-post cross to Duggan first, before wasting a Berki through-ball himself 60 seconds later.
Given these continually successfully right-wing overloads, McCourt clearing off the line from a corner, and Tosi’s late penalty-miss, Harps were leading a charmed life. And Limerick’s penchant for dropping clangers, held dear by both their manager and his players, made it even more charmed still.
2. …but catastrophic errors, both from manager and players, cost Limerick again
With a threadbare squad, only six subs named, and his manager sent to the stands, Cantwell’s late first-half dismissal presented Harps assistant-manager Paul Hegarty with quite the conundrum.
Injury to centre-back Packie Mailey, paired with Gareth Harkin’s suspension, meant that Hegarty’s options were limited. As such, the decision was taken to drop attacking-midfielder Mark Timlin in at left-back, allowing captain Ciaran Coll to move inside.
Minutes later, the defensively-naive Keita — still playing wide — was then removed in favour of the clever former Cork City man, Danny Morrissey.
McDonald was not blessed with the same shrewdness. Having watched his narrow side struggle to play around ten-man Harps in the cup last week, the Englishman duly enacted two panic-changes that completely nullified his side’s ability to do just that.
Not seen since the June 16 capitulation in Turner’s Cross, McDonald reintroduced his favoured back-three, jettisoning the dangerous pair of Berki and Cotter to do so.
On in their steads, to play at right-wing-back and left-wing-back respectively, arrived Kenny, and New Zealander Henry Cameron, who hadn’t featured since the early-August defeat at Dundalk.
A predominantly right-footed player, Cameron offered precisely zero width on the left-flank, proceeding to run into the same crowded alleys that Chiedozie Ogbene had before him.
Meanwhile, and most frustratingly, Kenny insisted on checking inside upon receiving the ball, rather than attempt to best the auxiliary full-back Timlin in a one-on-one tussle.
But, most crucially, both Kenny and Cameron were alone on their respective flanks, minded by two Harps players apiece, with no full-backs to overlap and stretch the play — as Cotter had done so effectively before half-time.
In other words, McDonald’s changes numerically disadvantaged Limerick in the one area of the pitch you need to flood against ten-men — the flanks!
The hosts did have a surplus somewhere else on the pitch of course. And boy did they profit from David O’Connor, Crowe, and Whitehead having precisely zero strikers to mind, as the latter two — and Brendan Clarke, who also handed Tommy McBride the opener — somehow contrived to let Morrissey in to kill them off.
With Harps striker Sean Houston dropping back in the defensive-phase to create a 4-5-0, McDonald’s three centre-backs found themselves completely redundant, further hamstringing the Shannonsiders’ attacking intent.
The sight of O’Connor and Whitehead attempting to overlap from their outside-centre-back berths was not one this particular observer enjoyed. Having won six first-half corners with their excellent wide-play, Limerick therefore had to wait 23 minutes for their first of the second-half.
And they had to wait until the 86th-minute to create a chance too, when Crowe popped up at the byline, as he did frequently on his debut away to Galway United, to deliver a low-cross that Cameron somehow failed to connect with in the six-yard-box.
Ethan Boyle, the standout Harps defender throughout Limerick’s botched second-half siege, duly cleared the ball behind.
Harps, therefore ended a three-game league losing streak, with an impressive fifth road win of the 2017 campaign. They created absolutely nothing here, were beset by indiscipline again, but gratefully took the two goals that an erratic Limerick handed them.
For Limerick, the individual errors that saw them come acropper away to Cork, Galway, and Derry City came back to haunt them again — as did their manager’s baffling tactical decision-making.
Despite the impressive defensive-shape he’s engendered, and the courageous squad-management he’s exhibited, that is one area in which Neil McDonald has consistently failed to impress — and, unfortunately, it may ultimately prove his downfall at the Markets Field.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112
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