Analysis: O’Neill inertia feeds second-half farce

Alan O’Brien 

Martin O’Neill’s inaction in the face of Moldovan resurgence was, unfortunately, anything but telling. The Derryman’s tenure as the Republic of Ireland manager is fast approaching its fifth year. We know all there is to know about O’Neill; taking 33 minutes to enact a blindingly obvious adjustment is very much par-for-the-course.

IRLMDA

Sure, the first-half was routine. O’Neill’s diamond formation, retained from the home defeat to Serbia, found life oh-so-easy up against Moldova’s helpfully restrained outlook.

Focused almost entirely on defence, Igor Dobrovolski chose not to commit either of his full-backs in the first-half. Ireland, without wingers to track them, were therefore free to pursue a gung-ho approach.

Moldova’s extreme compactness, presumably designed to keep Ireland’s target-men away from goal, helped too. Breaking the offside trap was not a problem for the hosts, whose two-goal half-time advantage was limited by Shane Long’s usual profligacy.

That same compactness also threatened to deny space between the lines, but Wes Hoolahan, unlike his manager, is intelligent enough to adjust. The 35-year-old drifted to the flanks, away from minder Gheorghe Anton, pulling the Irish strings with aplomb.

Link-ups with Callum O’Dowda, given licence to roam wide from his left-of-diamond mooring, were frequent. Stephen Ward, arguably this season’s top Irish Premier League performer, also contributed on the overlap. Cyrus Christie, on the opposite side, marauded forward too; but his final ball, again, was poor.

Second-half

Everyone was poor after half-time, however. With nothing to lose, Moldova’s full-backs finally began to eat up the space in front of them. Several dangerous crosses from Artiom Rozgoniuc and Vitalie Bordian — James McClean’s Chisinau tormentee — threatened to halve the deficit.

As against Serbia, Ireland’s three-strong midfield-bank failed to shift across accordingly; the customary manner in which a diamond usually quells opposition wide-defenders.

At one point, around the hour-mark, assistant manager Roy Keane could be seen leaning toward O’Neill, seemingly mouthing: “Four. Five. One.”

O’Neill did nothing, happy to see strikers Long and Daryl Murphy put shifts in at left- and right-back respectively. Meanwhile, the same 35-year-old with the sole potential to break Welsh hearts on Monday evening remained, perplexingly, on the pitch.

Eventually, with just twelve minutes to go, and ball-playing centre-back Alexandru Epureanu running the show, O’Neill finally earned a scintilla of his sizeable paycheck. Hoolahan was belatedly removed, and Ireland did, at last, switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation — quelling Moldova’s wide threat, such as it was.

Conclusion

O’Neill’s inability to respond to in-game developments, allied with his woefully inadequate pre-match preparations, have cost Ireland time and time again. Recall the points dropped against ten-man Serbia and Wales, who were allowed to see out their respective games against O’Neill’s side comfortably.

Regardless of the result on Monday night, this week’s premature contract-extension announcement was as farcical as Ireland’s second-half turn here. Hopes of an imminent, intelligent, innovative, successor to our lucky general have been dashed. Only a faint hope of more good fortune, in the shape of unlikely World Cup qualification, remains.

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