Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Even a general as lucky as Martin O’Neill could not have anticipated the phoney war that the Welsh waged in Cardiff. Chris Coleman best-laid plans made life terribly easy for his opposite number, who still had to rely on Ashley Williams’ latest error to secure victory.
Losing Joe Allen to a first-half concussion, while already shorn of injured talisman Gareth Bale, suggests that Coleman may not share O’Neill’s good fortune. But the former Fulham manager’s starting-selection had already significantly handicapped his side’s prospects.
Selecting five midfielders minded to assume central positions, against an Irish side always likely to present a low, narrow, block, is difficult to justify.
Full-backs Chris Gunter and Ben Davies were pushed high to compensate; but the string of early crosses delivered by the former were easily swatted away by Ireland’s natural penalty-box defenders.
Favouring Hal Robson-Kanu’s mobility, over Sam Vokes’ aerial wiles, made little sense either. In doing this, Coleman may have intended to push Ireland’s defensive-line back, creating space for his raft of central-midfielders. Moot is the word that comes to mind on that one.
At least Vokes, had he made his bow earlier than the 71st minute, may have had some chance of competing with Shane Duffy for the 34 (mostly deep) crosses his colleagues bunged into the Irish area.
Ireland, by way of comparison, managed only nine wide-deliveries; illustrating, to some extent, how little attacking intent they exhibited in Cardiff. As per usual, attacking transitions were optional for O’Neill, with Ireland showing little sign of any coherent plan to trouble Wayne Hennessey.
Hopeful long balls kicked in Daryl Murphy’s general direction were the order of the day. And, although Murphy won the lion’s share, the midfielders asked to tuck in around him produced little in the way of a second-ball dividend.
That rudimentary idea aside, O’Neill’s only discernible opposition-half tactic centred around forcing Hennessey to kick the ball long. This was achieved through a staggeringly broken press, that Wales — for some indeterminate reason — chose not to play through.
Indeterminate, that is, until the 57th-minute, when a broken Ashley Williams reprised some of the horror-show performances the 33-year-old has turned in for Everton this season.
Now devoid of pace, and never a great aerial combatant, Williams has become a liability — nervously stationed 10 yards behind his partner like a significantly less wily, latter-day Rio Ferdinand. For the Irish, he, along with the ever-energetic Jeff Hendrick, and goalscorer James McClean, is a newly-minted hero.
No Plan ‘B’
Coleman’s plan to redress the balance consisted of throwing Williams up top at the death, after asking 17-year-old Ben Woodburn to bail him out again. Woodburn’s arrival on the left did produce some green shoots down that flank — mainly because the appallingly wasteful Tom Lawrence had been shifted to the opposite side.
Derby County’s Lawrence ultimately, and unsurprisingly, proved an inadequate replacement for Bale here. He, along with Andy King, did little other than congest an already packed central midfield.
Jonny Williams’ clever right-wing run, to tee up Robson-Kanu’s golden headed chance, underlined the folly of Coleman’s narrow ways. His race as Welsh manager may well be run.
O’Neill, meanwhile, would have lived to fight another day regardless of the result here. His contract extension, announced last week, encapsulated the good fortune that has continually smiled upon his extemporaneous reign as Republic of Ireland manager.
Long may it continue. One of the seeded cohort, numbering Portugal, Italy, Croatia, and the ultra-organised Northern Irish, may well deliver the reckoning that has long seemed overdue.
The war O’Neill’s side is so ill-prepared for could, in other words, finally break out in November. More likely, however, that Lady Luck is not for turning where this particular general is concerned. She does seem pretty fond of him, after all.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112