Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
“We have a plan, naturally,” offered Martin O’Neill, during his customary pre-match chinwag with RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue. Designed, perhaps, as an offhand response to the ever-expanding list of former associates stating the opposite, it was a revealing remark.
O’Neill and offhandedness are very well acquainted, after all. The Republic of Ireland have never boasted a recognisable playing-style under the Kilrea native’s always extemporaneous stewardship. That was not about to change in Copenhagen.
To finish a game of football having completed just 54% of one’s passes is an achievement, to be fair. It is almost impossible in the modern, post-universality, era to register a figure quite as low as that. One’s players have to almost treat the football like a red-headed stepchild, booting it away at every available opportunity. So it was for O’Neill’s weary charges in Copenhagen.
Daryl Murphy, 35 in March, was the charge tasked with chasing those lost causes. Far less suited to this task than the admittedly off-colour Shane Long, the ageing target-man fared poorly in the air too. His immobility, meanwhile, also allowed Denmark’s centre-backs to freely carry the ball out of defence — and pepper Ireland with diagonals.
No plan with the ball, then. Without it, the goal was simple: low-blocking anti-football, with zero risk attached. Breaking in numbers was strictly forbidden. Hopeful solo jaunts by the likes of James McClean and Callum O’Dowda angled at winning precious set-pieces — the visitors’ only tangible goal-hope, aside from Cyrus Christie’s rare straitjacket-busting overlaps.
Fortunately for O’Neill, Age Hareide played into his hands just as much as Wales’ Chris Coleman had a month prior. Relying upon his full-backs to provide width, the Norwegian native’s congested midfield further choked off Christian Eriksen’s usual zone-of-influence — that Ireland had already willingly packed.
There was no man-marking job as such, as suggested on the pre-match press-conference trail. But Harry Arter, presumably as surprised with his holding-midfield role as anyone else, did plenty to discommode the Tottenham maestro, finishing with game-high tackle and interception tallies.
Crowded out by Ireland, and his own teammates, Eriksen manfully drifted wide, and deep, to find space. But he need not have bothered. Very much from the Egil Olsen school of thought, Hareide’s tactic bypassed the former Ajax playmaker with almost criminal regularity. By way of illustration, Eriksen attempted only 49 passes, while both Danish centre-backs, and William Kvist, broke the 80-mark.
Denmark, in kicking 14% of their passes long, certainly paled in comparison to Ireland’s eye-watering 37% tally. But Hareide’s dedication to the Charles Reep dogma shone through regardless; clear-cut chances afforded to Andreas Cornelius and Pione Sisto both stemmed initially from long-balls. And both of the Norwegian’s second-half substitutions added tall forwards to the mix, in the shape of Yussuf Poulsen and Nicklas Bendtner.
Indeed, RB Leipzig’s Poulsen could, and perhaps should, have sealed the game at the death, after nipping ahead of Stephen Ward to head Jens Stryger Larsen’s cross at Darren Randolph. Larsen continually escaped O’Dowda’s clutches, but his right-footedness prevented a greater dividend. Hareide may turn to the more attack-minded Riza Durmisi for Tuesday’s second-leg.
Ahead of which this tie is delicately poised, to say the least. Its first engagement was not a good advert for international football, which has offered up some real stinkers in recent days, fueled in the main by host nations’ understandable away-goal fears.
Denmark, therefore, are quite likely to play more offensively in Dublin. In that sense, a scoreless draw feels like a defeat for Ireland, who presented Hareide with a result for which he expressed a strong pre-match desire.
O’Neill, meanwhile, will not go back to the drawing board, for no such board exists — despite his protestations to the contrary. Ireland will wait for a mistake again on Tuesday, hoping to commit none themselves; a high-risk strategy-of-sorts that eventually saw Giovanni Trapattoni come acropper in disastrous fashion at Euro 2012.
Concentration lapses from the likes of O’Dowda, Randolph, and Ciaran Clark were not punished in Parken Stadium. That kind of good fortune is the story of O’Neill’s tenure thus far. It cannot last forever.
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