Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
If your game plan can be ruined by one injury, it was never much of a game plan in the first place. That’s a truism Ger Lyttle must quickly take on board, if Sligo Rovers are to swerve another relegation dogfight.
Throughout pre-season, Lyttle sought to bed in a significantly more possession-based style, complete with short distribution from goalkeeper Micheál Schlingermann. But the midweek loss of Regan Donelon, injured in training, threw a serious spanner in the works.
In a squad boasting precious few defensive options Donelon is, unsurprisingly, its only natural left-back. Originally earmarked for the right-back role, utility man Gary Boylan was asked to swap flanks. Midfielder Craig Roddan, therefore, drew the right-back short straw.
Understandably, neither Roddan nor Boylan offered the attacking width necessary to make Lyttle’s desired system work. And, in post-match conversation with the club’s website, the 40-year-old was keen to point that out.
“We prepared all pre-season with the full-backs attacking and giving us really good width, allowing the widemen to come inside and get close to the frontman,” said Lyttle. “We couldn’t do that naturally tonight.”
Which begs the question: why persist with a plan the players on the pitch could not possibly execute? The kind of final-third passing combinations Lyttle had in mind were few and far between. As a result, ex-Liverpool trainee Adam Morgan cut an isolated figure, far from the Roberto Firmino-like false-nine Lyttle presumably envisaged.
The presence of Morgan, 5’8″, also ruled out the direct option for Sligo, rendering their attacking efforts even more blunt. Target-man Vinny Faherty transformed the Bit O’Red’s final-third prospects when he arrived last July.
But he, like Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Mick Leahy, and Shaun Patton, has not been replaced. Perhaps that’s why Lyttle named a Pep Guardiola-esque six substitutes. Off-season recruitment has hardly been stellar.
Some recent dips into the market have been fruitful, however. Mid-season signing, the goalscoring midfielder Rhys McCabe, overloaded Shane Tracy with some timely runs to the right-flank. The Scot’s final ball may have been poor, but his partner-in-crime Caolan McAleer did escape Tracy’s attentions to create the first-half’s best chance. Ally Roy, whose infield dribbling thrilled early on, should have scored.
Roy, an off-season loan signing from Hearts, looks a canny coup. As does 34-year-old midfielder Eduardo Pincelli, recommended from Cyprus by newly-minted expat Faherty. Both the Brazilian’s range of passing, and his set-piece deliveries, were impeccable, hinting at a technical acumen that will have few equals in this league.
Shame about his performance off the ball, though, as Pincelli’s languidity, and McCabe’s attacking abandon, often left David Cawley isolated in front of his defence. Number-10s blessed with more guile than Limerick captain Shane Duggan will make mincemeat of Sligo, if Lyttle persists with that central-midfield mix.
Under Tommy Barrett, however, Limerick are clearly not looking to play through midfield. Long balls to veteran striker Mark O’Sullivan are very much the order of the day. And, to the 35-year-old’s credit, Sligo’s centre-backs were physically outmatched throughout.
O’Sullivan made every aerial duel a nightmare for the Bit O’Red, besting Seamus Sharkey in the first-half, before switching his attentions to Kyle Callan-McFadden in the second. A poor clearing header from Callan-McFadden, with the ex-Cork man all over him, produced Limerick’s best chance of the first-half. Daniel Kearns, poised in the D, forced one of several impressive saves from Schlingermann.
Thanks to Sligo’s looseness, Kearns, Duggan, and Billy Dennehy absolutely destroyed their hosts in the battle for the second-ball. Alas, with both wingers tucking in, and neither full-back minded to advance, attacking width was relatively absent from Limerick’s predictable attack. Crosses into box, from which O’Sullivan loves to feed, were few and far between.
No shock, then, that the game’s only goal came from a set-piece. The only surprise was that it was Sligo, not dead-ball strugglers Limerick, who conceded it. Darren Dennehy, who only started twice for Pat’s last year, rose highest to convert Duggan’s wonderful second-phase cross.
Duggan himself, incidentally, won the initial free-kick, taking a silly Callan-McFadden lunge from behind. Sharkey cleared one of many poor Limerick deliveries, but Cian Coleman encapsulated an energetic performance by stopping the counter-attack and feeding his captain.
In this agricultural system, both Coleman and Eoin Wearen will be tasked mainly with off-the-ball duties. And, in that regard, the relatively inexperienced former was far more visible than the injury-hit latter. Wearen’s replacement, Kilian Cantwell, proved far more effective at the dirty work; an encouragingly canny sub from the top-level managerial tyro Barrett.
The new Limerick manager whipped Wearen mere moments after the former Bohs captain let Pincelli tee up McCabe with a back-post cross. The 25-year-old didn’t exactly help Kelly with Roy’s early infield sorties either.
Lyttle’s changes, meanwhile, were anything but canny. Replacing the ineffectual McAleer with Adam Wixted made sense. But asking the predominantly left-footed ex-Drog to cut in from the right did not. Far wiser to let both he and Roy go on the outside, to provide much-needed attacking width. Both Tracy and Kelly, Limerick’s full-backs, looked tired and there for the taking.
When a right-footed player eventually popped up on the right-touchline, late on, it was defender-by-trade Boylan. The versatile 21-year-old spent the last ten minutes playing at right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2.
Still, even Boylan beat Tracy all ends up in the dying minutes, forcing a huge block from Coleman. The chinks in Limerick’s armour were there for all to see. What a shame, for Sligo fans, that their manager could not pick them out.
Instead, the Super Blues used their experience to see out the game with aplomb, comfortable enough to afford missed sitters from Kearns and exciting young substitute Will Fitzgerald. Back to the drawing board for Mr. Lyttle.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112