Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
High-flying Waterford are reaping the benefits of placing footballing decisions in the right hands. For Limerick, well beaten here, it’s very much a case of what might have been.
A working life spent in the game is no guarantor of footballing intelligence, of course. But in Alan Reynolds, Pat Fenlon and chairman Lee Power, Waterford boasted three experienced heads to put together behind the scenes.
A brave transfer policy was the result, destroying the side that won the 2017 First Division at a canter. Power’s largesse was leveraged to hire twelve new mercenaries for the cause. Only goalkeeper Niall Corbet, signed from UCD, could be considered a flop. But it took the Blues brain trust all of two games to work that out, and bring Laurence Vigouroux in on loan.
Twelve players, ten of which have played regularly — and played well — throughout their first eight Premier Division games. This, truly, is an almost unprecedented hit rate, that any club would be proud of. No Danny Galbraiths or Axel Bossekotas in this intake, thank you very much.
Waterford, then, look the Europe-bound real deal. But, in Limerick manager Tommy Barrett, they finally found a League of Ireland manager willing to put it up to them from a tactical perspective.
Only Stephen Kenny has even paid lip-service to Reynolds’ wildly successful diamond system. The Dundalk manager buttressed his central midfield by fielding Lithuanian midfielder Karolis Chvedukas beside Chris Shields for the first time.
Barrett, however, is the first to change his side’s formation, opting for one tailor-made to cause the diamond problems. The 38-year-old’s 3-4-1-2 enjoyed the upper hand on the visitors in the opening quarter. Fear of leaving David Webster and Kenny Browne prone to two-on-twos pinned back full-backs Dylan Barnett and John Kavanagh (nervy throughout).
Indeed, the otherwise impressive Webster betrayed that fear early on, conceding the quick free-kick that Will Fitzgerald so badly spurned. Second to a Kelly clearance, the former Shamrock Rovers defender fouled Connor Ellis from behind, rather than let the striker turn.
Ellis’ hold-up play was marginally better here than in other recent outings. But both he and Fitzgerald offered little as a line-leading collective. Off the ball movement was poor, wasting the space Limerick’s wing-backs — Shaun Kelly and Billy Dennehy — were continually looking to exploit. Mark O’Sullivan’s hulking presence was again notable by its absence.
Ellis did at least link up with Kelly once, towards the end of the first-half, to set up Shane Duggan’s gilt-edged chance. But by that point Waterford were firmly in the ascendancy, thanks to their overwhelming central midfield advantage.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Barrett should have used the players at his disposal to match Reynolds’ diamond. Moving Kilian Cantwell from midfield to centre-back made sense on paper, ensuring a spare defender against John Martin and Courtney Duffus. But Cantwell could only watch on as Duffus bagged his clinical opener.
The former Finn Harps man’s destructive talents were desperately needed in midfield, where Cian Coleman was trying to do the work of four men. Coleman’s partner, Barry Maguire, looks nowhere near fit enough to play at this level — and it showed.
Duggan’s characteristically poor positioning didn’t help either. The Limerick captain, together with Ellis and Fitzgerald, did little to prevent Paul Keegan, Webster and Browne from initiating attacks — a quality all three Blues players possess in spades.
And the trio ahead of Keegan benefited hugely from this perfect storm; particularly Bastien Héry, who had a hand in creating four quality chances between the 23rd and 56th minutes.
With Gavan Holohan drifting into the pocket behind Maguire, and Coleman often forced to cover, the Frenchman had free reign. Spinning Coleman on the stroke of half-time, before playing a delectable through-ball to Holohan, was probably the highlight.
When Héry easily dribbled past Maguire, the player whose misplaced pass coughed up his assist for Duffus, one began to wonder when Barrett would call his Dutch waffle ashore. Five minutes later, on the hour mark, the Limerick manager finally acted.
Battle of wits
But a switch to 4-1-4-1, with Cantwell holding, did little to improve his side’s attacking prospects. Ellis looked even less likely to flower as a lone striker. And while Reynolds could afford to spring the likes of Ismahil Akinade and 70-cap Estonian Sander Puri, Barrett could only turn to 18-year-old novice Jeff McGowan.
Given 12 minutes to make an impression, the Clare native showed all his inexperience by electing to dive rather than try to take in a long Fitzgerald throw-in. Originally introduced on the right-wing, it took Akinade less than 60 seconds after moving up top to win Keegan’s decisive penalty. That’s the difference.
Reynolds sprung the former Bohs man from the bench just four minutes after Barrett’s tactical reshuffle. The Waterford native quickly cancelled out his opposite number’s 4-1-4-1 with a 4-2-3-1 of his own. Any designs Barrett had on overloading Waterford’s full-backs were summarily snuffed out. Such battles of wits are rare in the League of Ireland, still a relative tactical backwater by European standards.
Instead, Barnett and Kavanagh enjoyed a field day in opposition territory throughout the second-half. Waterford’s total control of proceedings allowed both to play on the front-foot, turning Limerick’s early wide dominance on its head. From winning four corners to Waterford’s one in the first-half, the hosts slumped to zero after half-time. Waterford won eight.
Barrett, again, attributed this latest defeat both to poor finishing and to criminal lapses in concentration. And it’s true that Limerick wasted two glorious first-half chances here. It’s also true that errors from Maguire and Tony Whitehead handed Waterford both of their goals. But Barrett will also know that Waterford’s victory here was more than worthy.
This, after all, is an ambitious club going about wish fulfillment in the right way. Community roots, infrastructural masterplans, and youth development are well and good. But all three should be the eggs to the senior team’s chicken. Power and co. clearly understand this. Were 2013 to dawn again, one hopes that Pat O’Sullivan would follow their blueprint.
Getting it right on the pitch, with a view to European qualification, is the first domino that knocks all of the above over. The Limerick chairman, who has poured his heart, soul, and millions of euro into local soccer has never understood this. Nor, unfortunately, does he see the obvious merit in placing footballing decisions into the hands of people who know how to make them.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112