Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
This was Limerick’s sixth defeat of an eight-game winless run that stretches back to March 12. It was also their most damning.
Sligo Rovers, after all, were not in much better shape leading into this one. Three consecutive defeats, in which the Bit O’Red failed to score, left manager Ger Lyttle staring at the managerial trap door.
Conscious of the definition of madness, Lyttle made five changes for this relegation six-pointer. The attacking freedom bestowed upon goalscoring midfielder Rhys McCabe, bizarrely marooned in front of his defence in recent games, proved particularly effective. McCabe’s diving header, from a Gary Boylan cross, was the closest either side came to breaking the first-half deadlock.
Both the Scot and 36-year-old Raffaele Cretaro — frozen out by Lyttle this season — tucked in from their nominal wide roles, allowing Sligo’s full-backs to advance. And boy were those full-backs afforded the space to do just that.
Limerick manager Tommy Barrett was kind enough to return to a 3-4-1-2 formation; sensible against Waterford’s diamond, but totally illogical here. The idea was to safely offer Mark O’Sullivan a foil without compromising central midfield security. Instead, Barrett gifted both Boylan and Regan Donelon the freedom of the Markets Field.
Cian Coleman’s knock only exacerbated the problem for Limerick, handicapping the 21-year-old’s efforts to shuttle out to Boylan. The Sligo right-back was the first-half’s most influential player, pinning back an unassisted Billy Dennehy throughout.
Shaun Kelly, too, found himself restricted by Donelon’s continual advances. The net result was a complete lack of width in Limerick’s attack. Once again, the hosts were reduced to aimless hit-and-hope fare.
Sligo’s central defenders, therefore, were comfortable. Kyle Callan-McFadden, who wilted in the face of O’Sullivan’s opening day aerial assault, particularly stood out. The Sligo captain produced a big first half block to deny Limerick’s target man. And the ex-Norwich City defender came up trumps again after half time, to clear Billy Dennehy’s deft lob off the line.
Dennehy’s chance stemmed from a counter-attack, the only phase of the game in which this Limerick side currently look in any way threatening. Mitchell Beeney also had a case to answer, palming O’Sullivan’s cross into the wing-back’s path. The English goalkeeper, in for the supposedly injured Micheál Schlingermann, looked shaky under high balls throughout. Much to Daniel Kearns’ goalscoring benefit at the death.
Kearns’ corner-kick conversion, against his old club, was only a consolation, however. Limerick’s first goal in six games ultimately mattered little, as their own dead-ball concentration issues had already done them in.
The ball may still have been in motion when McCabe deposited a breathtaking 60-yard free-kick. But Brendan Clarke still had several seconds to adjust his position after Kilian Cantwell’s foul on the Scottish midfielder.
And, later, a quick throw-in caught the right-side of Limerick’s defence unawares. Caolan McAleer was the architect, with Billy Dennehy weakly directing the substitute’s cross into Greg Moorhouse’s path. Moorhouse, introduced into the number-10 position on 75, is finally off the mark for the Bit O’Red. Limerick, meanwhile, have now conceded 12 dead-ball goals in all competitions; a calamitous average of one per game.
Let’s make no bones about it: Sligo are still a poor side. Lyttle’s attacking prescription of narrow wingers, facilitated by overlapping full-backs, is not working. Like Shamrock Rovers’ Stephen Bradley, Lyttle is congesting his side’s play in a counter-productive manner, uncognisant of the fact that full-backs at this level are not well-rounded enough to bear such massive attacking responsibility.
The impressive side-to-side movement of Adam Morgan is being wasted, as a result. Morgan needs width to stretch opposition defences, and create channels into which he can probe. The striker also needs through-balls, service that the languid-looking Eduardo Pincelli found difficult to provide here.
Still the only side without a clean sheet, Sligo’s defensive prospects too look grim. But their back-line was made to look good here by an embarrassingly impotent Limerick attack.
Tommy Barrett is fortunate he’s a local lad, popular in the right circles. Because if Neil McDonald was presiding over this structure-free, aimless attack, the apoplexy would be reaching near-fatal levels in certain quarters.
It is difficult — impossible, in fact — to determine what Limerick are trying to do with the ball, beyond trying to “make it stick”. There are no patterns of play evident, and no plan ‘B’ when the striker — or strikers, in this case — fail to do just that. The club’s absolutely appalling record of three goals in the last ten games, then, is not particularly surprising.
Nor is it a shock that the Shannonsiders only look likely on the break, against defences that are not set. This, perhaps, is the only element of Barrett’s gameplan that’s working at the moment, and even that probably owes more to the players’ spontaneity than anything else.
One thing’s for sure: this 3-4-1-2 did not work in any respect. Only the introduction of wingers, particularly the 18-year-old Will Fitzgerald, offered Limerick any hope of grasping something from this game. If it’s rolled out again to meet Dundalk’s visit on Tuesday night, another almighty caning may well be in the offing.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112