Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
This was Stephen Bradley’s shot at glory. Despite boasting eight full internationals, AIK arrived in Tallaght with precisely zero interest in controlling proceedings. Shamrock Rovers, therefore, were invited to give the Swedes their best shot. But, alas, their visitors escaped with nary an eyelash out of place. The Hoops, in short, were absolutely harmless here.
AIK might well have something of a Swedish José Mourinho on their hands in manager Rikard Norling. Boasting the best defensive record in the Allsvenskan for two straight years now, the Stockholm side clearly put defence first. But few would have expected them to play so passively against the SSE Airtricity League’s fourth-best outfit.
Surprisingly, Norling’s men appeared to follow the Mourinho doctrine to the letter in the first-half, playing with no semblance of risk throughout. “He who has the ball has fear”, espoused the Portuguese in his now infamous big-game cheat-sheet. AIK, who booted the ball long at every opportunity, are obviously avid readers. The Hoops high press, therefore, proved pretty pointless.
Up against such cautious opposition, the hosts had to assume the entire attacking onus on their shoulders. But Rovers, whose final-third combination play has hardly been stellar under Bradley’s tenure, did not deliver. And their young manager’s tactical set-up proved more of a hindrance than a help, in that regard; to say the least.
Compact and deep-lying, Norling’s seemingly impenetrable 5-3-2 in fact offers up a pair of obvious Achilles’ heels: the two yawning spaces in front of its wing-backs. Any wing-back-based system is always ripe for overload on the flanks. But, with Ethan Boyle as your man with the overlapping plan, taking full advantage is pretty unlikely.
The physical defender, ill-suited to Bradley’s progressive desires, remains a huge disappointment with the ball at his feet. Quite why Bradley’s side chose to focus their attacking efforts on AIK’s left-side, then, is anyone’s guess.
Yes, Sean Kavanagh — an infinitely superior footballer — was the full-back elected to hold his position, and offer cover against Norling’s front two. Instead, Boyle went forth, and attempted to combine with Joel Coustrain; whose telegraphed drifts inside, onto his stronger left foot, were comfortably handled by the right-footed Haukur Hauksson.
Coustrain and Boyle did work one fruitful overload, in the sixth minute, when the former released the latter in the AIK box. But Boyle, predictably, fluffed the final pass. As indeed he did when a Ronan Finn-led counterattack teed up a wasted crossing opportunity on 20 minutes.
Letting the underprotected Hauksson off the hook wasn’t enough for Bradley, however. The 33-year-old also spared AIK right-wing-back Daniel Sundgren, too. Given Kavanagh’s all-too-rare progress beyond the halfway line, Rovers required another touchline-hugger to match Coustrain’s width on the opposite side. Instead they got the debuting Dylan Watts, who shared an inexplicably narrow left-of-midfield role with Finn.
Watts’ deployment, presumably designed to ensure control of possession — possession AIK obviously didn’t want — only congested the middle of the park further. This was exactly what the Swedes, happy to wait for a Hoops error, wanted to see. And, indeed, the visitors nearly had their error on 42, when Sam Bone lost possession to Kristoffer Olsson in his own-half. Lee Grace, fortunately, did enough to force Henok Goitom’s effort off target.
Rovers have kept five clean-sheets in the seven games since Bone first joined Bolger at the base of their midfield. And the greater security the Englishman provides is not in dispute. But Bone’s inclusion, at the expense of a more craftful midfielder, is rendered somewhat moot by Bolger’s similar skill-set.
Neither number-six can offer the third-man runs Rovers needed here. With Bolger dropping between his two centre-backs to dictate, the Hoops required a responsible box-to-box player at his side; not a simple destroyer, with minimal guile.
Carrying the likes of Bone and Boyle, and offering no left-sided width whatsoever, Rovers simply never laid a glove on AIK during their 45-minute period of dominance. Only one single shot on goal, an easily-held Watts effort from range, was attempted in anger by Bradley’s benign side.
Presumably unimpressed with all of the above, and sensing he had perhaps overegged the defensive pudding, Norling sent his side out with an entirely different outlook in the second-half. Out went the low-block, and in came a high-press at goal-kicks. The Swedes suddenly became interested in keeping possession, too. And the opportunity offered by Watts’ narrow deployment looked far too tempting to pass up.
Sundgren, therefore, advanced at every opportunity after the break, as AIK looked to succeed where Rovers’ right-wing focus had failed. Both central midfielders, Ahmad Yasin and the wonderfully silky Olsson, also began to make forward runs to the flanks, enacting the kind of triangular combinations Rovers fans can only dream of.
Even AIK’s outside centre-backs, free to pop into midfield with only one Dan Carr to worry about, began to feature in the Hoops half. Aleksander Milosevic produced a wonderful through-ball on the hour-mark to send Yasin to the byline, for example. The Iraqi international’s low cross evaded everyone, and goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu flapped at Olsson’s return. But the 16-year-old, whose distribution and temperament impressed hugely here, quickly redeemed himself by saving Yasin’s resultant effort.
Penned in, and booting the ball away at every opportunity, Rovers’ role reversal was complete. The Hoops’ high-press had disappeared, and they were crying out for a change of shape to stem the right-sided AIK tide. But no such tactical tweak arrived. And, on 74, Sundgren did the damage he always threatened to exact.
Rovers’ midfield was a mess in the lead-up to the right-wing-back’s decider, with both Bolger and Bone positioned to the left. Tarik Elyounoussi, therefore, stood free between the lines to collect a lay-off from Goitom. AIK’s second striker then had all the time in the world to feed Sundgren a perfectly-weighted through-ball. Bone let the full-back go, but if Rovers had a left-winger on the pitch Sundgren would not have been free in the first place.
That away-goal hammer-blow seemed to represent a Eureka moment for Bradley, however, as Aaron Greene was immediately readied. But, incredibly, the ex-Bray man replaced Carr in a straight swap, meaning that Finn and Watts continued to share narrow wide-midfield duties. Rovers, therefore, were fortunate that Norling was happy to shut up shop again at that point.
And, although Greene was released in behind the AIK defence on a couple of occasions, this Rovers team — still far less than the sum of its parts — never looked like finding an equaliser. AIK, then, were largely untroubled here, despite their manager’s unnecessarily conservative outlook. And, given Rovers’ appalling away record under Bradley, including six defeats on the road in 2018 already, it’s hard to imagine the Swedes having anything to worry about next week either.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112