Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Martin O’Neill loves to wallow in nostalgia, to recall the halcyon days when his performances were beyond reproach. Criticisms directed his way are tetchily deflected by references to a time when success came easy to the Kilrea native. That time is long gone now, however, and almost everyone except O’Neill knows it. Yet the FAI, in their infinite wisdom, have gifted him the luxury of two more lavishly paid years to figure it out. How kind of them.
Largely unchallenged by Ireland’s malleable media corps, O’Neill’s latest PR drive consisted simply of pointing to his record. Craig Bellamy’s claim that O’Neill “never worked on one set-piece with him” was met only with a crack about the “little” striker’s diminutive stature. Ireland, for the record, conceded from a dead-ball in each of the four games prior to this Cardiff engagement. Short corners, for example, stand as a particularly longstanding weakness.
Shay Given’s admission that his former manager never bothered working on “team shape or organisational stuff” held no water either apparently, because it worked for O’Neill at Celtic and Leicester — well over a decade ago. Given also revealed that scouting the opposition is not particularly high on O’Neill’s priority list. But viewers of Thursday night’s evisceration did not need the ex-goalkeeper’s word on that; a cursory glance at O’Neill’s chosen eleven would have more than sufficed.
Gareth Bale hasn’t featured regularly on the left of anyone’s midfield in years, but O’Neill isn’t exactly one for keeping up with the times. As such, the 66-year-old picked two right-backs in his 4-4-2 for no good reason. Still, Cyrus Christie’s rather unusual presence on the right of midfield made little material difference to his side’s attacking fortunes. Patterns of play, always absent under O’Neill’s tenure, remained invisible to the viewer. With few out-balls available in possession, O’Neill’s players faced two rather unappealing options: surrender the ball to an impressive Welsh press or kick it at Jonathan Walters’ willing head instead.
Patterns of play require work to bring to fruition, of course; work that O’Neill clearly sees as unnecessary. And yet his opposite number, a relative novice in Ryan Giggs, can present a seemingly fully-formed entity in that regard already. Lined out in an ultra-fluid 4-2-3-1, Giggs’ young selection swapped positions at will, dragging O’Neill’s poorly-prepared players all over the shop. On paper, the Welsh system looked similar to the Chris Coleman ploy that Ireland foiled last October. But in practice it was anything but.
One year ago, Tom Lawrence and Andy King tucked inside from the flanks, helping to form a pedestrian five-man block that even unorganised Ireland could easily frustrate. But here Lawrence was a revelation, deftly flitting between Ireland’s wide-open lines alongside David Brooks and Aaron Ramsey. Lawrence was even clever enough to assume centre-forward positions whenever Bale danced back to his old left-wing stomping grounds. And that, in part, is how Ireland fell a goal behind.
O’Neill’s decision to select a 4-4-2, in spite of a decimated roster, was uncharacteristically risky, but it need not have been a disaster. Watford are the latest top division club to show that the old-school system need not spell midfield overload — provided you stay compact enough from side-to-side and from back-to-front.
Ireland were neither (I know — newsflash, right?) and Wales took full advantage. Ethan Ampadu may possess preternatural composure for a 17-year-old, but his pinpoint 6th-minute switch-of-play should not have troubled Ireland unduly. Yet, rather than move in unison across the pitch in response to that simple pass, Ireland’s midfield instead pried itself apart.
Callum O’Dowda rushed out to Ampadu’s intended recipient Connor Roberts, before Conor Hourihane was drawn to Brooks. Hourihane, therefore, could not apply pressure to the next recipient, Joe Allen. But there is no excusing the yawning gap that had developed between he and partner-for-the-day Jeff Hendrick. Blessed with time and space, Allen cleaved that gap. And Lawrence ran diagonally past a sleeping Ciaran Clark to beat Darren Randolph at his near post.
In private, O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane will surely point to that last sentence with great vigor — chalk it up to individual errors, in other words. But the fault instead lay with the collective they singularly failed to nurture. Basic team-shape work is obviously below their paygrade. And the one natural defensive midfielder that could have patched the holes, David Meyler, was mysteriously left to rot on the bench.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn: that despite waxing lyrical about a “siege mentality” and the merits of a point in midweek, O’Neill was actually trying to win this game. But the way he went about it — with no discernible plan, no Meyler, and some eye-poppingly poor transitions — was counter-productive in the extreme. By half-time Wales had scored two further goals, simply by winning the ball and cutting through Ireland with one pass. Both Seamus Coleman and Stephen Ward bombed forward at will without secure possession, leaving their channels at the mercy of a rotating Welsh frontline. Bale struck first, and then Ramsey — both down Clark’s inside-right channel, in behind Ward. Clark failed to show Bale onto his weaker right foot, and Ramsey caused Randolph to ship another at his near post.
Coleman’s attacking sorties did fashion two decent chances for the debuting Callum Robinson. But that was as good as it got for Ireland, who conceded again immediately after the Preston striker’s second opportunity. From the restart, Giggs’ side worked the ball quickly from back to front, pulling the Irish defence so out of shape that Clark ended up guarding Bale in the right-back position. That left Ward alone with both Brooks and Roberts, allowing the latter to open his Wales account. Giggs’ decision to end Chris Gunter’s incredible 63-game run of competitive starts came as some surprise. But the newbie was rewarded handsomely for giving Roberts the nod instead.
Then and only then did O’Neill admit defeat to a certain extent, by asking consolation-scorer Shaun Williams to anchor a 4-1-4-1. But anyone expecting the Irish manager to verbalise his failure at full-time must not have been watching very closely over the last five years. “We need to be braver with the ball,” O’Neill told Sky, neatly skipping over the four goals his team conceded when Wales had it. And his on-the-whistle words-in-the-ear of Giggs also caused confusion, if the dumbfounded look on the Manchester United legend’s face was anything to go by.
Or maybe that’s just Giggs’ face, eh? The infamous friendly-forgoer has spent the last few years as a figure of fun, after all. This is the same failed pundit who once referred to the Premier League as a “war of nutrition”, and we all remember that viral team-talk video. Yet on his first competitive night in the Wales hotseat, this supposed fool made a far bigger one out of his opposite number — and with fewer established top-division players in his starting eleven, too. Unlike the last two Irish managers, Giggs was brave enough to give youth a chance; the likes of Ampadu, Roberts, Brooks, and the impressive Chris Mepham all repaid that faith in spades.
That’s the thing about reputations in football: they’re only as good or as bad as what you’ve done for us lately. Martin O’Neill, once the king, is a prime example. For a long time, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold — both as a player and as a manager. In his mind, he is still that man. But, in reality, the game has long since passed him by. And if humiliation at the hands of a joker, on his first real night in the job, is not enough to jolt either O’Neill or the FAI into reality then there really is no hope for weary Irish fans. The bell tolls for Martin; he just doesn’t want to hear it. He is the blind who once could see, and we are the poor sods who have to watch on grimly. Roll on October.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112