PREVIEW: O’Neill likely to play into Hareide’s hands again

Alan O’Brien 

Having experimented with 3-5-2 in three of the Republic of Ireland’s last four friendlies, Martin O’Neill looks likely to give the system its competitive bow on Saturday. Age Hareide, mastermind of Denmark’s 5-1 triumph in Dublin last November, must be licking his lips.

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For even without talisman Christian Eriksen, sidelined due to an abdominal injury, Hareide should be brimming with confidence. A staggering haul of 14 goals and five assists in Denmark’s last 18 games suggests that the Tottenham playmaker will be sorely missed. But O’Neill’s failure to attend to all matters tactical has played into Hareide’s hands before; and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again.

Weekend at Bernies

November’s catastrophically loose Irish diamond, that so gifted Eriksen the freedom of Dublin, will live long in the memory. As will O’Neill’s similarly ruinous half-time changes that left only Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady minding the central-midfield house. Eriksen duly ran riot, bagging a famous hat-trick that powered his nation toward an eventual last-16 exit in Russia. O’Neill’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves of luck had finally run dry.

And yet the 66-year-old’s reign as manager of the Republic of Ireland, moribund if not entirely dead at that point, drags on to this day. As does his now universally accepted disinterest in tactical instruction. Last month’s 4-1 reverse in Cardiff, throughout which O’Neill’s incredibly open 4-4-2 was engulfed by a Welsh wave of the future, hammered yet another nail into an already hermetically-sealed coffin.

Perhaps another Hareide-orchestrated humiliation will be enough to convince the FAI to drop their ‘Weekend at Bernies’ charade. O’Neill, meanwhile, is hopeful that Eriksen’s absence will keep his zombie tenure alive. The 26-year-old, missing only his eighth international in eight-and-a-half years, is undoubtedly impossible to replace. With no other natural number-10 available to understudy for the Spurs man, Hareide will almost certainly deviate from his preferred 4-2-3-1 system. Instead, a 4-3-3 seems likely, allowing Denmark’s wide players to play higher up the pitch than usual.

Wing-backs…

This alone could spell disaster for Ireland. Shorn of injured full-backs, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Ward, O’Neill finally appears ready to hand Wolves wing-back Matt Doherty a competitive start. Having swung from not rating Doherty as a defender to not rating him as an attacker, O’Neill has finally settled on the former. Explaining Doherty’s prior position below Cyrus Christie in the pecking order, the Derry native insisted: “[Doherty]’s essentially a wing-back now and it’s difficult [to include him] if we’re playing a back four.”

“So if he is going to come in you’d like things to be as comfortable for him as possible. And if we make adjustments for him: so be it,” O’Neill continued. Good news too, therefore, for Enda Stevens, whose performances at left-wing-back have helped Sheffield United to scale the Championship summit. But there’s little to suggest that either Stevens or Doherty will ply their respective trades in a cohesive defensive unit on Saturday.

O’Neill, brazenly hubristic as ever, thinks otherwise. On Tuesday he waxed lyrical about his long storied history of coaching back-threes, dating back to converting Johan Mjallby and Joos Valgaeren into outside centre-backs at Celtic. That boast formed part of a defence of Christie, who was savagely criticised by the BBC’s Alan Shearer for his part in Fulham’s 5-1 defeat to Arsenal.

Having apparently spoken to Christie, O’Neill alleged that his club manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, had told the defender to “stay up the pitch and not worry about getting back.” O’Neill then went on to shift the blame onto Fulham’s right-sided centre-back Denis Odoi, who should have been “thinking about that space in behind the wing-back.” My Johan and my Joos wouldn’t even have hesitated, in other words.

While there’s some validity to O’Neill criticisms of Odoi, who was indeed hesitant on the cover, obviating Christie of all blame is obviously ludicrous. As is the suggestion that Jokanovic, however cavalier he may be, was happy to let his wing-backs off the defensive hook against Unai Emery’s talented side.

…and the space behind them

But, above all else, O’Neill’s protestations reveal what long-suffering Ireland fans already know: that their manager believes not in defensive organisation, but in reactive, last-ditch defending. Recall, if you will, his weak response to criticism of Ireland’s short corner concession against Denmark in November: Harry Arter should have won his one-on-one with Pione Sisto. The two-on-one that Denmark worked time and time again — that Scotland worked in Celtic Park back in 2014 — wasn’t quite as important, in O’Neill’s eyes.

All of which suggests that Ireland’s outside centre-backs (possibly Ciaran Clark and Kevin Long) are bound for a torrid time on Saturday evening. Yussuf Poulsen, one of the Bundesliga’s standouts at Leipzig this season, will relish running into the space behind Stevens, to Clark’s left. Sisto, who flopped at the World Cup and in Denmark’s 2-0 win over Wales, may miss out, however.

In his place, Martin Braithwaite, who started up top against Ryan Giggs’ side, may be asked to start wide and drift inside into centre-forward positions. Given the aggressive manner in which O’Neill employed Coleman and Ward in Cardiff, it’s unlikely that Doherty and Stevens will help to form a five very often. Basic preparation like work on team shape is, of course, not in O’Neill’s wheelhouse; hopefully, for their sakes, Clark and Long can succeed where Fulham’s Odoi apparently failed.

Midfield

At least Shane Duffy appears suited to handling Andreas Cornelius. If, indeed, the off-colour Bordeaux target-man gets the nod in Nicolai Jorgensen’s continued absence. Kasper Dolberg of Ajax represents a more mobile, if far less experienced, option. But the 21-year-old, who saw just 15 minutes of action at this summer’s World Cup, is unlikely to feature from the start. Without Eriksen, Denmark’s need for a genuine attacking focal-point is greater than ever; expect Hareide to eschew the possession-based game that freed Eriksen between the lines against Wales in favour of a slightly more direct style.

Meanwhile, Eriksen’s probable replacement, Southampton’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, appears likely to join Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney in central midfield, with Lasse Schone dropped into a deeper holding-midfield role. Schone, a converted winger, has successfully dictated play at the base of Ajax’s midfield for some time now. But William Kvist’s infinitely more cultured international replacement is just as slow as his predecessor — and he’s far from a natural defender either. Ireland’s probable number-eights, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane, who formed a disastrously brittle partnership in Cardiff, may find their forward runs untracked on occasion — a potential boon that, of course, cuts both ways.

With David Meyler working his way back from injury, just one month after being bafflingly overlooked in Cardiff, Shaun Williams appears primed for his first competitive start at the age of 31. The Millwall captain is in the form of his life, having created 22 Championship chances — mostly from set-pieces — this season. And he’s more than accustomed to filling the number-six role, too. Eriksen’s absence makes Williams’ full debut infinitely simpler, but the box-to-box prowess of both Hojbjerg and Delaney should not be underestimated.

McClean the marksman?

Further forward, O’Neill has made much of Ireland’s long search for a proven finisher, claiming recently that he’s lacked one throughout the entirety of his five-year tenure. There is more than a little validity to that gripe, of course: Shane Long, for example, hasn’t scored for his country in two years. And, with Daryl Murphy over the hill and Jonathan Walters in Achilles hell, the options below Long in the pecking order aren’t exactly pretty.

Sean Maguire holds great promise, but the ex-Cork City striker has only a scant few minutes under his belt following a recent hamstring injury. Scott Hogan is frozen out at Aston Villa, Aiden O’Brien has been playing wide-left for Millwall, and Callum Robinson — despite his recent form for Preston — showed in wasting two presentable chances against Wales that he may not be of the required standard.

All of which means that O’Neill’s darling, fellow Derryman James McClean, may return to the striking berth he sometimes occupied during Ireland’s ill-fated World Cup qualification campaign. Despite his technical and mental limitations, McClean is a good finisher, as demonstrated against Austria, Moldova and Wales. And, lest we forget, his partnership with Murphy was one of the few bright spots of Ireland’s demolition at Danish hands last year. Although they’re undergoing something of a resurgence, front-twos are still relatively rare in the modern game. And Denmark’s then-centre-back pairing of Simon Kjaer and the now-banished Andreas Bjelland found Ireland’s particularly hot to handle.

Both Murphy and McClean missed decent half-chances on that occasion; Kjaer and his new partner, Zanka of Huddersfield, will therefore need to have their wits about them. Particularly given Hareide’s penchant for encouraging his full-backs forward, a characteristic of Denmark’s play that theoretically presents Long with the chance to do what he does best — run those channels. Hareide is clever, however: expect to see right-back Henrik Dalsgaard play a more reserved role than left-back Jens Stryger Larsen, thus gifting his side the security of a spare man at the back.

Conclusion

Ireland, on the other hand, are unlikely to share in that security. Barring a miracle, Denmark will enjoy continual three-on-three situations up against O’Neill’s soon-to-be-beleaguered backline. And, if the Danes press like they did against Wales — and Ireland’s three centre-backs play short as badly as they did against Poland — restarts could be a particularly huge problem for O’Neill’s side.

Jurgen Klopp has always said that “no playmaker in the world is as good as a counter-pressing situation.” With no Eriksen, and no other number-10 to turn to, now might be the time for Denmark to prove that point once and for all.

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