Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
“We want to be on the front foot,” Martin O’Neill insisted to Sky Sports before kick-off. “We have certain players here who I think will adjust. This is an opportunity while we’re playing at home to go on the front foot.”
Unsurprisingly, it was not to be. Denmark, as expected, owned the football throughout this grim Nations League meeting; and the Republic of Ireland let them.
Age Hareide’s central midfielders, Thomas Delaney and Lasse Schone, had it easy. O’Neill’s midfield diamond applied little pressure to Denmark’s holders, choosing instead to cut off their passing lanes. Martin Braithwaite, a striker-cum-winger by trade, proved a pale imitation of regular number-10 Christian Eriksen. The Middlesbrough forward struggled to flourish in the tight spaces between Irish lines, effecting just 18 first-half touches.
Passage through the centre denied to them, Hareide’s side turned instead to a familiar tactic. Switches of play to the full-backs were a potent weapon for Denmark throughout November’s playoff triumph over Ireland. And the same ploy also inspired their opener against Wales last month; right-back Henrik Dalsgaard cutting back for Eriksen (who else?) to fire home.
Both Dalsgaard and left-back Jens Stryger Larsen were free as birds here, courtesy of Martin O’Neill’s new-look 3-5-1-1 formation. Tried from the start in a competitive fixture for the first time, the system predictably suffered some significant teething problems. Diagonals toward the right-touchline, where Dalsgaard was faithfully stationed, were frequent. Callum O’Dowda, a fish-out-of-water in central-midfield for the fourth game in five, could do little to stop the resultant crosses before his injury-enforced removal.
One of them, cleared to Sisto, could have broken parity, were it not for the Celta Vigo winger’s unfortunate brush with a post. The inside-left, who was lucky to retain his spot after a disappointing outing against Wales, was shown onto his stronger right foot by both Matt Doherty and Cyrus Christie.
Christie, like O’Dowda, was trying desperately to cope with life as a square peg in a round hole. Fielded — for some unknown reason — in central midfield, the Fulham right-back seemed understandably unsure of his positioning. And, while Eriksen’s absence let him off the hook, the 26-year-old’s second-half booking — after getting caught on the wrong side of Delaney — came as no surprise. Nor did the 84th-minute clanger he dropped, when his poor body shape turned an attempted Shane Duffy pass into a Sisto interception. Darren Randolph denied Braithwaite; one of only two saves the Irish goalkeeper needed to make on Saturday evening.
James McClean, too, floundered in unfamiliar environs. Rather than partner Shane Long up front, as many expected, the Derryman instead reprised the left-wing-back performance that stunk up Ireland’s June friendly against the USA. The poppy-eschewer should have been booked inside two minutes for chopping down Yussuf Poulsen, after a characteristically poor touch encouraged the in-form Leipzig forward to press. Predictably, however, the Stoke winger promptly undid that good fortune upon moving into central midfield after half-time; his last-minute yellow-card was as stupid as it was needless.
At least Kevin Long shone on the night, justifying his inclusion on the left of O’Neill’s back-three. The Burnley centre-back covered a multitude of McClean sins, winning his personal duel with Poulsen — no mean feat. Intent upon assuming centre-forward positions as always, the Leipzig battering-ram would have been better served staying wider to combine with Dalsgaard.
Long balls…to Long
Combinations of any kind were few and far between for Ireland, of course. O’Neill’s plan-of-attack (one might charitably say) once more consisted only of hopeful long-balls kicked in the vague direction of a lone striker. Long battled manfully against Simon Kjaer and Zanka, but he needed a real partner. Indeed, Ireland’s best attacking moments of the night arrived in the immediate aftermath of Callum Robinson’s arrival. The Preston striker quickly became the first Irishman to recover a Long flick-on. Ireland duly worked the ball left, where Enda Stevens’ cross was cleared to Christie — who forced Kasper Schmeichel’s only save of the game.
That was Ireland’s only shot of any description in the second-half, after managing only a paltry two before the break. One of those two, the only big chance of this game, resulted from Long’s closest support, Jeff Hendrick, turning down a chunk of Thomas Delaney charity. It took an injury to Harry Arter, surprising reintegrated into a defensive-midfield berth in which he’s flopped before, to earn his teammates a genuine chance at goal.
Confronted with a one-on-one, Hendrick, however, fluffed his lines, as he so often does for Burnley. Despite playing mostly as a number-10 for Sean Dyche’s side, the midfielder has managed only 5 goals and 3 assists in 72 Premier League games. That he’s recently lost his place in the Clarets eleven comes as no surprise, given such a negligible attacking contribution. He truly is Irish, isn’t he?
To Hendrick’s credit, he did create a set-piece chance for Shane Duffy with a decent delivery prior to half-time. But given a first-half in which Ireland managed just 38% of the possession and attempted one measly dribble, credit wasn’t exactly difficult to earn.
Hendrick did, however, get a real shot at redemption on 65 minutes upon Arter’s removal from the fray. On a yellow card for a stupid foul on Braithwaite, the Cardiff City midfielder made way for Robinson in a surprisingly attacking gambit from O’Neill. Hendrick duly dropped into the deepest midfield role, a role in which he crashed and burned against the Danes back in November.
Ireland had already survived a set-piece scare, when a goalbound Kjaer header was cleared off the line by Arter. And Denmark appeared to be finally turning the screw. But Hendrick and co. held their own, aided and abetted by Hareide’s desperately negative decision to replace striker Kasper Dolberg with Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen. Perhaps frightened by Robinson’s newfound understanding with Long, the Norwegian decided to have what he held; Christensen duly sat alongside Schone, with Delaney promoted to the number-10 spot. No room, therefore, for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, the one (available) Dane possessing of the guile needed to unlock a massed defence.
O’Neill eventually enacted a defensive tweak of his own, seemingly requesting Robinson to help form a midfield four in the defensive phase. Stryger Larsen’s back-post cross to the unmarked Poulsen, who had just drifted offside, probably forced the Derryman’s hand in that regard. But O’Neill still knew that at least one home win is a must, if Ireland are to avoid both relegation and a dreaded third-seeding in March. The sight of the 66-year-old rushing to retrieve the football in injury-time attested to that.
The sight of Duffy diving in the box, in a pathetically-poor attempt to win a penalty, won’t have pleased the Irish manager, however. Nor will this result, which leaves Ireland needing a win at home to Wales on Tuesday to stand any real chance of staving off the wooden spoon.
Injuries to Chris Mepham, Ethan Ampadu and Gareth Bale offer hope; perhaps this lucky general’s seemingly infinite reserves of luck haven’t quite run out just yet. But for weary Irish fans, who tire of this ill-prepared man and his unwatchable football, Saturday’s deadlock against Denmark is a disaster — adding up to neither a meaningful result, nor a meaningful parting of the ways.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112