Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Twitter wasn’t around when last Mick McCarthy masterminded a 1-0 victory at Lansdowne Road. Yet, in a measure of how low Martin O’Neill has set the bar for his successor, we now have a good idea what the ensuing social media scenes might have looked like. Georgia are no Netherlands; Vladimir Weiss’ improving side are ranked a lowly 91st in the world. But, after watching the boys from the Black Sea comprehensively outplay our lads twice in the last three years, splitting the possession pie equally feels like major progress.
In reality, of course, it isn’t. Exultant Irish enthusiasm should be curbed, as their side once again belied the promise of a convincing half-time lead by slinking straight into their collective shell. Robbed of star playmakers Jano Ananidze and Giorgi Chakvetadze, Georgia added up to even less than the sum of their usual parts. They should have been emphatically put to the sword by McCarthy’s coterie of Premiership and Championship players. That they weren’t, and that they grew in confidence throughout a second-half in which Ireland failed to test goalkeeper Giorgi Loria even once, should give cause for concern.
Make no mistake, however: Ireland’s first-half showing was light years removed from the slipshod O’Neill days. Configured in a tight 4-3-3 formation, McCarthy’s men played to an obvious plan in all phases of the game. Without the ball, and at restarts, Ireland pressed high up the pitch as a unit, forcing Loria and his defence to go direct. Gone, therefore, are the days of an O’Neill player bombing out on a solo pressing sortie, priming a lovely gap for the opposition to exploit. And good riddance, too.
Indeed, Ireland’s first chance derived from that very insistence upon smothering Georgia’s build-up play. Jeff Hendrick, whose tireless honesty of effort overwhelmed 33-year-old Jaba Kankava at times, led the charge by winning possession from the Kazakhstan-based midfielder. And, crucially, Conor Hourihane was at close quarters too, ready to profit. The Aston Villa man ran off his marker to force a big save from Loria, highlighting the wisdom of McCarthy’s central midfield selection in the process. In Hourihane and Hendrick, the Barnsley native possesses two genuine box-to-box midfielders who, if given the opportunity, can resolve Ireland’s chronic disconnection between midfield and attack. And McCarthy’s canny decision to welcome Ireland’s only natural number-six, Glenn Whelan, back into the fold gives them licence to do just that.
Even allowing for the greater compactness McCarthy has already inculcated into his troops, the individual contributions of both Hourihane and Hendrick also proved pivotal to Ireland’s monopolisation of the second-ball. In scenes unseen during O’Neill’s reign, throughout which yawning gaps persisted between Irish lines, the home side completed 38 ball recoveries to Georgia’s 22. In other words, when the long ball to lone striker David McGoldrick was rendered necessary by Georgia’s press, McCarthy’s midfield invariably picked up the pieces.
Here, in resisting opposition pressure, there is unfortunately still much room for improvement. The welcome fluidity of Ireland’s new-look midfield three helped somewhat, as some clever positional interchanging allowed Ireland to work the ball through the thirds on occasion. But, despite winning a 57% share of first-half possession, the hosts generally struggled to progress the ball forward on the floor beyond the triangle formed by Whelan and centre-backs Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh.
Luckily for Ireland, however, McGoldrick was in absolutely inspired form. After struggling as a ten in Gibraltar, before being released to run in behind, the Sheffield United striker came across as a relatively limited operator. He was, after all, unattached at the beginning of this Championship season. But McCarthy’s faith in the 31-year-old, who excelled for Ireland’s new manager at Ipswich Town, was repaid in spades here, as McGoldrick pulled off a complete performance worthy of the standing ovation he later received.
As seen in the build-up to Hendrick’s winner on Saturday, chasing channel balls are one of this striker’s fortes; Georgia’s immobile centre-back pairing simply could not handle his incessant lateral mobility. And, as if their task was not difficult enough, McGoldrick also shone when dropping off between the lines, holding up the balls from which Ireland’s band of four attacking midfielders could feed.
McGoldrick, of course, also won the free-kick from which set-piece specialist Hourihane bagged the winner, turning a pretty harmless straight pass from Hendrick into gold by deftly spinning Guram Kashia. And Kashia’s partner Solomon Kvirkvelia took his turn at embarrassment too, by misjudging a long ball and allowing the fleet-footed McGoldrick clean through. Tellingly, however, that near-miss proved to be the game’s sole clear-cut chance; and it stemmed only from a Georgian error.
McGoldrick’s untimely poor touch, that rendered his shooting angle too acute, came as a blow for nervous Ireland, who found themselves midway through a half of benign Georgian dominance. Weiss’ side matched Ireland’s 57% first-half possession share, and the Slovak’s decision to shift the crafty Valerian Gvilia out wide occasionally hinted at possible glory. But Keogh and Duffy handily headed away the crosses that emanated from Gvilia’s right boot, even after Weiss ratcheted up the pressure further with a late switch to 3-4-2-1. Kankava’s long-range brush with the woodwork, earned after a tired Hendrick failed to press, was the closest the Caucasus nation would come to a scarcely-merited leveler.
It was hardly Louis Van Gaal’s four-striker siege, then. But Ireland hung on regardless, to preserve an encouraging 100% start to this qualification campaign. Let’s not labour under any illusions, however: sitting back on a 1-0 lead at home to Georgia for 45 minutes is unacceptable for a nation harbouring Ireland’s talent pool and aspirations. Only the O’Neill era makes it less so, plastering rose-tinted spectacles all over the faces of long-suffering Irish fans who just want something to shout about. And who could blame them? After five years of five-a-sides, set-piece chaos, tardy team announcements and tactical inertia, any semblance of coherence is bound to be jumped upon with glee. That clever first-half free-kick routine, from which Robbie Brady skied a Hourihane cut-back was arguably more indicative than anything else: finally, finally, we have a plan.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112