Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
When Giovanni Trapattoni first assumed the Republic of Ireland reins in 2008, much was made of the Italian’s legendary focus on football’s “little details”, manna from heaven for an Irish faithful weary of Steve Staunton’s rank amateurism. Not even the simple act of defending a throw-in, allegedly practised ad nauseum in pre-match training sessions, escaped Trapattoni’s obsessive eye. The message was simple: there is no grand ideology; ultra-pragmatism and attention to detail will win the day.
No prizes for guessing, therefore, what “Trap” would have made of Finland’s first ever winning goal on Irish soil. The Italian’s percentage football may have been exceedingly unambitious and dull to watch, but it’s difficult to imagine Ireland defending a throw-in in such an abject manner under his watch.
Quite why all three Irish central midfielders thought it a good idea to swarm around the throw-in’s recipient, Fredrik Jensen, is anyone’s guess. But, whatever inspired it, that passage of play underlined the complete lack of structure to Ireland’s defensive shape on Sunday evening better than any other.
It could be argued that Kenny’s surprising decision to replace all three engine-roomers from the draw in Bulgaria was designed to lower expectations from the start, a signal that the new Irish manager sees the Nations League as an opportunity to experiment and give players a chance to show what they can do. On Thursday night, this writer presented an argument that James McCarthy is neither a natural elite-level screener nor a playmaker — and never will be, despite Kenny’s publicly expressed hopes to the contrary. But Harry Arter, fielded as an anchorman on Sunday in McCarthy’s stead, is merely a budget version of the Crystal Palace midfielder’s archetype: a tireless runner with limited positional restraint, who keeps it simple in possession.
Arter predictably spent the evening running around like a blue-arsed fly, while his new partners, winger-by-trade Robbie Brady and greenhorn Jayson Molumby, showed little capacity to either fill the yawning gaps either side of him or make any impression in the Finland half. Robert Taylor, a Norway-based midfielder who failed to make the grade in England, must have thought all his Christmases had come at once.
Taylor, who spent the game switching between the right and left of Finland’s midfield triangle, wasted no time in signalling his intent to make line-breaking forward runs, runs that neither Brady nor Molumby were capable of matching. It was Taylor, free in the pocket behind Brady, who teed up Pukki’s golden first-half chance with a through-ball. And those roles reversed in the build-up to Finland’s winner, when Pukki cleverly filled the space between the lines Ireland’s Keystone Cops midfield created by rushing together to the same throw-in fire.
This was an obvious, pre-planned pattern-of-play to Finland’s attack: Pukki dropping off into ever-present space between the Irish midfield and defence, matched by another player, usually Taylor, running in the opposite direction. No such patterns were evident in the Irish attack, with Kenny’s blunt side again relying on errors forced by pressing high at restarts to create chances.
And, although Callum Robinson probably should have equalised from that avenue, it’s important to point out that this tactic only started to pay off in the second-half as the Finns tired. Prior to half-time, Markku Kinerva’s side played around Ireland’s high-press with ease by simply chipping medium-range passes to their free wing-backs: with two Finnish strikers to worry about, both Irish full-backs looked keener to tuck in and cover their one-paced centre-backs than move forward and press their direct opponents. And, as always, when you don’t press as a team, you will get picked off: Pukki’s original strike partner, Joel Pohjanpalo, was twice found in the box by first-half crosses from Finland’s free wing-backs. Ireland, meanwhile, only touched the ball in the Finnish box once in open play before half-time.
In his post-match interview, Kenny appeared to obliquely refer to his side’s difficulty in adjusting to pressing the Finnish 3-5-2, sentiments that were also echoed by Arter. Such sentiments are odd given that Finland utilised the exact same system throughout their narrow defeat to Wales: what exactly were Kenny and his players expecting?
Equally odd was Ireland’s insistence upon wasting their numerical advantage in wide areas, a classic hallmark of the 4-3-3 vs. 3-5-2 match-up. Incredibly, Enda Stevens touched the ball a whopping 121 times, Xavi-like numbers that are rarely accrued by a humble left-back. And yet, in a repeat of Thursday night, Ireland’s appallingly poor combinations (or lack thereof) in wide areas wasted Stevens’ continual advances into opposition territory. Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, Matt Doherty once again looked more interested in drifting inside, rather than offering the disappointing Callum O’Dowda a complementary outlet on the overlap. The new Tottenham signing simply looks lost without an out-and-out winger facilitating his tendency to underlap.
Such a marked lack of fluidity is easily excused by the fact that Kenny has had very little time to work with his new charges. But the 48-year-old, who is on record as believing in “only one style of play”, has only himself to blame for a paltry return of one point from two competitive games against lower-ranked opposition. Asking your players to implement a high defensive line is not always advisable, especially when you’re facing a good footballing side while carrying two centre-backs who are both unaccustomed and unsuited to doing so. This becomes a particular problem when you’re trying to press a 3-5-2 which, if done properly, would have risked leaving Shane Duffy and John Egan without cover against the Finnish strikers.
This is why top managers who like their sides to press have tended to match back-threes with back-threes of their own in recent years: playing wing-backs of your own is seen as the safest way to press the opposition’s wing-backs. Sadly, however, Kenny seems just as wedded to 4-3-3 as he is to every other principle he holds so dear. And that, unfortunately, makes Ireland’s chronic lack of a natural number six even more dangerous than it already is. Until he finds such a player, Kenny must consider fielding a double-pivot in front of his defence, especially if he continues to insist on implementing such an expansive, pressing style. Fail to do so, and the space exploited by the likes of Taylor, Pukki and Bulgaria’s Todor Nedelev over the past week will continue to manifest. Such are the “little details” upon which a manager’s reputation rests: in international football, pragmatism defeats idealism every time.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112