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Analysis: Ireland's poor preparation and tactics costs them against Denmark

The Boys in Green’s World Cup dream died in humiliating fashion at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday.

Ireland's Seamus Coleman and James McClean dejected after the match.
Ireland's Seamus Coleman and James McClean dejected after the match.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AT BEST, IT was a huge gamble. At worst, it was tactically naive. It is of course easy to say it in hindsight following a 5-1 loss, but even Martin O’Neill may privately now reflect that the decision to play a diamond formation against Denmark at the Aviva Stadium was misguided.

O’Neill knew his side needed to attack. He predicted beforehand that they would need to do something they have managed on just three occasions previously in their World Cup qualifying campaign (twice against Moldova and once against Serbia) — score two or more goals.

While he ignored calls for the inclusion of Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long in the team, there was still an element of adventure about the side he chose.

And to be fair to O’Neill, the diamond formation has served Ireland well in the past — they played it against both Italy and Germany, winning the two matches 1-0.

Yet, there have also been times where the diamond formation has not worked — most notably in the Euros against Sweden, when left-back Martin Olsson continually exposed the space afforded to him and eventually played a big role in rescuing a point for his side.

The difference between the Italy/Germany games and last Tuesday night is that Denmark, similarly to Sweden, play with a level of width that neither of those two teams do.

The German midfield, when they played Ireland, featured the likes of Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan, Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus — all good footballers, but players who like to come inside rather than hug the touchline.

Denmark, on the other hand, played over two legs with one out-and-out winger, Pione Sisto, and two overlapping full-backs – Jens Stryger Larsen and Andreas Christensen/Peter Ankersen.

Even in the first leg, when Ireland were playing what was essentially an ultra-defensive 4-5-1 formation for the most part, there were times where Denmark caused them problems out wide.

In the dying minutes, Yussuf Poulsen tested Darren Randolph with a header, after a terrific ball in by Larsen.

poulsen

Earlier, Larsen had gone close, after being found following a wonderful diagonal ball by defender Simon Kjaer.

larsen

These were two let-offs for the visitors, as they escaped Copenhagen with a 0-0 draw.

While Ireland clearly wanted to adopt a more attacking approach and play on the front foot at home in the second leg, that did not mean they were entitled to abdicate their defensive responsibilities.

Given that most of Denmark’s brightest moments in the first leg came from good wide play (as illustrated above), the message ahead of Tuesday’s game should have been to not afford them too much space on the wings.

Yet playing a diamond formation essentially created more space for Denmark’s attacking full-backs to thrive. Stephen Ward and particularly Cyrus Christie were not given sufficient protection at times, as Age Hareide’s side continually stretched the hosts.

Denmark realised this flaw in the Irish set-up. Though he makes a mess of it ultimately, notice the space Larsen has to run into early on in the game, in the clip below.

heknows

From the outset, with Cyrus Christie bombing forward and prone to the occasional error, it looked like the Danes would get considerable joy out wide.

In the clip below, it takes a fairly desperate last-ditch challenge from Harry Arter to stop Sisto rampaging forward down the left, after a mistake by Christie.

open

The set-up simply did not look right and commenting on Sky Sports, Ray Houghton called it as early as the fifth minute, when he said: “There’s so much space down the right-hand side. They look a little bit imbalanced, the Irish midfield, at the moment.”

The Danes were, of course, targeting the full-back positions. There was acres of the space in that area of the field, as the screenshot below demonstrates.

spacedowntheleft

Ireland’s inept preparation and failure to learn lessons from the first leg was highlighted by one piece of play in particular.

In pretty much an exact replica of the move in the first leg that caught out the Irish defence, Kjaer found an unmarked Larsen with a sweeping diagonal ball, but the full-back’s finish wasn’t good enough.

diagonal

Ireland did at least offer more of an attacking threat than in the first leg. In addition to the Shane Duffy goal, both Daryl Murphy and James McClean hit decent chances just wide that would have made it 2-0. However, that score would have seriously flattered the hosts, who were again being dominated in terms of possession and territory, with Ireland holding on for much of the opening 20 minutes.

As with the game in Copenhagen, the Boys in Green were panicked in possession at times. Check out the clip below, one example of many where an Irish player (Harry Arter in this instance) boots the ball away under little or no pressure.

arter

Contrast Arter’s panic with the manner in which Andreas Christensen glides forward and picks out an inch-perfect pass. The fact that the Danish defenders were often better on the ball on the night than the Irish midfield sums up the palpable gulf in class between the sides at the Aviva.

christansen

Yet the biggest problem early on was the left wing, which Denmark continued to focus on.

The diagonal ball from Kjaer to Larsen was attempted once again, but Christie was alert on this occasion and managed to intercept.

readsit

But even though they were a goal to the good, Ireland were clearly struggling. Their narrow midfield set-up was being exposed time and again, as the Danes continually stretched the opposition and made their width tell.

stretching

Christie was being dragged inside to help his centre-backs out. With James McClean up front and Robbie Brady effectively playing as a left-sided central midfielder, there was no winger in front of him to provide cover for the Middlesbrough man, so Sisto was being given far too much time and space to cause harm.

nocovering

On the rare chances Ireland had to counter-attack or at least keep hold of the ball for a few seconds, they were incredibly sloppy and invited more pressure on by giving it back to the Danes all too easily.

Arter and Randolph are the two culprits below, but really, more or less the entire team was guilty of treating the ball like a hot potato at times when someone was badly needed to control the tempo and kill the game for a few minutes.

poorball

givingitaway

The first Denmark goal, when it came, was another stark example of Ireland’s failure to learn past lessons. We saw already how they failed to learn from the Kjaer/Larsen combination from the first leg.

Martin O’Neill’s side have also been vulnerable to short corners before. Remember Shaun Maloney’s match-winning goal for Scotland in the sides’ Euro 2016 qualifier at Celtic Park?

Source: Scotland National Team/YouTube

Ireland were caught out by a short corner again at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday, but what made it worse was that they were given a clear warning just minutes earlier.

In the first instance, the hosts were slow to notice Denmark’s two-on-one, but fortunately from an Irish perspective, Sisto dwelled on the ball for too long, before Eriksen produced a rare poor delivery that failed to beat the first man.

corner1

For the goal, Ireland were again slow to get out, but on this occasion, Sisto chose not to pass to Eriksen but instead nutmegged Arter before providing the cross from which Christie would ultimately unwittingly divert the ball into his own net.

goal

From there, the Danes were in the driving seat. They had scored the vital away goal to put them in control of the tie and given O’Neill’s side’s poor goalscoring record at home, an Irish comeback always seemed unlikely.

With an hour to play, the Boys in Green were forced to chase the game, adopt a more attacking strategy and inevitably, there was greater space for the Danes to exploit. Some strange substitutions (taking Ciaran Clark off and putting Stephen Ward at centre-back; taking two defensive midfielders off and replacing them with Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan) only exacerbated the hosts’ problems, but it was that first goal that was the killer really and sucked all momentum out of a sporadically exuberant Irish performance.

The decision to play the diamond, though, perhaps backfired more so than any of O’Neill’s other calls. The hosts looked defensively suspect as a result. Ireland’s formation was criticised by ex-players Kenny Cunningham and Gary Breen, while even Danish boss Hareide indicated surprise that Ireland chose to play this way, affording the visitors so much space to expose them in such brutal fashion.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

Last night’s debacle is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Irish football’s problems>

Ireland’s system horribly exposed and the talking points from tonight’s play-off defeat>

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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