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Analysis: The 24 minutes that cost Ireland against Sweden

The Boys in Green could come to rue failing to hold onto their lead on Monday.

Republic of Ireland v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de France Ireland's Ciaran Clark, second from right, scores an own goal. Source: Christophe Ena

Overview

THERE HAS BEEN a somewhat mixed reaction to Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Sweden on Monday.

On the one hand, there were plenty of positives from the display — Ireland looked the better side for the majority of the contest and fully deserved their lead when Wes Hoolahan put them ahead in the 47th minute, before Ciaran Clark’s own goal 24 minutes later sent Boys in Green supporters into a stunned silence.

Yet conversely, there has been a sense of frustration owing to the eventual outcome. With Ireland having dominated much of the first half, Sweden looked there for the taking.

The Boys in Green went close on several occasions before finally breaking the deadlock early in the second half.

So ultimately, there was a feeling that for the second time in the last two visits to the Stade de France, the luck went against the Irish. Though Sweden, with 57%, dominated possession, they didn’t manage a shot on target in the whole match (own goals don’t count in this regard, naturally). Ireland, by contrast, had nine attempts on goal and four on target, but could only score once — a tally which they had averaged in group qualifying matches if you exclude the games against Gibraltar.

Nevertheless, having gone ahead, Ireland went into their shells a bit, with Sweden gaining the upperhand to the point where there was a sense of inevitability about the equaliser when it came.

Consequently, the 24 minutes between Hoolahan’s opener and Sweden’s equaliser was easily Ireland’s worst period of the match.

The Boys in Green allowed the Swedes back into the game and were fortunate not to concede on several other occasions before the goal eventually did come.

What’s particularly worrying from an Irish perspective is that there was a sense that this match was their big chance to get three points at the Euros. Now, in order to progress to the next round, they will most likely have to beat either Belgium — the team ranked second in the world by Fifa — or Italy, who looked extremely impressive in their opening encounter.

Martin O’Neill’s men have exceeded expectations before, of course, most noticeably when they beat world champions Germany, so a victory against either the Belgians or (potentially second string) Italians is not beyond them.

Therefore, there remains a sense of optimism in the camp that they won’t come to rue how they played in those fateful 24 second-half minutes against the Swedes, as they lost control of the game for the first time.

Ominous signs

chance

The signs were ominous straight from kick-off after Hoolahan’s opener, as Sweden created one of their best chances up to that point (see above).

The old cliché about sides ‘always being at their most vulnerable when they’ve just scored’ may not be backed up by statistics, but it almost rang true in this instance.

Sebastian Larsson got the better of Robbie Brady down Ireland’s left, and the Sunderland man’s cross went all the way to Emil Forsberg on the other wing. His cross narrowly missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with Ciaran Clark’s sliced clearance going out for a corner.

The sense of nervousness was palpable in the Irish backline. Sweden had a number of set-piece deliveries in quick succession that the Boys in Green dealt with in a less-than-convincing manner.

Certain players also were starting to tire. After 51 minutes, Kim Kallstrom’s free-kick found Oscar Lewicki free at the far post. The midfielder’s header across goal again narrowly evaded the lurking Ibrahimovic.

The chance arose primarily because of a lapse in concentration from Irish midfielder Jeff Hendrick, who in general had an excellent game the other day.

Notice the image below, as the Derby star is caught flat-footed, allowing Lewicki to pull into space. Before the Sweden game, Hendrick had played just one competitive match since March, so his fatigue unsurprisingly seemed to show to an extent in the second half.

ballwatching

Hendrick wasn’t the only player who looked jaded, which wasn’t a surprise. As the graphic below shows, Sweden had made almost twice as many passes as Ireland two-thirds of the way through the game, with a considerably greater level of accuracy to boot.

The Boys in Green were therefore doing the majority of the chasing, and in a humid day in France, such exertions were bound to take a toll on the players eventually.

passes

Bad decision-making/loss of nerve

Ireland have shown in the past that they are capable of passing the ball to one another and keeping hold of possession for a sustained period if they put their mind to it.

Yet, after taking the lead on Monday, all too often, there was a fearfulness to their performance, as certain players seemingly lost their nerve at crucial moments.

There were one or two good moments, with Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady usually at the heart of it.

Notice the clip below. It’s the perfect example of what Ireland needed to do more of when defending the lead — keep hold of the ball and frustrate the Swedes in the process.

needdomoreof

Ireland needed to get Brady and Hoolahan on the ball more after going ahead, given that they are comfortably the two most technically gifted players in the team.

Instead, playing long balls increasingly became the default decision, with Jon Walters and Shane Long not getting much joy in the air out of a well-drilled, highly physical Swedish backline.

That’s not to say, of course, that Ireland should have refrained from playing long balls entirely — a direct style of play can be highly effective when adopted in an intelligent manner. The problem in this instance was that too much of Ireland’s attacking play had an aimlessness and lack of composure about it, with the Boys in Green causing Sweden few problems and continually giving them the ball back as a result.

Below is a typical passage of play. There is no pressure on Ireland to score, yet a long ball is hoofed aimlessly up to Shane Long, and Sweden are almost immediately on the front foot again owing to this ill-conceived idea.

baddecision

Ireland played at times as if they needed a second goal when the best solution was to slow the game down as often as possible.

Look at the image below of another situation where Ireland have a free-kick.

lookforit

The two central midfielders, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, have their back to the ball. It’s instances like these why the pair are so often criticised. In an ideal scenario, with a player needed to slow the game down, a midfielder would come short to collect the free kick — it would almost certainly happen if it was Spain, Germany or even England playing — teams that Ireland are inferior to technically but should nonetheless be aiming to emulate to a degree.

Yet neither McCarthy or Whelan are confident enough to look for the ball in this instance, and consequently, Ciaran Clark is forced to hoof an aimless free kick to no one in particular.

This sense of anxiety and desperate need to get the ball forward is part of the reason why Ireland have been notoriously bad at defending leads over the years — it is part of the footballing culture in this country, and shows a lack of what people in the sport usually refer to as ‘game intelligence’.

Another example of this lack of patience can be seen below. Glenn Whelan does reasonably well initially. However, Ciaran Clark, instead of a playing a simple pass to his right with his teammate free and in plenty of space, he ill-advisedly launches a hopeful ball towards Shane Long. Unsurprisingly, Sweden are on the front foot again seconds later.

morepatient

In general, there was a lack of composure in Ireland’s play after they scored.

At one point, Darren Randolph launched a kick-out so far that it went out for a Swedish goal kick. On another occasion, after clever play by Wes Hoolahan, substitute James McClean received the ball down the left, but in a moment of over-excitability, the West Brom winger ran the ball straight out of play.

These basic errors, in which a simple five-yard pass was the much better option, were the story of the second half for Ireland — even in the 24-minute period under assessment, they were so common that it would be impossible to highlight them all.

Sweden target Ireland’s right-hand side

Sweden’s tactics in the second half were becoming increasingly obvious.

Ireland were playing with a diamond formation and so, Sweden aimed to work the flanks, with manager Erik Hamrén giving his full-backs licence to get forward on a regular basis.

They found plenty of joy down Ireland’s right-hand side in particular.

James McCarthy had been an injury worry ahead of the game, and so perhaps it was no surprise that he looked a little sluggish at times.

The Scottish-born midfielder, as the player on the right hand side of the diamond, was expected to offer full-back Seamus Coleman a degree of protection.

Yet on too many occasions, McCarthy was badly positioned. Notice the image below, in which Swedish left-back Martin Olsson is given all the time and space in the world to deliver the ball into the box — the move eventually ends with Ibrahimovic steering a shot narrowly wide of Randolph’s post.

usingtheflanks

It was not an isolated incident. Notice the clip below where again, McCarthy fails to get tight enough, in the process allowing Olsson to deliver another dangerous ball into the box.

usingflanksagain

And again, look at the image below and count how many Swedish players are operating in that small space down Ireland’s right. These moves fell flat once or twice, but the persistence eventually paid off.

targetingrightside

It was therefore no surprise that when the goal did eventually come in the 71st minute, the attack once again emanated down Ireland’s right-hand side, which the Swedes had consistently targeted since half-time.

Source: Stadium Astro/YouTube

Could more have been done to stop the equaliser?

Let’s now look at the Swedish goal in detail.

It started with a throw-in down Sweden’s right side just inside the Irish half. As you can see from the image below, Ireland have plenty of players back and look relatively well organised.

setup1

The ball is passed towards the centre of the pitch, and still there is no obvious cause for alarm.

setup2

An initial move breaks down, as Ibrahimovic’s through pass is blocked by Whelan. However, it is then that Sweden show a bit of class.

setup3

Forsberg, Guidetti and Ibrahimovic link up superbly. The star striker then bursts past a slightly flat-footed John O’Shea to gain a yard of space, with Coleman simultaneously distracted by the presence of Forsberg, before Ibra’s dangerous cross is diverted into the goal by a despairing Clark.

One the one hand, it was a brilliantly worked goal, so Sweden deserve plenty of credit from an attacking viewpoint.

From Ireland’s perspective, although it was far from abysmal defending, the setback was still certainly preventable.

Firstly, McCarthy could have anticipated where the threat was coming from. He probably had an eye on Olsson, but the defender was uninvolved and a mere onlooker. A sharper player might have sensed that Ireland were about to be outnumbered in attack and helped out his defenders. Instead, the exhausted-looking Everton midfielder was a virtual bystander, as a rare moment of inspiration from Ibrahimovic, who was having a quiet enough game up until then, broke Irish hearts.

mccarthy

You could also question the other Irish players highlighted below. They are far too static and simply don’t sense the danger quick enough, with Sweden’s star man taking full advantage of this momentary collective lapse in concentration.

static

Finally, Ciaran Clark, unfortunate as the goal was, could have done better. The image below highlights his position with the star indicating where he should ideally be.

outofposition

Again, it would be unfair to place too much blame at the Aston Villa defender’s door. He had an excellent game in general, and most other defenders would have reacted similarly. However, the problem was that he was playing on instinct. A truly world-class centre-back would think about it more and realise that he needs to be deeper in that situation.

Clark is possibly worried about the attacker behind him, but Robbie Brady appears to have him covered. There was an element of bad luck in keeping with Ireland’s afternoon, but the 26-year-old had a split decision to make, and he got it wrong unfortunately for Ireland.

Summary

As encouraging as much of Monday’s performance was against Sweden, Martin O’Neill will know there is still much room for improvement.

The very top sides are experts at defending leads and killing off games — Ireland’s upcoming opponents Italy produced the perfect template the other night in their impressive 2-0 win over Belgium.

O’Neill’s men, by contrast, looked deeply uncomfortable after going 1-0 ahead.

An anxiety increasingly crept into the Boys in Green’s play, as they determinedly blasted the ball forward unthinkingly when a simple pass was on, or when a midfielder failed to do his job and show for the ball.

Moreover, Sweden unquestionably went up a level after going behind. John Guidetti replaced Marcus Berg after 59 minutes, forming a three-man attack alongside Ibrahimovic and Forsberg.

The Swedes put Ireland under increasing pressure and targeted Martin O’Neill’s team’s right-hand side in particular, with full-back Olsson getting plenty of joy as he was afforded too much room by a tired McCarthy.

The pressure eventually told and there was a sense of inevitability about Sweden’s equaliser, even if they ultimately went the entire match without registering a single shot on target.

Ireland will need to learn quickly from how they mis-handled an initially promising situation. It’s integral that, in future, they don’t get overcome by the psychological pressure of having to defend a lead and instead continue to show the good habits they had demonstrated before going ahead.

Otherwise, they will probably struggle against Belgium and Italy — two sides who are unquestionably superior to Sweden in terms of footballing talent.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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