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5 lessons Martin O'Neill and Ireland can take from the 2018 World Cup

A number of trends have emerged from this summer’s tournament in Russia.

1. Minor miracles do happen

FIFA World Cup - Semi-Final England v Croatia Source: Liewig Christian/ABACA

Croatia, with a population of just over four million, are in the World Cup final. Uruguay, with 3.4 million, reached the quarters, having got to the semis in 2010 and the round of 16 in Brazil four years ago.

Other high achievers, Sweden and Belgium, with nine and 11 million respectively, are bigger but hardly huge. There were, of course, some heavy hitters in the quarters like Brazil (207 million) and France (66.9 million), but having a huge population is no guarantee of success.

According to the most recent census, the Republic of Ireland contains roughly 4.7 million people — more than Croatia. And before anyone mentions the level of competition coming from GAA and rugby, it is worth pointing out that sports such as handball, basketball and water polo are quite popular in Croatia.

Arguably an equally impressive example of a country punching above its weight with minimal resources is Iceland, who have a population of less than 400,000. They have managed to do something which Ireland have failed to do since 1990 — qualify for back-to-back major tournaments.

Granted, picking a random successful country and saying the Irish team should basically copy them is too simplistic, but there is certainly no harm in studying the possible reasons for the success of these countries and adopting elements of what they do to the Irish system.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the Irish system has been overhauled in recent years with the Player Development Plan and the introduction of the national underage leagues among other ideas. The success or lack thereof of those initiatives probably won’t be apparent for at least another 10 years, but Ireland have at least been securing some impressive results at underage level of late.

2. The biggest games are being decided by the smallest margins

FIFA World Cup 2018 / Round of 16 / Colombia - England 3: 4 iE Source: Elmar Kremser/SVEN SIMON

Apart from the odd anomalies such as Panama and Saudi Arabia, for the most part, the matches at this World Cup have been incredibly tight.

Take a look at the knockout stages. So far, four games have been decided by penalty kicks. The England-Croatia match, meanwhile, was the first encounter to finish directly after extra-time.

Of the other games, four have been won by two goals and the rest have been decided by one goal. The group stages were a similar story, with plenty of draws and late winners.

This trend was also evident in the 2014 World Cup, where barring the third-place play-off and Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final meltdown against Germany, only two knockout games were decided by two goals and the rest were won by a single goal or penalties.

The Denmark debacle aside, Ireland’s matches in the last qualifying campaign were generally tight — with the exception of the two Moldova clashes and the away tie against Georgia, the team never won by more than a single goal.

While the defence has usually been relatively solid under Martin O’Neill – Ireland impressively conceded just eight goals in 12 games during Euro 2016 qualifying, the side sometimes lacks composure in front of goal, as well as someone to control the play in midfield, with the team consequently struggling, particularly after going behind in games.

3. Set-piece prowess can win you games

Sweden v England - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Quarter Final - Samara Stadium Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Perhaps the biggest factor in England’s success story at this World Cup has been their excellence on set pieces.


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Of their 12 goals, an incredible nine did not come from play. It meant that at least one 52-year stat was broken, with the Three Lions surpassing the 1966 Portugal team, whose previous record had been unrivalled up until then.

Ireland have not been too bad in this regard of late — think back to Shane Duffy’s goals against Georgia and Denmark, or Daryl Murphy’s headed equaliser against Serbia.

Yet it is probably a skill that has not been maximised under O’Neill. Robbie Brady, the team’s foremost dead-ball expert, was unavailable for a portion of the campaign, so that didn’t help matters, and even when the Burnley player is fit, his delivery can be mixed on occasion.

There was clear evidence that Southgate and his charges worked hard on perfecting set pieces, and O’Neill and co must now do likewise prior to the upcoming Nations League fixtures, particularly with the Boys in Green not exactly blessed with an abundance of creative players who can open opponents up.

4. The best players and best team are not always the same thing

FIFA World Cup 2018 / Round of 16 / France - Argentina 4: 3 Source: Elmar Kremser/SVEN SIMON

Another point best epitomised by England. Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart, two players with plenty of trophy-winning experience, were discarded. Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, who has two Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy to his name, was left out of the starting XI, with the relatively unheralded but more technically accomplished Harry Maguire preferred in his place.

The system was prioritised above the players, and while the result was far from perfect, England did the reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in almost 30 years, which is an achievement that cannot be dismissed.

There were contrasting examples also where Argentina at times appeared to indulge certain underperforming stars, such as Javier Mascherano and Marcos Rojo, while never appearing to find a proper balance to the team despite a multitude of attacking options to choose from.

5. In football, significant setbacks are almost inevitable

France v Belgium - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Semi Final - St Petersburg Stadium Source: Tim Goode

When you recall many of the players who have impressed in the tournament, there is one common theme. To take a couple of examples, Kieran Trippier was let go by Man City in 2012. N’Golo Kante was playing with Caen in Ligue 2 four years ago. Denis Cheryshev, the tournament’s joint-second top scorer after Harry Kane, failed to make the grade at Real Madrid and is now with Villarreal. At 25, Harry Maguire has had just two full seasons in the Premier League and was playing in League One only four years ago.

There is an invaluable lesson there for Irish players there and indeed any young footballer. Some people are late developers, while talent can go undiscovered and just because an individual has spent time in relative obscurity does not mean he is incapable of playing at a higher level. Martin O’Neill’s squad have a number of stars playing outside of the Premier League, but the potential is surely there to perform at a higher level.

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Paul Fennessy

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