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Dublin: 9°C Thursday 22 April 2021

Analysis: Lack of confidence and individual errors cost Ireland automatic Euros spot

We take a comprehensive look at the issues that hampered the Irish team’s campaign.

IRELAND’S HOPES OF automatic Euro 2016 qualification ended on Sunday night amid a disappointing 2-1 loss to Poland.

Now that the dust has settled, we’ve taken an in-depth look at where it went wrong for Ireland in their final group game of the campaign.


Both sides lineup with more or less the same basic 4-2-3-1 formation (despite the suggestion of the Ireland graphic below).


As Martin O’Neill had hinted in his pre-match press conference, Wes Hoolahan, the man-of-the-match against Germany, was deemed unfit to play.

Following Shay Given’s injury, Darren Randolph maintained his place in goal after coming on against the world champions, while Seamus Coleman came in for Cyrus Christie. John O’Shea and Richard Keogh kept their places, with Robbie Brady reverting to left-back instead of the unavailable Stephen Ward.

James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan were the two sitting midfielders, while James McClean (left), Jon Walters (right) and Jeff Hendrick (centre) played in the slightly more advanced positions. Shane Long, meanwhile, was handed just his second start of the campaign in the lone frontman role.


Similarly, Poland had Lukasz Fabianski in goal, with Lukasz Piszczek (right), Kamil Glik (centre), Michal Pazdan (centre) and Jakub Wawrzyniak (left) completing the backline.

In midfield, Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak and Lech Poznan’s Karol Linetty sat deep, while Pawel Olkowski (right), Krzysztof Maczyński (centre) and Kamil Grosicki (left) in the more advanced positions (though the latter three tended to interchange at times), while Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski was on his own up front.

Scrappy opening

The first 10 minutes of the match were very scrappy. No real pattern was established with both sides sloppily conceding possession needlessly. These errors could probably be attributed to the fact that it was such a high-stakes game, with a Euro 2016 place up for grabs.

One example occurred in the third minute. The image below shows James McCarthy in a decent position. Jon Walters is running towards the ball and clearly calling for it.


Instead of picking out Walters, however, the Everton star decides to loft a rather aimless ball in the direction of James McClean, with the West Brom winger outjumped and Poland clearing relatively comfortably.

Ireland players choosing the wrong option and not playing the simple ball was to become a recurring theme over the course of the 90 minutes.


Despite Ireland needing three points or at least two goals, there was an element of negativity to their play in the early stages. Martin O’Neill’s side scarcely looked like a team that had set out to win the match

The below image is one of many examples. McCarthy wins possession and his immediate instinct, rather than turning on the ball and carrying it forward, was to pass it back to Randolph, who then hit it long and gave possession away in the process.


There’s not necessarily anything wrong with passing the ball backwards or going long on occasion – however, it should be a last resort. Ireland reverted to this strategy even in low risk situations. Compared to the Germany game, when they mixed pragmatism, with periods of decent possession football, in Warsaw, their attack play all too often seemed lazy and unimaginative.

Moreover, the instance above may seem insignificant in isolation, but when repeated over the course of a match, it has a big influence on how a game pans out.

It is consequently unsurprising that after a nerve-ridden opening 10 minutes from both sides, the Irish team’s consistently inept attack play seemingly gave Poland confidence. The hosts subsequently proceeded to grab the initiative, and dominated the majority of the half thereafter.

Lack of creativity

One incident encapsulated Ireland’s problems in the seventh minute.

Ireland won the ball in midfield and Jon Walters made a threating run forward.


Yet, with Wes Hoolahan conspicuous by his absence, Glenn Whelan was required to play the incisive through pass, with the 31-year-old midfielder not coming close to picking out his Stoke teammate. Ireland quite simply didn’t have the players on the pitch to open up the opposition at will.

Their continual stray passes and lack of threat going forward meant that Poland seized the momentum with Ireland being penned back into their own half.

The image below is a fair reflection of the pressure Ireland came under in the game’s first quarter.


No one taking responsibility in midfield

One of the main reasons why the pressure on the Irish defence became increasingly relentless was due to the lack of people in midfield taking responsibility to alleviate the pressure by offering the defenders an outlet.

Check out the image below


The gap between the midfield and the defence is far too wide. McCarthy, who is highlighted, should be at least 10 yards further back and in a position to receive the ball. Instead, however, there is little option but to go long.

Now watch the clip below. Notice number 21 (Jeff Hendrick) at the start of it. Instead of having the confidence to make himself available to receive the ball, he runs away from it.


Every top football team has at least one midfielder who links up the defence and the attack, constantly demanding the ball when the back four have it. Ireland simply don’t have that player, or at least didn’t on Sunday night. As a result of the lack of a midfield security blanket, the defence were being put under pressure from Poland’s attackers on a regular basis.

Of course, Ireland may have been under instructions to play it long as often as possible, so it’s harsh to lay the blame on individuals. But this safety-first, no-risk strategy ultimately ended up costing them.

After 20 minutes, Poland had 59% possession and were bossing the game as a result, and Ireland’s 4-2-3-1 formation was turning into a considerably less sophisticated-looking 4-5-1 more often than not.


Individual errors

The Boys in Green were also looking vulnerable at the back at times, with individual errors creeping into their game.

Watch Robbie Brady — not a natural defender — trying to play the offside trap, despite Lewandowski clearly being in front of him. This type of uncertainty seemed to afflict the entire back four at times.


With Ireland’s backs to the wall, and the visiting team dropping increasingly deep, it seemed only a matter of time before Poland scored, and so it proved.

The goal itself, where Krychowiak was left free to fire home on the edge of the box directly from a corner, was bad enough.

Source: Footy live/YouTube

However, the build-up that resulted in the concession of the corner was arguably even worse.

For once, an Irish defender (John O’Shea) chose to pass the ball under pressure when a booted clearance was required. McClean then lost a 50:50 tackle and Poland were able to work an opening, with Randolph needing to save a Grosicki shot from close range.

Ireland, of course, then went up the other end and scored almost immediately, with Shane Long winning a fortuitous penalty decision and Jon Walters stepping up to score.

The second goal Ireland conceded was similarly avoidable.

Source: goal!-online/YouTube

If you watch closely you’ll notice Robbie Brady leaves his man after getting needlessly attracted to the ball. Glenn Whelan, as a result, is forced to leave his man and mark the player Brady was supposed to be marking.

As a consequence, Maczyński, the player Whelan was originally marking, is left unmarked and delivers a pinpoint cross for Lewandowski to head powerfully home.

You’ll also notice how, in the build-up, Keogh is originally marking Lewandowski, but the Derby man is briefly distracted and drawn to another Polish player in the box. This moment gives the Bayern Munich star the half a yard he needs to take full advantage of the situation.

Lack of composure and anxiety in Ireland’s play

The second half was different to the first in certain ways, but also similar in many others.

In a manner reminiscent of the reverse fixture at the Aviva, the Poles became more nervy as the final whistle approached, and just their third-ever qualification for the European Championships came into sight.

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They sat back and played on the counter-attack and this almost worked on occasion — Seamus Coleman produced a goal-saving tackle on Lewandowski, while Randolph made an important save to deny Grosicki scoring a one-on-one.

Yet, for the most part, Ireland were handed the initiative, but again, failed to really capitalise.

Despite three attacking substitutions in the final half hour, with Robbie Keane, Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan being introduced, the Boys in Green managed just one clear-cut opportunity, as Keogh’s header from a well-executed McGeady cross forced Fabianski into a decent save.

Aside from this moment, there was an anxiety and overeagerness from Ireland in attack. It was, as if aware of the desperate nature of the situation, certain individuals wanted to be the hero and ill-advisedly tried to do everything on their own.

The composure, which had been so impressive against Germany (and was epitomised by Shane Long’s superbly taken goal) deserted the Irish team in Warsaw, with Keane blasting a shot well over and McClean guilty of overrunning it.

Consequently, a mixture of midfielders again seeming reluctant to receive the ball and too many careless, rushed passes, meant Ireland generally didn’t have the confidence to do anything other than go long.


Ineffectual long balls

With Shane Long going off, Jon Walters was the only recognised target man on the pitch for the majority of the second period, and even he isn’t the tallest.

Yet despite the lack of the height in the team and the introduction of the aforementioned three creative players, Ireland still primarily sought to play a long ball game, perhaps panicking a little under the obviously pressurised circumstances.

Time and again, players were consistently choosing the wrong option and making bad decisions.

For the final 20 minutes or so, Poland started to become just as negative as Ireland had been in the first half, continually putting all their players behind the ball.


One series of passes, with substitutes Hoolahan and McGeady inevitably at the heart of it, seemingly showed the Irish team the best way to expose the Poles was through wit and ingenuity.


Unfortunately though, despite this promising passage, the Boys in Green chose to revert to the decidedly less imaginative long-ball game mainly. In the final 10 minutes alone, Ireland and Randolph in particular launched at least five long balls into the Poland box.

The Polish defenders invariably looked well equipped to deal with the Irish threat and one statistic in particularly suggests Ireland’s route-one strategy was not the best of policies. The hosts won an impressive 65% of the aerial duels, meaning Ireland’s chances of benefitting from a classic Niall Quinn-type goal were probably a little more remote than usual.

In the dying minutes, Keogh and O’Shea (before he was sent off) effectively became makeshift centre forwards as Ireland shed any pretence of playing possession football in their desperate search for a goal.



However, despite the extra bodies in the box, the results were similarly fruitless, and Ireland had to ultimately be content with a place in the playoffs, as Poland secured Euro 2016 qualification with a famous win.


In the lead up to the latest Euro 2016 gameweek, Martin O’Neill said he would take a place in the playoffs if offered it, and few people would argue that Ireland deserved more following the disappointing performance in Poland.

The hosts were better tactically, technically and in almost every other aspect of the play.

Poland had better possession (55% to 44%), had more shots on target (five to three) and perhaps most disappointingly from Martin O’Neill’s perspective, won more of their tackles (81% compared with 48%) than the Irish team.

Ireland’s lack of confidence in possession and the midfielders’ unwillingness to offer themselves for the ball, an over-reliance on the long-ball game when Ireland didn’t really have the players to execute this plan and basic individual errors in defence and attack ultimately cost the Boys in Green an automatic spot at the 2016 Euros.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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