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Dublin: 2°C Sunday 11 April 2021
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Analysis: What does Glenn Whelan actually do for Ireland?

The Stoke midfielder has his detractors, but the role he performs with Martin O’Neill’s team is invaluable.

Whelan has his detractors, but Martin O'Neill clearly has faith in the midfielder.
Whelan has his detractors, but Martin O'Neill clearly has faith in the midfielder.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

GLENN WHELAN IS probably either the most overrated or underappreciated Irish player of all time.

Almost any other Ireland player who has played over 200 Premier League games and been such a prominent part of the Irish side for the past seven years would be considered a legend on these shores.

Whelan currently has 67 Ireland caps — five less than Liam Brady, eight more than John Giles and exactly as many as Roy Keane managed over twice the length of time.

But despite his willingness to show up time after time for international duty and demonstrate consummate professionalism, Whelan attracts the ire of many Ireland supporters.

Yet perhaps, instead of focusing on his weaknesses, people should celebrate Whelan’s virtues.

His first-half display in the away Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany highlighted Whelan’s many underrated qualities — he is the archetypal ‘unseen’ worker — never nominated for player of the season or even man-of-the-match, yet appreciated by those within the game, as illustrated by the insistence of Tony Pulis, Mark Hughes, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill to more or less continually pick him over the years when available.

What’s most impressive about Whelan is his diligence and sheer dedication to being a top professional. Many people in the game with twice his talent struggle to emulate half of what he has achieved.

The first-half of the Germany-Ireland game last year, in which the Boys in Green earned an unlikely draw against the reigning world champions, was an example of Whelan doing what he does best (last Saturday’s Stoke-Chelsea match was another).

Consequently, we’ve decided to take an in-depth look at exactly what makes him such a valued member of this Irish team…

Positional sense

Whelan’s heat map for the Germany game would probably not be particularly big. The Stoke midfielder spent the majority of the first half stationed in more or less the exact same position of the field (see pics below).

CENTRE

alwaysthere

This tendency is undoubtedly what alienates him from fans to a degree. Whelan is the antithesis of the classic all-action box-to-box midfielder, so beloved of many Premier League fans (Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in their prime were both classic examples of this type of player).

Instead of rushing about and playing on instinct, Whelan is a more cerebral footballer. He understands tactics and the importance of positional sense far better than someone like Gerrard, who despite his many intuitive talents, lacked the kind of discipline that the Dubliner possesses in spades.

Reading of the game

They’re not called ‘defensive midfielders’ for nothing. One attribute that players such as Javier Mascherano, Claude Makelele and all the other great players in this role have in common is that — as is also the case with the best centre-backs — their reading of the game tends to be exemplary more often than not. They therefore invariably appear to be in the right place at the right time to make a perfect tackle or intercept an incisive pass.

In the Germany game for instance, Whelan was regularly on hand to pick up the pieces whenever an Ireland set piece went awry (see below).

WELLPOSITIONED

Whereas defensive midfielders rarely play with the kind of freedom and ambition that footballers further up the field exhibit, they tend to be far more tactically aware than their more attack-minded counterparts.

Whelan is no exception to this rule. On the ball, he is not particularly gifted, but off the ball, he compensates for deficiencies in his game elsewhere. The clip below is a good example — he does really well to stop a German attack before giving the ball away carelessly and putting his side in danger in the process.

GOODANDBAD

Yet this example is uncharacteristic in a way also, as Whelan rarely takes risks in his passing, and has been criticised for this approach by some.

Conservatism

Another reason why Whelan isn’t exactly a fan favourite is due to his obvious lack of technical prowess compared with other Premier League stars. He is the anti-Wes Hoolahan on many levels, adhering to the philosophy: ‘Why play the ball forward when a sideways pass will do?’

It’s unfair to be too harsh on Whelan for this flaw in his game – after all, not exactly everyone can be Xavi. But the 31-year-old could still probably do a bit more to improve in this regard.

In a similar manner to his teammate James McCarthy, he needs to be braver and more positive, showing for the ball to give the defenders an outlet rather than forcing them to go long, or taking an extra second to see if the forward pass is on, rather than automatically choosing to play it backwards.

There are also times when he is in a good position to receive the ball but clearly doesn’t demand it loudly enough. Check out the example below, where the defenders ignore his availability and Ireland end up conceding possession.

DEMANDITMORE

Meanwhile, his eagerness to play the ball sideways rather than doing something constructive with it is so conspicuous in the clip below that it verges on self parody.

sideways

That said, passing it sideways or backwards is not necessarily the wrong option at times. In the clip below, he does extremely well to win the ball. He then looks quickly over his shoulder, realises no pass is on, and correctly chooses to return the ball to the centre-back.

Closing the space

It is games such as the Germany one where a player like Glenn Whelan really comes into his own.

In others, say Georgia at home, having Whelan in the team will always seem a bit redundant, as Ireland will have plenty of possession and will be on the attack for much of the game, and unlocking a defence is patently not the Stoke man’s forte.

But when Ireland are up against a side they are clearly inferior to, such as Germany, having an experienced defensive midfielder in the team like Whelan feels essential.

One of the complaints that RTÉ pundit Eamon Dunphy and many others have made about Whelan is that he doesn’t make enough bone-crunching tackles. However, diving in wholeheartedly to challenges (as someone like James McClean has been known to do) may impress supporters and give the stadium a lift, but it is often completely unnecessary.

For the sake of impressing your fans, a player is risking a booking or worse, so it’s not something a central midfielder should necessarily be doing too regularly.

What the Stoke man is good at is closing the space and jockeying opponents without panicking and resorting to a cheap foul.

Time and again, Germany — the same team who had beaten Brazil 7-1 only a couple of months previously — struggled to break Ireland down. It looked as if they were trying to thread the ball through the eye of a needle, and while it may look to the casual fan as if the world champions simply had an off day, making top-class players look so inept is something that requires serious effort, concentration and footballing intelligence. Whelan epitomised Ireland’s strengths in this regard, as he was regularly impeccably positioned, therefore causing a team as good as Germany to often look so ordinary and bereft of ideas.

closesspace

moreclosingspace

Watch how Whelan resists the temptation to dive in below, jockeying his opponent, before delegating left-back Stephen Ward with the responsibility of taking over his man-marking duties. This type of play goes largely unnoticed in real time, but it represents the type of organisational efficiency that is necessary on a consistent basis over the course of the game to achieve big results.

jockeying

Discipline

Whelan’s tremendous work ethic and level of discipline was replicated throughout the team on the night. Watch below as Ireland simply don’t give Germany an inch of space to exploit, with Stephen Quinn in particular showing the kind of intensity needed to survive against such high-quality opponents.

disciplineconcentration

Unlike many less disciplined midfielders, even as the game got stretched, Whelan managed to hold his position right in the centre of the field on a consistent basis, rather than getting dragged out of place and unwisely following the action.

doesntgetdragged

Conclusion

Ultimately, Whelan’s game ended prematurely in Gelsenkirchen. He went off with an injury that turned out to be a leg fracture, after attempting to block a Lukas Podolski shot and getting an accidental kick for his troubles.

The experienced midfielder’s absence was keenly felt from a defensive perspective, and Germany finally broke the deadlock less than 20 minutes later, as Toni Kroos powered home a wonderful strike.

Source: All Gamer and Maker/YouTube

However, from Ireland’s point of view, Kroos’ goal was eminently preventable. The Real Madrid midfielder had the kind of time and space to take on a shot that he was seldom afforded with Whelan on the field in the first half. Of course, Ireland rallied and John O’Shea scored a famous equaliser, but they may not have needed to had the Dubliner remained on the pitch.

Consequently, for Friday’s away game in Bosnia in particular, Whelan is likely to be a key figure. While their upcoming opponents are clearly inferior to the world champions, in addition to being unlikely to dominate possession in such an overwhelming manner, Ireland will likely start with a similarly cautious, defensive set-up, and the Bosnians may well put Martin O’Neill’s men under the cosh for long periods.

Whelan, with his leadership, reading of the game and work ethic, while being unlikely to win Ireland the match, could nonetheless have a big say in determining its outcome.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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