Wessi: Wes Hoolahan at squad training last night. Donall Farmer/INPHO
Numbers Game

Where will Ireland's goals come from against Bosnia?

We looked at the stats ahead of the Euro 2016 playoff games.

WHEN JOACHIM LOW attempted to explain away his side’s loss to Ireland at the Aviva last month he made a remark about the 100 long balls his side had to defend.

Martin O’Neill didn’t think Ireland had kicked 100 balls long.

Had Low been unfair or was he making a valid point about Ireland’s style? Well, the football analysis website WhoScored define a long ball as anything over 25 yards (which seems far too broad) but the figures from the game show Ireland with 60 long balls, Germany with 59.

Delve deeper though and that’s 60 from 292 total passes for Ireland against 59 from 748 for Germany. Go deeper again and well over half of Germany’s ‘long balls’ came from their midfield and attack; 37 of Ireland’s 60 came from the two keepers with another 16 from the back four.

Ireland used the long ball as it was the only way of getting some sort of territory in a game against a side as good as Germany but this isn’t entirely unrepresentative of Ireland’s style of moving the ball into attacking areas.

Look at the goals Ireland have scored in this campaign. If we ignore Gibraltar, Ireland had eight goals from eight games against Germany, Poland, Scotland and Georgia. Two came from corners.

Two were scored within one or two touches of the Irish goalkeeper’s kickout. One was from a penalty (which came about from a flick-on to a long ball). Two came from hopeful late crosses into the box. That leaves Jeff Hendrick’s piece of magic to set up a tap-in for Jon Walters at home to Georgia.

None of the goals came from moves with more than three Irish players involved. Ireland don’t really do neat, fluent passing football that creates triangles or overloads; it’s normally scrapping and getting on the front foot and/or moments of quality that creates goals – Shane Long v Germany and McGeady v Georgia were still really decent finishes of course.

(This isn’t a new issue obviously. Go back to the last campaign we qualified from – Euro 2012- and make a list of how we created the five goals scored against the top two seeds in the group — Italy, Bulgaria. Four set pieces and a long kickout.)

Ireland haven’t developed a defined way to create opportunities or an attacking plan you could put your finger on under Martin O’Neill apart from

  1. cross a lot from the full-backs/wings and
  2. kick the ball long. In just one game at home to Scotland Robbie Brady hit 19 crosses. In the last game of the group 35% of Ireland’s passes into the final third were long balls; Poland had 10%.

It’s why Wes Hoolahan hasn’t been quite as influential on Ireland’s attacking play as is sometimes suggested. Hoolahan’s always been bright and moved the ball smartly but he’s rarely opened opposition defences up with a dinked pass or a run in behind (like here for example:

Norwich City TV / YouTube

In the Premier League this season he’s scored a goal, has five assists and has created 20 chances in 11 games for Norwich. He’s averaging 43 passes a game and had 29 passes in the final third alone against Swansea last weekend.

With Ireland, Hoolahan hasn’t been able to get on the ball in those sort of spaces or create anything like that level of chances. He had one assist (again ignoring Gibraltar games) — a header back across goal from a corner at home to Poland which was a bit of an unlikely source anyway – and his possessions are down generally as well.

He had a quite low 31 passes against Germany – which you’d explain from Ireland’s problems just getting on ball – but even in the home games with Scotland and Poland it was down at 25 and 36 attempted passes. For a player with clever movement in the final third he’s rarely got into goal-threatening positions himself — one chance away in Germany where he really ought to have scored jumps out.

If you look at, say, the two assists Hoolahan had against Sunderland earlier this season, they came from clever link up play on the edge of the area, little one-twos and combinations with midfielders and full-backs.

Football AD / YouTube

This Irish team just hasn’t manufactured those sort of positions and it’s hard to remember Hoolahan finding himself in those areas at any stage of the bigger games.

Ireland haven’t provided the runners or movement to pick out passes (though it’s a slight surprise he hasn’t linked up more with Seamus Coleman down the right). Even when Ireland really needed him on the ball in the last quarter hour in Poland he only had four passes and couldn’t make anything happen in the right areas.

It’s why the ‘pick Wes’ debate is almost irrelevant. Ireland needs Wes in the team to be bright and inventive and create openings but Ireland just isn’t set up to be a Wes sort of team. Actually, if it’s anyone’s team then it’s probably Jon Walters, who’s been Ireland’s most productive attacking player in this campaign.

James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan haven’t been able to control games with any sort of meaningful streaks of possession. In what was meant to one of McCarthy’s best games for Ireland at home to Germany he had 15 successful passes from 21 attempted passes in the entire game. Away in Poland days later that was 18 from 24.

McCarthy averages 50 or 51 attempted passes a game with Everton and even in recent games where you’d expect that number to be down he had 36 against Arsenal and 40 against Man Utd. There are differences in style of play (possession is encouraged under Roberto Martinez more so than under O’Neill’s Ireland) and differences in positional role, with McCarthy often deeper lying for Everton but pushing ahead of the ball slightly more for Ireland, but that’s still a big fall off.

Interestingly, Glenn Whelan’s passing rate drops off as well from Stoke to Ireland games. With Stoke he’s hitting on average 55 passes a game this season so far; recently against Arsenal he had 36 attempted passes. With Ireland that’s dropped to 39 in the two home games with Scotland and Poland and then just 14 away in Poland last time out. If Ireland’s two midfield playmakers are only attempting 38 passes between them (as against Poland) then it’s extremely difficult to create any rhythm or momentum to their football.

Because Ireland demand less obvious sitting in front of the back four from McCarthy they may need him to be more proactive to create more regular chances. We had a glimpse recently of how McCarthy can run hard in support from deep – something we really don’t see that often — and then have enough composure to make that last pass also (watch how he commits to the counter-attack here against Sunderland:

Samuel Silitonga JR - II / YouTube

The one time he’s done this for Ireland was in Georgia and it made a goal for Aiden McGeady:

Garry Potter / YouTube

McCarthy has a clearly defined role with Everton and can often get away with playing the simple ball to more obviously creative players like Barkley or Deulofeu; Ireland have more need of conviction and directness of passing. It’ll be vital Martin O’Neill can find the proper balance between what McCarthy can bring and what Ireland needs.

Ireland will need goals and they may need to look for different ways of finding them.

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