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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 10 December, 2018
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397 minutes of football without a goal: Why can't O'Neill's Ireland seem to score anymore?

The Boys in Green have failed to score for four games in a row for the first time since 1996.

Ireland pictured before Monday's draw with Denmark.
Ireland pictured before Monday's draw with Denmark.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

MONDAY NIGHT’S 0-0 draw against Denmark was by no means a dull game from a neutral’s perspective.

The hosts played with a snap and venom which was very entertaining and made the game appear like something was genuinely at stake, despite the fact that promotion and relegation had already been confirmed for both sides.

Åge Hareide’s men created 26 chances on goal, hit the post once and dominated proceedings with an impressive 70% possession on a night when being a little bit more clinical in front of goal could have yielded a comprehensive win.

Aiden O’Brien and Richard Keogh Aiden O'Brien alongside Richard Keogh during last night's game at Ceres Park. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Statistics can be misleading and can also be construed to reinforce a preconceived point of view. But the fact that Ireland had just three chances of their own during last night’s stalemate — and none at all on target to test goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow — is evidence of a malaise which supporters have been fully aware of for quite some time now.

It can be difficult to point out the exact, precise reasons why Martin O’Neill was getting the best out of his players two years ago at the European Championships in France, and not now, but what is clear for all to see is that his side simply don’t score goals anymore.

Monday’s 0-0 draw was the fourth game in a row Ireland had failed to score. This was the first time since 1996 that the Boys in Green had struggled to find the back of the net for four games in succession — 397 minutes of play, to be exact, over six and a half hours of football.

Martin O'Neill during the National Anthems Martin O'Neill is the first Ireland manager to ever go four games without a goal. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Back in 1996 when a similar run was ongoing, the streak was overlapped between two different tenures — the end of the Charlton reign and the beginning of Mick McCarthy’s time in charge.

As pointed out by @Irish_Abroad on Twitter this morning, this means that Martin O’Neill is the first Irish manager in history to go four games without scoring; Giovanni Trapattoni (two games), Steve Staunton (three games), McCarthy (three games), Charlton (three games) and Eoin Hand (three games) all enjoying fewer streaks.

This fact does not lend itself to O’Neill, with the 66-year-old’s insistence that Ireland “don’t have a Robbie Keane anymore” adding a further layer of frustration for fans who would say the manager’s job is to get the best out of his players available, and not to lament the past.

I have had this problem with the national side here for five years,” O’Neill said when speaking about Ireland’s lack of goals last month.

“It’s been a long existing problem before that. I obviously inherited an older Robbie Keane than I would like to have done. But he was the only one that you could rely on to actually score goals.

“Jon Walters took on that mantle during the Euro qualifying. That was great. But you wouldn’t have said that Jon was a prolific goalscorer in that sense, certainly not in the way that Robbie Keane was.”

The Ireland manager continued:”In truth, we don’t have anyone who has proved themselves to be a prolific scorer. So, it is a difficult one.

Shane [Long] is not that (a prolific goalscorer). He hasn’t scored at club level now for quite some considerable time, and of course that plays with your mind.”

There are two key points when assessing Ireland’s current run of poor form in the goals department: accepting that the issue is not 100%, entirely the manager’s fault and secondly, that chances created must also be taken into account.

O’Neill insists that his side simply don’t have a prolific goalscorer, or even anything close to it, and to a certain extent he is correct. However the difficulty with this point of view is that it avoids taking responsibility for the system in place which does not facilitate goals in the first place.

Callum Robinson and Gavin Whyte Callum Robinson has scored seven goals in 16 appearances for Preston this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

An interesting debate has unfolded amongst Irish fans in recent weeks: would Robbie Keane score in this current Ireland set-up? Much like any hypothetical conundrum, it does not have an obvious answer.

But the question does bring the debate further on; to take a step back and analyse that the reason why Ireland might not be scoring goals is because there is a clear lack of service in attack and in midfield.

Former defender Gary Breen made this point speaking to Off the Ball last night, outlining that with Aiden O’Brien forced to play deep inside his own half, when Ireland did get the ball against Denmark, it was next to impossible for the Millwall man to make up the ground in search of a sight at goal.

O’Brien’s performance might have been criticised last night given that he failed to register a single shot on target during 66 minutes of play. But when the player is asked to sit deep inside his own half and play containment football — feeding off the odd long-ball hoofed in his general direction — then instead we see O’Brien with a degree of sympathy.

Shane Long Shane Long hasn't scored for Ireland since May 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

When we take Martin O’Neill’s system into consideration, it is clear that the lack of a Robbie Keane figure is not the only reason why Ireland are not scoring goals anymore — instead it comes down to the formation, the tactics and the overall direction given by the manager.

A 0-0 draw away to Denmark is, on the face of it, a good result on paper and one which most Ireland fans would have taken before kick-off last night. However the nature of the 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland, the 1-0 loss at home to Wales and the 0-0 at home to the Danes is where problems lay.

In those games, in front of a home crowd at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland looked second-rate and were second best on almost every conceivable level.

Being outplayed by better opposition at home can be accepted by supporters, but against a Northern Ireland side ranked lower than Ireland and a Wales team without Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Ampadu, it is not as tolerable.

Michael Obafemi with his mother Bola and brother Affy after the game Southampton striker Michael Obafemi made his senior Ireland debut against Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Looking at the numbers for the recent four games without a goal, Ireland had zero shots on target in Aarhus last night, two against Northern Ireland, five against Wales and one against Denmark.

O’Neill will say Ireland don’t have a goalscorer, his strikers will explain that they aren’t getting the service up front to score and fans will point out that the system which the Ireland manager adopts and enforces is not conducive to putting the ball into the back of the opposition net.

His side’s display in defence with a 3-5-2 formation to earn a clean sheet away to an impressive Danish side can, and should, be given its due credit. But Ireland’s goal drought is a serious and ongoing concern which needs to be addressed immediately with Euro 2020 qualifiers on the horizon.

Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson, Michael Obafemi and Ronan Curtis are not Robbie Keanes, but none are bad strikers to any extent. 

Source: Sky Sports Football/YouTube

In fact, Maguire scored 10 goals in 19 games last season, Robinson has scored seven in 16 appearances this year, and Curtis scored six goals in his first 10 appearances for Portsmouth this season having only made the move up from Derry City in the League of Ireland.

Granted, there are strikers like Shane Long (five goals in 30 games), Scott Hogan (six goals in 22 games) and Aiden O’Brien (one goal in nine games) who have not been in their best form over recent months.

But enduring 6.6 hours of football without a single goal is evidence of a much broader concern. Going four games without a goal shows that there is currently a disconnect between midfield and attack, and a disconnect between the manager’s approach and actually putting the ball into the back of the opposition’s net.

Speaking last night, O’Neill said that having a bedrock of a solid defence was the foundation on which Ireland could address issues at the other end of the field.

“We’ve drawn away from home tonight, and we will try and fix things,” he said. “We need to try and get a bit more creativity, which is very important.

Aiden O’Brien and Harry Wilson Aiden O’Brien battles for possession with Harry Wilson during Ireland's 1-0 defeat at home to Wales. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Another clean sheet is a start. I think if you start with clean sheets, then you can manoeuvre at the other end.”

Players naturally must shoulder their share of the responsibility and it is important not to lay the blame solely at one man’s feet.

But fixing the core issue, engineering a more positive style of play and taking the onus to command games against lesser opposition, would certainly help create more chances and therefore give Ireland’s strikers the best possible chance to at least try and score.

At the moment, the system in place is doing Ireland’s strikers a real disservice. Almost to an extent where even Robbie Keane, with an incredible 68 goals to his name, might just struggle to score in the current set-up. Maybe.

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About the author:

Aaron Gallagher

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