Goalkeeper and defence
SATURDAY’S 0-0 STALEMATE against Denmark will not be a game anybody will tell their children about in years to come. Talking afterwards, players spoke about how it had been a tough battle on the field — and it proved a tough watch for those in the stands too, with the visitors enjoying 61% possession and the lion’s share of chances.
Åge Hareide’s side had 12 shots in total during the game, with all three on target being calmly and cooly dealt with by Darren Randolph. The Ireland goalkeeper has been a consistently reliable performer between the sticks since taking over from Shay Given and David Forde, and it proves difficult to fault the Bray native’s displays in an Irish shirt.
Colin Doyle and Sean McDermott are his current competition, but it seems all but certain that Randolph will rightly take his spot in the starting XI against Wales tomorrow evening following another solid display at the weekend.
Martin O’Neill chose a 3-5-2 formation on Saturday and, in the grand scheme of things, that backline of Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and Kevin Long proved very effective. Many bemoaned the lack of attacking quality in Ireland’s play. But at the back, the three central defenders proved solid and convincing as Ireland secured their first clean sheet in seven games.
There were many issues with Saturday’s display but very few, if any, with that backline of Duffy-Keogh-Long. O’Neill would be wise to keep things as they are for tomorrow’s clash against Ryan Giggs’ men.
Another strong defensive display will need to be the ultimate backbone if Ireland are to nick a goal and secure all three points. The added height advantage of Duffy (1.93m), Keogh (1.88m) and Long (1.88m) from set pieces is also a menacing threat for any opposition. Seeing all three wander up for a free kick or corner at the same time would send a shiver down any footballer’s spine.
The goalkeeper and backline in a 3-5-2 are the simple part of the selection process for Martin O’Neill, but things begin to get a bit tricker further up the field. The Ireland boss has now played three at the back in consecutive games (1-1 against Poland and 0-0 against Denmark) with the choice of wing-backs becoming a big talking point each time.
On Saturday everyone was left trying to figure out who would play where as all of Cyrus Christie, James McClean and Matt Doherty were picked to start. As it transpired, Christie was chosen in central midfield (a position the player admitted afterwards he hadn’t played in since he was 14) with Doherty on the right side and McClean deployed on the left.
It was a very interesting and experimental decision from O’Neill. While both wing-backs enjoyed competent displays, neither McClean nor Doherty looked 100% comfortable on the night. O’Neill insisted on Monday that McClean has played at left wing-back numerous times before, but it has not been his preferred position for club or country over the last seven years.
From Saturday’s game it was clear to see that the Stoke midfielder was adapting to a new position, while Doherty (making his first start for Ireland) was also adapting to new team-mates, even though he is very comfortable in a 3-5-2 for Wolves in the Premier League.
Enda Stevens would be a fine choice at left-wing back for tomorrow’s game and it would be no surprise to see the Sheffield United man start. But O’Neill has shown much loyalty to McClean over the last five years (all ten of his international goals have come under his management).
Therefore it seems likely that, just like on Saturday, McClean and Doherty could be the wing-backs chosen for tomorrow’s game again. Stevens could easily be picked, but O’Neill’s defence of choosing McClean during his press conference on Monday shows that he has no regrets with his decision, and that he sees the value in playing the Derry native as an attack-minded wing-back.
Ireland’s midfield trio of Harry Arter, Cyrus Christie and Callum O’Dowda endured a difficult night on Saturday. Against the Danes Ireland only enjoyed 31% possession, with chances in the final third coming by way of two shots off target and one that tested Kasper Schmeichel.
Last November Christian Eriksen had oceans of space to inflict damage and without the Tottenham star’s presence at the weekend, Hareide’s men were a significantly less impressive force.
Thomas Delaney enjoyed an excellent game full of running, shots on goal and menacing forward attacks. A similar performance to the Borussia Dortmund man was not forthcoming from Ireland’s end, with Arter, Christie and O’Dowda sitting back in large periods of the game and struggling to get on the ball in others.
Shane Long was completely isolated up front and at least some of the blame for this has to fall on the men sitting behind him in midfield. Christie was named man of the match for his display. The Fulham defender did try to bomb forward when he managed to get the ball at his feet, and his effort should not go unnoticed.
Arter was replaced by Callum Robinson with 25 minutes remaining following a disappointing night, while O’Dowda also struggled to impose himself like he did with that excellent cross against Poland to set up Aiden O’Brien’s goal last month.
With both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey ruled out, Martin O’Neill will know there is a big opportunity to snatch an important win tomorrow. Having midfielders who struggle to plough forward and are happy to sit off the ball simply won’t fit the bill.
With the potential of two strikers up front in a 3-5-2, bringing Jeff Hendrick back into a midfield three alongside Arter, with Shaun Williams acting as a defensive shield could be a system that proves effective.
With O’Dowda ruled out and few other options forthcoming, the Millwall man currently represents O’Neill’s most reliable defence-minded option as David Meyler struggles for game-time with Reading. Alan Browne would also be a brilliant choice in the centre of the park, but sadly his selection does not seem likely.
Following a nervy display on Saturday, Harry Arter could well be dropped to the bench. Conor Hourihane would be a suitable replacement to partner Hendrick as attack-minded options in a midfield trio, but Arter seems the likelier selection to offer more balance.
Ireland had just one shot on target during Saturday’s 0-0 against Denmark and the host’s lack of invention or bite in the final third was dismally disappointing. The lack of atmosphere inside the Aviva Stadium was a reflection of the lack of interesting action on the field of play for large periods.
Shane Long cut a lone and isolated presence up front, with the Southampton man picking up a number of bumps and bruises during the game which may see him ruled out of tomorrow’s clash with Wales.
The one outstanding positive taken from Saturday’s game was the introduction of Callum Robinson off the bench. The Preston forward was an immediate impact after replacing Harry Arter, running at defenders, finding space and actively looking to have a go at goal.
The 23-year-old’s powerful effort from outside the box exploded the game into life after 74 minutes. Out of no-where the forward grabbed the game by the scruff, with his strike very nearly snapping into Kasper Schmeichel’s top corner before an excellent save from the Leicester goalkeeper.
Many would argue that Robinson must start against Wales following his half an hour cameo which outshone many of his team-mates. The contrast between Ireland’s collective display for over an hour, with Robinson’s electric performance was clear for all to see.
The question then comes as to who O’Neill decides to partner up front. With Long potentially facing a race to be fit and the possibility of Jeff Hendrick dropping back into midfield the different combinations are numerous.
Robinson did more than enough on Saturday to earn a start. If Long proves fit to start, the Tipperary native could be the experienced and hard-running strike partner that gives the Preston man the time and space to settle into his first start for his country.
If Long does not pass fit, Hendrick could well line up as he did against the Danes again tomorrow. That said, either Sean Maguire or Aiden O’Brien would also be prime candidates to partner Robinson up front as well.
Predicted Ireland starting XI: Randolph; Keogh, Duffy, Long; Doherty, McClean; Hendrick, Williams, Arter; Long, Robinson.
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