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How Jon Walters has become a vital cog in Martin O’Neill’s Green Machine

We take an in-depth look at the Irish striker’s performance against Bosnia the other night.

Jon Walters celebrates after scoring the opening goal.
Jon Walters celebrates after scoring the opening goal.

OFTEN UNDERRATED BUT always reliable, Jon Walters was Ireland’s key player on Monday night against Bosnia and arguably Martin O’Neill’s most important squad member over the course of the entire Euro 2016 campaign.

At 32, Walters is arguably in the best form of his career, and his performance the other night, encompassing a brace, underlined why he is so vital to the Irish team.

The experienced striker was perhaps underappreciated, even by those within the game, for a time. As a youngster, Walters failed to establish himself in the first teams at both Blackburn and Bolton, leaving the former after a serious breach of club discipline. This harsh punishment and descent to the lower leagues is the kind of situation that prompts many youngsters to quit the game or fade into obscurity in frustration. Yet this difficult fall from grace was unquestionably the making of Walters.

The Merseyside-born footballer gradually worked his way back up to the top level, having stints in League Two with Wrexham and Chester City, before eventually finding his way back to Stoke and the Premier League, following four seasons at Ipswich.

Walters now has eight goals in 15 appearances at all levels this season, in addition to 117 goals in 548 games in total over the course of his career. After a match-winning performance on Monday, however, people finally seem to be discovering the true value of Jon Walters.

With this in mind, we’ve taken an in-depth look at his performance against Bosnia and illustrated why he has rapidly become one of Ireland’s most influential players…

Adaptability

One of the reasons why Walters has established himself as a virtual ever-present at club and international level is down to his adaptability.

An intelligent player, Walters can play as the lone frontman or just behind the main striker, as well as on the flanks. On Monday night, he featured in all these positions at various points.

Ireland have come a long way since the perennial rigidity of the Trapattoni era, in which the Italian’s insistence on almost always playing a classic 4-4-2 had many people accusing him of being out of touch with modern football. Under O’Neill, there is a fluidity about the team that didn’t exist previously. A number of different formations have been attempted, a player like Robbie Brady has been asked to play in different positions, and there is a general recognition now that O’Neill is a more astute tactician than some critics had initially suggested.

In the play-off second leg, Ireland’s fluidity was highlighted by the attack line. On Monday night, the two teams began the game with an identical 4-2-3-1 formation. For Ireland, Daryl Murphy was the lone frontman, with Wes Hoolahan just behind him along with Jeff Hendrick and Walters to the Norwich star’s left and right respectively.

Walters often plays a similar role with Stoke, not always leading the line but playing off another target man such as Peter Crouch.

The 38-cap international began the game on the right wing, chipping in with his fair share of defensive duties.

right

However, Martin O’Neill had clearly given Walters license to roam, and Ireland’s attack sometimes became a two-man strikeforce, with the Stoke star right up alongside Murphy.

license

What was often a 4-5-1, particularly in the early stages, morphed into a 4-3-3, as Walters joined Hoolahan and Murphy in attack, while Hendrick drifted in more centrally from his left wing role and sat alongside Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy in midfield.

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Despite 0-0 being good enough to progress, Martin O’Neill had promised his side would attack, and Ireland duly looked like a team who needed a goal in the early stages of the game.

Equally, when Ireland needed to defend, even Murphy was not averse to helping out on the wings.

murph

And once the Boys in Green went 1-0 up, they naturally became a bit more cautious and hesitant. Like the majority of his teammates, Walters began to withdraw more frequently and was clearly less intent on powering forward to join up with the attack.

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Ireland’s left-sided problems have been underlined in a previous article here, and similarly to the first leg, Ognjen Vranješ and Edin Višća had some joy in exposing the Irish weakness in this area. Consequently, with Ireland looking vulnerable in that position and Bosnia enjoying more possession after the first goal, it was no surprise to see Walters have a stint on the left wing in the final quarter of the first half to help alleviate their opponents’ threat there.

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After half-time, with Daryl Murphy clearly tiring having been asked to play the thankless lone frontman role twice in the space of four days, the Ipswich striker spent more time on the wing — an area where he has played for large portions of his club career. Walters, who had more energy than his colleague, having missed the first leg through suspension, began to lead the line early in the second half.

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With Ireland still looking susceptible to being caught out on their left side, rather than move Walters out there again, O’Neill brought on another work horse in James McClean, with the tiring Murphy and Hoolahan both departing the action.

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Shane Long also came on, and primarily played the role of main striker, with his pace and enthusiasm giving Ireland renewed zest in that department. Nonetheless, Long is another striker who is very familiar with playing on the flanks, so as had been the case with Murphy, Walters and the Southampton man occasionally alternated in performing these two tasks.

The lone front man role requires energy and stamina, so it was a clever policy of Martin O’Neill’s to delegate different players this task at various points of the game. So when Long needed a breather, he would hang back on the right and allow Walters to do most of the running, and vice versa. It wasn’t exactly ‘Total Football,’ but it was effective nonetheless.

Power and panache

Not only is Walters an extremely hard-working individual, he is also a very intelligent footballer. You don’t score over 100 career goals through sheer luck. He has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, as his movement is frequently excellent. In the clip below, he is a little unlucky, as Begovic gets down well to turn his toe-poke away from goal.

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The Stoke footballer generally did the simple things well, holding the ball up and helping to launch a number of Ireland attacks early on, causing a rattled Bosnia no end of problems in the process.

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As well as grabbing the headlines for his brace, there were plenty of less spectacular but similarly important moments, in which Walters worked as hard as any Irish player in intensively pressurising the Bosnian defence, barely allowing them a moment to relax or dwell on the ball.

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Target man

Yet there was also no shortage of skill to complement his tireless efforts off the ball. Notice the clip below, where the big man produces a touch and link up play of which Ronaldinho would be proud.

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Time and again, Walters’ brawn brought less physical but more technical players such as Hoolahan and Brady into the game.

He also won a couple of free kicks to pile more pressure on an increasingly nerve-ridden Bosnian defence.

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Eventually, all this pressure told, even if Ireland’s first goal was scored via a dubious penalty decision. It was no surprise that, in Robbie Keane’s absence, Walters was the man to step up and take responsibility. Despite having missed more than one high-profile penalty over the course of his career, the seasoned attacker had the character to put himself forward on this huge occasion for the Irish team, and duly made no mistake from the spot.

Source: Checked Knowledge/YouTube

In the immediate aftermath of the first Irish goal, Bosnia had a spell of pressure and Walters was less involved for the remaining minutes of the half, quietly fulfilling his defensive duties but rarely getting opportunities to do damage down the other end.

In the second half, however, Ireland seemingly gained a second wind, and Walters continued to do what he does best. Check out another clip below, in which he demonstrates impeccable control, before laying the ball off to enable Ireland to launch another attack.

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As unremarkable as moments such as these may seem, Walters’ link play was invaluable in the context of the game. Bosnia had 65% possession over the course of the match and dominated territorially for sustained periods. For a player like Walters to be able to hold the ball up, win free kicks and take the pressure off sporadically was key to Ireland’s win.

And not only did Walters give the Irish defence a break with this type of play, it also led directly to Ireland’s all-important second goal.

Emir Spahic, who had already been booked, was extremely fortunate not to be sent off in the build-up, as the Stoke man earned the free kick from which the goal would be scored, getting a nasty kick in the chest for his troubles.

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Robbie Brady subsequently put in his best delivery of the night and the ball deflected into the path of Walters, who capitalised on slack Bosnian marking with a composed finish that put Ireland on the verge of reaching the Euros.

Source: 24hNews highlights/YouTube

(See goal from 3.15 onwards)

Perseverance

One of the defining characteristics of this Irish team is their ability to score key goals at late stages of the game, much like Roy Keane-era Sunderland (perhaps not coincidentally). During this campaign, they have scored crucial goals in the final 25 minutes of matches against Georgia (twice), Germany (twice), Bosnia (twice) and Poland.”

The cliché often trotted out by opposition managers is that Ireland ‘play until the final whistle,’ but there is genuine merit to this statement — and Walters’ epitomises the team’s faultless desire and work ethic.

After Ireland took a two-goal lead on the night and went 3-1 ahead on aggregate, Walters’ task for the final 20 minutes was simple: to run as hard and as often as possible.

He spent more time in Ireland’s final third than at any other point in the match, using his strength and his intelligence to quell Bosnian attacks.

hustle

Unlike other attacking players such as Robbie Keane or Wes Hoolahan, who tend to be more or less redundant in these type of situations, Walters was a key defensive asset for the Irish team. Like every other Irish player, he ensured it was as difficult as possible for Bosnia to find a much-needed breakthrough and breach a defence that had conceded just eight goals in 11 qualifying matches up until that point.

defen

Despite being far from the most naturally gifted player in the squad, Walters’ high energy and relentless running, not to mention his tendency to contribute vital goals, have helped him become probably more popular than any other current Irish player.

The Ireland’s indefatigable nature — essentially what has made him such a fan favourite — is summed by this moment, in the dying stages of the game, where despite little hope of getting the ball, he runs towards it as if his life depended on it.

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Conclusion

In short, since Martin O’Neill took over, Jon Walters has developed into one of the Irish side’s key players.

In addition to his Bosnia heroics, over the course of the campaign, the Stoke forward has scored similarly important goals against Scotland, Poland and Georgia.

For his club, Walters has also hit similarly important strikes against Leicester, Bournemouth and Chelsea.

The stereotypical unsung hero has therefore suddenly become impossible to underestimate. Barring injury, Walters is as certain a starter as any player for Ireland at the Euros.

People often, with the benefit of hindsight, cite Giovanni Trapattoni’s neglect of Wes Hoolahan as a decision that reflects particularly poorly on the Italian coach. However, his under-utilisation of Walters was arguably an even graver error. Despite starting in the 4-0 win during Ireland’s 2012 Euros play-off against Estonia, Walters was only brought off the bench in the ensuing tournament that summer, when the team seemed sure to lose the game anyway, with players such as Simon Cox preferred ahead of him from the start.

Thankfully however, Walters and his Irish teammates will have a chance to make up for their previous major tournament disappointment in France next summer.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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