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The experiment failed -- time for Martin O'Neill and Ireland to ditch 4-4-2

The Boys in Green earned a 1-0 win over Switzerland in last night’s friendly at the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland's Seamus Coleman in action against Switzerland last night.
Ireland's Seamus Coleman in action against Switzerland last night.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE WERE A couple of positives to take from Ireland’s 1-0 win in a Euro 2016 warm-up against Switzerland at the Aviva Stadium last night, but the experiments that didn’t work will be of greater significance to Martin O’Neill and his staff at this crucial planning stage before the main event in France this summer.

The pluses were obvious — centre-backs Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark combined for the goal after just two minutes of play, and the moment set the tone for subsequent proceedings, as the duo were comfortably the two standout Irish players on display yesterday evening.

Duffy and Clark can’t take sole credit for Ireland’s defensive excellence though — the team as a unit from 1 to 11 all contributed to the side’s consistent solidity in this regard.

Yet while Ireland’s performance off the ball was invariably flawless, even Martin O’Neill admitted afterwards that the team showed a conspicuous lack of composure in possession throughout this error-strewn Good Friday encounter.

But the Irish manager surely knew what was coming beforehand. Against Switzerland’s five-man midfield, the 64-year-old coach picked two central players, David Meyler and Stephen Quinn, who are renowned for graft more so than technical ability. He started Shane Long and Kevin Doyle up front, who make up for their lack of footballing elegance with tremendous energy, dynamism and work-rate.

Granted, the Irish manager had two exciting, attacking players in Aiden McGeady and Alan Judge on the wing, but with their colleagues in midfield unable to dictate the play, the pair were isolated and starved of possession all too often.

The result of this experimental line-up was a 1-0 win of course, but it also led to long periods where Ireland were outplayed and reduced to doing little more than hanging on to the early lead they had established.

Friendlies, it must be said, are often dull affairs, but the Irish side have managed to buck this trend at times under O’Neill — think back to the impressive 4-1 defeat of USA or the encouraging 0-0 draw with Italy at Craven Cottage in November and May 2014 respectively.

One possible excuse for last night’s underwhelming showing in attack was that Ireland were up against a side who are 12th in the world — 17 places above the Boys in Green in the Fifa rankings.

Wes Hoolahan Wes Hoolahan made a difference when he came on in the final 10 minutes. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Yet further evidence suggests this Swiss team were nothing special. They qualified from an unremarkable Euro 2016 group and failed to make much of an impact at the most recent World Cup. Moreover, last night, they were missing arguably their two best players in Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus. So expecting Ireland to show more in attack is surely not asking too much — Martin O’Neill’s men were more impressive going forward during home games with Germany and Poland, two teams that are unquestionably superior to the Swiss.

The main talking point after the match was the Irish side’s surprise reversion to the 4-4-2 formation — a style that has been barely seen since the days of previous manager Giovanni Trapattoni.

O’Neill played up comparisons between Ireland and Premier League title hopefuls Leicester City during the week, and perhaps he was hoping some of the Foxes’ success could be achieved by emulating their system.

Unfortunately, the experiment failed despite the game’s positive outcome, and O’Neill would be unwise to revisit it in future.

Meyler and Quinn were regularly overrun in midfield, while the team’s most creative player — Alan Judge — looked isolated on the wing. Meanwhile, the often erratic but sometimes brilliant Aiden McGeady still looked short of match sharpness, and was as ineffectual as his teammates, after a frustrating season that has only recently seen him start to get some game time after going out on loan to Championship side Sheffield Wednesday.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between for the hosts — set pieces aside, they rarely looked like scoring, giving Switzerland the impetus to attack and control the game as a result.

Granted, Ireland were not punished for their ineptitude on the ball last night, but if they go into the Euros looking to play 4-4-2 — as they did in 2012 — they will surely be punished by better teams than Switzerland, namely Group E rivals Belgium, Italy and Sweden.

Instead, retaining the system that worked increasingly well in qualification seems like O’Neill’s best bet. When Hoolahan came on for the final 10 minutes and they belatedly switched to a five-man midfield, the Irish team immediately had a better shape about them and looked noticeably more confident and threatening in possession.

The cliché about not changing a winning formula consequently rings true in this case — particularly when it’s a formula that has brought success against teams of the calibre of Bosnia and reigning world champions Germany.

Hopefully therefore, this misguided experiment will be discarded imminently, and the Irish team will adopt their more familiar system when the Slovaks come to town on Tuesday.

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Paul Fennessy

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