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Tactics Board: Colossal work rate and sticking to the game plan earns Ireland superb away win

Shane Keegan looks at the key tactical elements behind the 2-1 victory in Tuesday’s Women’s World Cup qualifier.

Updated Oct 28th 2021, 12:06 PM


Finland came into this game on the back of a perfect start, with six points from six, having defeated Slovakia and Georgia in their opening qualifiers.

On Tuesday night against Ireland, they continued where they left off, dominating the ball from the off. They finished the game with 68% possession and played 300 successful passes more than their opponents.

Yet it was Vera Pauw’s side who came away with the crucial three points. Here’s three reasons why.

niamh-fahey-celebrates-after-the-game-with-denise-osullivan Ireland's players celebrate after the final whistle. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

1) Midfield trio show tremendous appetite for work

Ireland again set out in the 5-3-2 formation that worked reasonably well for them against Sweden in Tallaght.

With Finland lining up in a 4-4-2 (somewhat of a rarity to see in modern football) the demand on Ireland’s midfielders to get out and help defensively in wide areas was likely to be high.

Three examples in the ten-minute period just after Ireland took the lead showed that they had no intention of being found wanting as they rose to the challenge brilliantly.

As Eveliina Summanen receives the ball here she looks as though she has plenty of room to advance into.

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Jamie Finn knows her role though, and quickly shuttles across to the right-hand side to stop any opportunity for advancement.

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Were Finn not to this then Aine O’Gorman would have to had to advance from her wing-back position. But thanks to her team-mate’s work rate she and Niamh Fahey are able to stay close to each other and they deal comfortably with the 2 v 2 situation further back.

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Again here, the ball goes left and Finn heads across to do her role. The concern this time is the space behind her that Finland’s Ria Oling is positioned to exploit.

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Megan Connolly, on spotting this, makes a superb defensive run to track her. Oling shows some clever footwork out wide to leave O’Gorman stumbling but Connolly is there to get the block on an attempted cross.

Had Connolly not been tuned in enough to make her defensive run then Oling would have been free to drive at Ireland from the end line and cause all kinds of problems.

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Denise O’Sullivan, possibly more noted for her ability on the ball, was doing an equally impressive defensive job on the left of the trio.

Here we see her get dragged across to the right of the field as Finland initially build down that side before switching play, leaving her with an awful long way to travel.

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But travel she does, getting in a superb block as Tuija Hyyrynen tries to deliver. Like Connolly above, a blocked cross might not seem like a big deal, but had she not made this run then the picture would likely have played out very differently.

With the brilliant Adelina Engman just out of shot on the right wing, the opportunity to create and exploit a 2 v 1 on Katie McCabe could have been a big issue, but O’Sullivan insured the situation never arose.

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The collective approach without the ball from this trio all night was superb, and they made life so much easier for those behind them.

2) McCabe’s performance justifies Pauw’s decision to leave her at wing back

The question around McCabe’s best position is an ongoing debate around this Irish side.

While she may be in scintillating form for Arsenal, often in a more attacking role, Pauw continued to use her at wing back in the first group game against Sweden.

The presence of excellent Engman on the right wing for Finland ensured that any ideas of pushing McCabe further forward would be shelved for this game at least.

She and Savannah McCarthy had a tit for tat battle with Engman and Hyyryen all night long down that side of the field, with the Irish duo just about winning on points.

Below, we see centre back Natalia Kuikka carry a ball out and look to set Engman away on a dribble.

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While most players would concentrate on getting their positioning right to deal with the 1 v 1 battle that would follow, McCabe had other ideas.

Clearly of the opinion that prevention was better than cure, she somehow managed to get to the pass, intercept it and launch an attack of her own.

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McCabe’s proactive approach to dealing with Finland’s right-sided attacks was a feature all evening. During the second half, while 2-1 up, she repeated the trick, only this time even higher up the field.

Full-back Hyyryen looks well positioned to receive a ball and go on the attack only for McCabe to come out of nowhere again to make another interception.

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It immediately resulted in 3 v 2 attacking situation for Ireland and while her shot from the edge the box was only inches wide, she might have been better off carrying the ball even further to exploit the situation.

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Another feature of McCabe’s defensive performance was often she found herself positioned inside, rather than outside McCarthy. McCarthy, like McCabe, was trying to take a proactive approach to dealing with the threat of Engman by getting as tight to her as she could when possible.

This saw her dragged out wide at times, with McCabe then taking the decision to fill in inside her. It was a somewhat unorthodox approach, but it worked.

Here we see just one example of it when Sanni Franssi drops off and plays a perfectly weighted pass down the inside of McCarthy, but McCabe’s positioning and pace allows her to cover across and get the block in.

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Strangely, the ultimate vindication of Pauw’s decision on where to play McCabe, came from Finland’s goal.

Below, on 51 minutes and 5 seconds, we see McCabe on the sideline getting treatment for an injury that she had picked up meaning Ireland would have to survive without her for maybe a minute or so.

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Engman and Hyyryen smelt blood. Hyyryen receives the ball and plays a pass down the line to Engman just before O’Sullivan can get across and close her down.

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McCarthy, now faced with a 2 v 1, allows Engman to drive inside her and return the ball to Hyyryen, who has burst forward after her initial pass.

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But the pair haven’t stopped combining yet as Hyyryen drills the ball back out to Engman, who finishes brilliantly.

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The clock says 51 minutes and 25 seconds. 20 seconds of McCabe not being on the pitch at left wing-back was all it took for Finland to exploit the situation.

Just imagine what might have happened if she hadn’t played in that position at all.

3) Heather brings the Payne

When you’re under pressure and pinned in your own half as Ireland were for much of this game, the one thing you really need is an ‘out ball’ and Galway’s Heather Payne certainly provided that.

Payne finished the game with more successful dribbles than any other player on the pitch and carried the battle to the Finns time and time again.

In the 55th minute, with the game level at one each, she again did what she had been doing all evening and offered herself as a willing runner down the channel.

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Finn’s pass wasn’t one of her best though and Payne had to break stride and receive it.

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It looked as though her momentum had been broken yet a couple of seconds later, she had made it to the end line and was delivering a dangerous cross.

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There may have been a huge slice of luck about how the ball made its way to O’Sullivan at the back post to head home, but nobody could claim that Payne hadn’t worked hard enough to deserve an element of fortune.

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In the final minute of the game, she nearly went one better. Initially Payne picks up the ball heading back towards her own goal.

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From there though, she manages to get turned and dribbles out wide. With three Finnish players in close proximity, playing for a throw in looks to be her best bet.

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But Payne has other ideas and drives past two more players and into the box before her shots forces defender Anna Westerlund into a great block that results in an Ireland corner.

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Quite where she found the energy from for such a solo run given her exertions all evening is anybody’s guess.


Emma Duffy, of this parish, tweeted after the game:

“Petition to see Denise O’Sullivan and Heather Payne’s GPS stats from last night”.

And while there was much more than just hustle and bustle about this performance, her point that that the team’s work rate was through the roof is unquestionable.

They also played with a plan though, a very specific game plan, based around a collective commitment to defending and picking the right moments to attack.

It worked.

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