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Tactics Board: What Ireland can learn from last night's draw with Serbia

Shane Keegan looks back at Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in Dublin.


THE IRISH FOOTBALL team has been a cause for mass debate for as long as I can remember.

But the constant dialogue around this team and vastly differing narratives that come with it seems more plentiful than ever.

Are we that good that we almost beat Portugal? Or are we that bad that we can’t even see off Azerbaijan? Do the two performances actually tell us far more about where we’re at than either of the results do?

With Serbia arriving to Dublin, how would the next chapter unfold?

nemanja-gudelj-reacts-at-the-final-whistle Serbia's Nemanja Gudelj and a number of Ireland players at the final whistle. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Let’s start at the end.

I finished my analysis piece of Saturday’s Azerbaijan game by pointing to some of the statistics that showed just how dominant Ireland had been in that game.

So its worthwhile doing similar from the off here so that we can have an early picture of  how this one went.


  • Ireland 47%
  • Serbia 53%

Expected Goals

  • Ireland 0.3
  • Serbia 2.15

Attempts from inside the 18-yard box

  • Ireland 1
  • Serbia 9

In short, Ireland managed to draw a match in which, based on the numbers, they would expect to be beaten the vast majority of the time. So again, let’s ask why?

Was it because the Irish players fought right to the end for their manager? Or was it due to the performance of Gavin Bazunu? Was it because Stephen Kenny deserved some luck? Or just Bazunu?

Was it because we continued to try to play football? Or anyone still for Bazunu?


When you are comprehensively second best in a game it always presents an opportunity to learn, even when you managed to get a result. Managers will instinctively focus on what their team could do better. But sometimes the real learning is in looking at the opposition and trying to figure out what it was that they did so well.

Do Serbia have a higher quality of player available for selection than Ireland? Without a doubt. But most of their players wouldn’t exactly be household names to the average football fan.

Serbia’s real strength seemed to be in the collective. They worked with a very specific system of play, which like Ireland featured a back three, that was both effective and attractive to watch.

Is it patronising to Ireland and Stephen Kenny then, considering we drew the game, to say ‘let’s see what we can learn from Serbia and maybe implement in our own play going forward’?

I don’t think so and I don’t think Kenny will either.

Serbia’s use of Gudelj when playing out

Serbia lined out in what would probably be best described as a 3-4-1-2 formation with Dusan Tadic operating in the link role behind a front two of Aleksander Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic.

Serbia’s back three though could easily have been interpreted as a back four to the casual observer.

This is due to the movement of their holding midfielder Nemanja Gudelj, who continually dropped in either to the right or left of their most central defender Milos Veljkovic.

This had the knock-on effect of allowing the outside centre halves, Strahinja Pavlovic and Nikola Milenkovic to pull out to the sidelines while wing backs Filip Kostic and Filip Djuricic pushed up high and wide, pretty much in line with their front two.

This movement caused big problems for Ireland’s attempts to press. If you think back to the game last week where our front three and midfield two did such an effective job in stopping Portugal’s build up play, their approach was based on keeping those five bodies in central areas as much as possible.

But with Serbia’s outside centre backs playing so wide this became much more difficult to do. As the image below shows, the back three and midfield three made their half of the pitch too big for Ireland’s five players to cover.

IreSer 1

The additional problem Ireland then faced was issue of the space between their two units. The Serbia front four, featuring their two forward and their two wing backs, pinned back Ireland’s defensive five which created big pockets of space for the forwards to drop into and Tadic to advance into.

IreSer 2

Once they exploited this, Serbia then had a man on the ball, driving towards Ireland’s goal and with four different options in front of him to make use of.

IreSer 3

Gudelj’s expertise in how he performed this role should not be undervalued.

His movement and understanding of when to drop in and when to step back out into a more traditional midfielder’s position was outstanding and he finished the game with a remarkable 101 successful passes played.

To put this into context, this was equal to the combined tally of Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick, Jamie McGrath, Alan Browne, Callum Robinson and Daryl Horgan.

In the example below, Gudelj again drops into a centre backs position to receive from the keeper in the build up phase before soon appearing in a central midfield position to spray the ball wide to his right wing back Djuricic.

IreSer 4

IreSer 5

It’s worth noting again just how close Serbia’s outside centre backs, two and four, have been able to get to the wing backs because of Gudelj’s initial positioning. This is crucial in the next phase of play as Milenkovic is now able to play a role in the circulation of the ball before Tadic slips in Djuricic, whose cut back to Mitrovic was then brilliantly saved by Bazunu.

IreSer 6

In this final example, Gudelj this time drops into the right which frees up Milenkovic to receive a pass from Milinkovic-Savic and again step forward into space as the Ireland wing backs have again been pinned back.

The other point to note is that at this stage of the build up Hendrick appears to have a good handle on Tadic.

IreSer 7

Just seconds later though, as Milenkovic feeds wing back Djuricic, Tadic is free and Serbia have created a three v two down Ireland’s right hand side. It’s easy to be critical of Hendrick here but it demonstrates just why Tadic is the perfect type of player for the link role.


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Above all else, it illustrates the need for Ireland to develop a player who can specialise in this role.

IreSer 8

Tadic feeds Vlahovic, who in turn squares it for Mitrovic but Andrew Omobamidele gets across to make the covering tackle and puts it out for a corner.

IreSer 9

From the resulting set piece, Milinkovic-Savic headed home to put Serbia one up.

Would the Serbian shape work for Ireland?

Whether Ireland have a player who can replicate Gudelj’s role is questionable, but it is worth investigating. When you look at Ireland’s heat maps, Cullen is usually the player who shows up as being Ireland’s deepest midfielder, but he also gets forward very well.

Based on his impressive performance last night, the role could actually be far better suited to Hendrick. This would then free up Cullen to play as the eight in the manner that Milinkovic-Savic did so well for Serbia.

What about the crucial outside centre back roles? For me, I think Egan and Omobamidele have the ideal skill sets to enjoy the extra attacking responsibilities this set up would bring.

Egan finished the game last night with a 100% pass competition record, the only player on the field to do so. And it wasn’t all backwards from him either, with one third of his passes classed as progressive.

Meanwhile, it’s hard not to start getting excited by Omobamidele. His ability to confidently stride out with the ball while scanning the options in front of him would have you believe he was a seasoned campaigner rather than a player starting his first ever senior international.

Further forward in the Serbian set up, they had the benefit of an out and out front two, something I would love to see Kenny try. Adam Idah looked tired last night, which was inevitable really, but on the balance of the three games he has nailed the number nine jersey.

His ability to hold the ball up or work the flanks has been a real weapon, even when often very isolated.

But wouldn’t it be great to see what he could do with a central strike partner alongside him?

Somebody who compliments his skill set by offering other attributes, be that the speed and directness of Aaron Connolly or the guile and movement of Troy Parrott.

Doherty and McClean impressed last night. Allowing for them to continue as wing backs for now, both of whom would be suited to finding themselves further up the field, that really just leaves the question of the Tadic role.

McGrath has the energy but has he got the creativity? Or long term, could that be the role for Parrot? A year ago, I would have strongly pushed Jack Byrne’s name for such a role.

Can he get himself back in contention?


This was a very important point for Ireland and hopefully should help to galvanise the squad and management further.

It seems that a game in which we were vastly second best, albeit to a superior team, but managed to steal a draw warrants far more cause for celebration than a performance that saw us dominate from start to finish but only draw.

Take the point. Learn some lessons. Maybe steal some ideas. Move on.

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