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After one win in 9 games, where do Martin O'Neill and Ireland go from here?

Last night’s defeat by Wales at the Aviva Stadium was the latest in a series of disappointing results for the team.

Ireland's James McClean and Cyrus Christie dejected at the final whistle.
Ireland's James McClean and Cyrus Christie dejected at the final whistle.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LAST NIGHT’S DISAPPOINTING 1-0 loss to Wales is set to make life more difficult for the Irish team as they did to be part of Euro 2020 and play a couple of games in Dublin at a major tournament.

Denmark need just a point in their final two games against Wales and Ireland to consign the Boys in Green to bottom place in their group.

Presuming they do finish last, Martin O’Neill’s men will be seeded in Pot 3 for the Euro 2020 draw.

As things stand, Turkey, Sweden, Slovakia, Northern Ireland, Finland, Israel, Norway, Serbia, Bulgaria and Scotland will join Ireland in Pot 3, meaning none of those teams can face each other.

There are some formidable sides in Pots 1 and 2, and Ireland will now almost certainly have to overcome at least one of them to qualify automatically for Euro 2020.

A worst-case scenario group to be drawn in might look something like this: France, Croatia, Greece, Belarus.

Best-case scenario would arguably be: Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Faroe Islands, San Marino.

Yet regardless of who they face at the moment, it is hard to envisage Martin O’Neill’s men approaching the game with a great deal of confidence.

Their record has been abysmal of late. They have won one of their last nine matches and only two competitive (Wales and Moldova) since the memorable night back in November 2016 when they toppled Austria in Vienna.

Poor results mixed with a number of retirements and injuries has meant O’Neill has been forced to make a number of changes to the team recently, and the results have been mixed.

The 3-5-2 system has at least brought greater defensive stability — one goal conceded in their last two competitive games looks much better than nine in the two matches before that. 

Down the other end, however, the attack is still failing to function. Against Wales and Denmark, there were only two ways you could realistically see Ireland scoring — a set piece or an error from the opposition.

There was no real creativity in the side. O’Neill has continually lamented the absence of a “natural goalscorer”. In reality though, there are rarely chances to be converted, so even the most prolific striker in the world would struggle to make a difference in this Ireland team. They sit so deep that seeing Shane Long or whoever is up front get the ball to feet in the box is a rarity.

Matt Doherty, the Premier League Fans’ Player of the Month, struggled to bring his club form onto the international scene in his first two competitive matches for his country. Yet it is hard not to sympathise with the Dubliner. At Wolves, he is playing alongside footballers who are capable of controlling the midfield. Ireland are all too often on the back foot and Doherty consequently seldom makes his patented surging runs forward from right wing-back.

Midfield is arguably the biggest problem area. Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick and Cyrus Christie struggled to impose themselves in the game against Wales, while Callum O’Dowda did not fare much better for his 45 minutes against the Danes.

O’Neill has a month to contemplate these problems before the side face back-to-back games with Northern Ireland and, in their final Nations League group game, Denmark.

At the moment, there is a staleness to the side. Something feels broken, as it did for Mick McCarthy after the 2002 World Cup, Steve Staunton post the Cyprus 5-2 defeat and Giovanni Trapattoni following the 6-1 Germany loss among countless other examples.

One way of freshening things up could be emulating Ryan Giggs’ approach and introducing some youngsters into the set-up. There have been some impressive results at underage level recently involving a number of hugely promising players.

The Welsh team that overcame Ireland last night featured two teenagers with limited first-team experience at club level, so results do not necessarily need to be sacrificed in order to accommodate these youngsters.

Martin O'Neill Martin O'Neill has come under criticism for his tactics in Ireland's last two matches. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Asked last night about the possibility of bringing some of the highly-touted players from the U19s into his squad in the near future, O’Neill hinted he would give some consideration to the idea.

It’s really encouraging from U19s to senior level, it’s still a big step, but it’s certainly a consideration to have a look at them and even bring them in for training,” the Irish boss said.

Giggs’ words at the post-match press conference, meanwhile, were telling. His team’s youthful bravery has been rewarded, whereas Ireland’s fearful and cautious style has been their undoing ultimately.

“I just felt that no matter what happened tonight, it would be a really good experience for the likes of Matty Smith and Tyler Roberts to expose them to this sort of environment, and they both did really well,” the Manchester United legend said.

“I’m really pleased with both of them — and it’s not easy, it’s not easy at all.

“When I took the job, I knew that we had good young players out there and if we could bring them through together, that would be a bonus.

“But you can’t do it without those experienced players. I talked about it yesterday, about that balance in the team, and we have got a really good balance in the squad at the moment.

“I think we’ve got a really talented group coming through. I was given the chance, at a young age. I was under a manager [Alex Ferguson] for many years who would give young players the chance and I believe in that.

“I’ve got no qualms about age or if they’ve not played many games. If they’re good enough, then I’ll give them the chance — and then it’s up to them to take that chance and stay in the team.”

After two games that have been mired in conservatism, it is time for the Irish management team to be bold and take more risks in terms of selection. The alternative approach has failed to pay dividends, with the national side going backwards for the past two years of O’Neill’s reign.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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