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Why don't Ireland play football like Dundalk?

Maciej Tarnogrodzki also looks at how Stephen Kenny’s side could emulate BATE’s success and why more LOI players aren’t being selected for the national team.

Dundalk's Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring the equaliser against AZ.
Dundalk's Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring the equaliser against AZ.
Image: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

ON THURSDAY NIGHT, in the first half at least, Dundalk were the better team against AZ Alkmaar in their opening Europa League group match.

It was no mean feat. At the moment, five of the AZ squad are senior internationals and seven are playing for their U21 national team. They have lots of talent within the team.

Dundalk, who by contrast had no senior internationals in their team on Thursday, were confident on the ball. In fact, I was a bit surprised that AZ didn’t press them high from the beginning of the match.

After the game, it was clear that the AZ coach had a lot of respect for Dundalk. He was saying that they were not a stereotypical British or Irish team. They are a team that plays football. Of course, he had a very good knowledge of them and he had watched them a couple of times.

As a result of their opponents’ reluctance to press, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle and Stephen O’Donnell were able to build up play from the back quite easily. They were consequently able to build their confidence throughout the game. When they got the ball and started playing in the middle of the field, they really had some good movements and if there was a bit more quality in the end product, they would have been ahead at the break.

The second half was quite even until the goal and the accident happened. It was quite messy then. With 10 men after O’Donnell’s red card, there was some very brave Dundalk defending and they deserved at least a point from the game.

They showed that they can play in tight areas, they didn’t panic, they showed that they weren’t just kicking or hoofing the ball. The team got a lot of confidence from previous European games and it’s obvious those players can play.

Manchester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Pep Guardiola is one example of a coach with very specific ideas about the game. Source: Martin Rickett

The way a team plays in football mostly depends on the coach. You need to encourage players to play a certain way. Managers play the way they want to play. Some are more defensive, and there are coaches — like Pep Guardiola — who are hyper-attacking.

At Dundalk, the manager and the coaching staff want the team to go and express themselves.

The style of play also depends what players you have at your disposal. If you have limited players, you cannot just go and play an open game because you might be punished — you’ll lose by a lot of goals and everyone will be criticising you.

But if you have good enough players, you can play passing football. You cannot criticise players if they make one or two mistakes, especially at youth level. If you want your players to grow, you need to allow for mistakes.

Why don’t Ireland play the same style as Dundalk? It’s quite difficult to answer.

Looking at the statistics from the match on Thursday, Dundalk attempted 430 passes throughout the match. Compare that to the recently published report from Euro 2016. Ireland’s average attempted passes from four games they played is at 280 passes per match — the lowest being versus France (226) and highest against Belgium (337). That is huge difference and we need to remember Dundalk played away from home against a very well established Dutch professional team (screengrabs below).

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In general, managers tend to stick to a fixed style of football. Jose Mourinho, for example, would be totally different to Guardiola. It comes from the way the manager sees the game in his head.

It’s like with a company. Just as Steve Jobs had a vision when he built Apple, Guardiola has very specific ideas for Manchester City. Of course, you can tweak your plans and change some players, but the philosophy remains the same for the most part.

Regarding Ireland, the style is mainly coming from the coach. Of course players make decisions during a game, but if you’re not happy as a coach, you can correct or change it.

The coach always picks players because of his style. Going back to Guardiola, he bought John Stones because of his style of play. He didn’t buy a centre-back who only wins headers and is good at defending. He signed a player who is good at playing with the ball under pressure. Guardiola is not afraid that he’s going to make mistakes because of his weaknesses from a defensive viewpoint.

Stephen O’Donnell Stephen O'Donnell has impressed for Dundalk in recent weeks. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If I look at Dundalk, Stephen O’Donnell is a very good holding midfielder. He’s not afraid to get the ball under pressure, he’s playing it simple, he’s dropping, he demands the ball and he plays well. I watched him on Thursday and he reminds me of how Roy Keane used to play during the later part of his Manchester United career — it’s those simple passes, dropping, getting the ball and playing like that.

O’Donnell is obviously not someone on the level of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, but he demands the ball and is not just looking to win the second ball. He’s also a very level-headed player. Listening to him after some European matches; his assessments of the games are very honest, either after defeats or victories. And in general, he seems to be a great leader of that team.

For Ireland, the two holding players, it’s often Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy; they don’t want to try to get the ball. I don’t know why — I’m not part of the coaching staff. Is it because that’s the strategy before the game or because they don’t want to do that? If the coach really wanted to do that, he would demand it from them. So style of play can be dictated in part by the players, but in general it comes from the coach.

I hope the trend of League of Ireland players not getting picked for the national team is going to change. And not just for Dundalk players — there is a lot of talent in other clubs. In every team you might have an individual talent who is still young — 21 or 22 years old.

And it’s not just Martin O’Neill who has seemed to ignore domestic footballers — Giovanni Trapattoni never picked a League of Ireland player. The league wasn’t taken seriously until teams started to prove themselves in Europe. This is wrong because you can see skills individually in the players, and for many reasons, they’re not playing in England. But a good coach can spot their talent.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group C - Austria v Republic of Ireland - Ernst Happel Stadium Giovanni Trapattoni once infamously suggested that Ireland had "no league". Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Of course, in the League of Ireland, you won’t have hundreds of these highly talented players with great potential, but you might have a couple of them. They should be rewarded for the skills they have and called up to the national team, even if it’s just for a friendly.

Even in smaller countries, you have players that play domestically — for example, Belarus have a few players from BATE Borisov. Of course, 80-90% of the players in national sides are often playing abroad, but there will always be at least three or four players from the domestic league.

Dundalk have proven themselves in Europe, not only from a tactical point of view, but also in terms of their character — in the first half against the Icelandic team FH, I thought they were going to be beaten, because FH had really good possession. But what I like about Dundalk is that they never give up, and the second half of the game was completely different. It was the same against BATE, the first leg wasn’t good from a possession point of view, but the second game was completely different and they beat them 3-0. Legia Warsaw was very much 50:50 and 1-1 against AZ Alkmaar was well deserved.

AZ Alkmaar would beat most teams in the Championship in England. They’re one of the top teams in the Dutch league. They’re at more or less the same level as Feyenoord, who beat Man United on Thursday. AZ actually finished third, ahead of Feyenoord, in the 2014-15 campaign, and they came fourth last year.

No one is expecting 10 League of Ireland players to be called up for Ireland, but I don’t know why a couple don’t get a chance — I’ve been living in Ireland for 16 years, I care about the League of Ireland and for a large part of my life, I’ve been coaching domestic-based Irish players, so I don’t understand why at least two or three players are not in the national team squad.

Daryl Horgan Many have suggested that Dundalk's Daryl Horgan deserves a chance at international level. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Before the Legia Warsaw, some Polish journalists were asking me why League of Ireland players weren’t in the Ireland squad and I couldn’t answer.

They were also surprised, because in Europe, the perception of Irish and British football is that it’s largely based on long balls and hard running, whereas Dundalk’s game was different. It’s very difficult to break stereotypes — not just in football, but in every aspect of life.

But Dundalk can definitely play. Moreover, it seems they are working for each other and they have very good discipline within. You can’t see any prima donnas in this team and there is good understanding between them.

In terms of players who look capable of playing at international level, Daryl Horgan would top the list. With his dynamic runs, he’d be suitable for the way Ireland play, and not just in friendlies. If Dutch players for AZ Alkmaar can’t stop him, why wouldn’t he be able to do it against Georgia or other weaker international teams at the very least?

I know Stephen O’Donnell is 30, but that doesn’t really matter. If you want someone to kill the game, even for the last 20 minutes, someone to manage the game and pass it around, not just winning tackles, he would be excellent in that role.

I also really like the two Dundalk full-backs. Dane Massey was playing better a season ago, but I think he can recapture that form. Sean Gannon is playing really well and I’m a big fan of Patrick McEleney. I’m an attacking coach and I really like the way McEleney is playing — he’s very composed on the ball, he has the brain to play difficult passes into the channels. If I was giving him advice, I’d say that he needs to be a bit more tidy on the ball. But he’s only 23, and he’s a big prospect.

inpho_00924488 (1) Maciej Tarnogrodzki has coached at various levels with both Shelbourne and Bray. Source: 20/4/2015

David McMillan has scored some very good goals against BATE and others, so four or five players should be given a chance with Ireland, though maybe not at once, and certainly in friendlies.

You can only make some assumptions, but if Dundalk do well and get some prize money and they invest well and maybe next year, they get these rewards again, they can get more quality players in the team.

A situation could develop where Dundalk start to really dominate the League of Ireland for the next few years, which is what happened with BATE in Belarus. They’ve competed in the Europa and Champions League in the last eight years, starting their successful period with an impressive young coach, Viktor Goncharenko, who’s now coaching FC Ufa in Russia.

BATE picked up an overall tally of more than 30 points in the group stages in the last few years, drawing against some big clubs in Europe. People need to realise that this team, who Dundalk beat convincingly last month, had an excellent pedigree in Europe considering they are coming from a very average, not-so-competitive league. They showed it could be done in a small league as well.

BATE’s recent record in Europe:

  • 2008-2009 Champions League group stages (two draws vs Juventus, draw vs Zenit St. Petersburg)
  • 2009-2010 Europa League group stages (win vs Everton away from home, win and draw vs AEK Athens)
  • 2010-2011 Europa League group stages (win vs AZ Alkmaar, two draws vs PSG)
  • 2011-2012 Champions League group stages (draw vs AC Milan)
  • 2012-2013 Champions League group stages (win vs Lille, win vs Bayern Munich)
  • 2014-2015 Champions League group stages (win Athletic Bilbao)
  • 2015-2016 Champions League group stages (draw vs Bayer Leverkusen, win and draw vs Roma)

BATE dominated their league and built a stadium, and the same thing might happen with Dundalk if their success is handled properly.

The standard of the League of Ireland will also be higher owing to Dundalk’s success in Europe, because you’ll have teams who want to catch them — Cork are doing well, and maybe two or three other teams are capable of competing for the title.

Of course, you’ll never have 10 Irish teams at the same level, but the standard of the league will improve on the back of Dundalk’s success and if a couple of players get a chance in the national team, others in the league will realise they don’t have to go to League One or a lower Championship side to get a national call-up.

Maciej Tarnogrodzki has spent several years coaching at various levels with Shelbourne and subsequently Bray, including a stint as manager of their first team. He is currently taking a break from football but plans to return next season.

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Maciej Tarnogrodzki

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