Ireland 2-3 Russia: Irish outpassed & outclassed
Ireland staged a comeback in the last twenty minutes, but were second best for the majority of this game.
Giovanni Trapattoni named the same side for the third consecutive qualification game, setting out in a standard 4-4-2, with Robbie Keane dropping slightly off Kevin Doyle, and both strikers tirelessly running the channels.
Dick Advocaat brought in Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kerhakov, meaning five out the ten outfield players were from Zenit St Petersburg, including the fluid midfield triangle. Andriy Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev played neither as wingers nor central attackers, moving across the pitch laterally to provide width as attacks built up, before moving into the centre when Russia’s full-backs motored forward.
Fluidity was the overall key to Russia’s dominance, and Ireland’s rigid, unimaginative shape simply failed to cope with the movement of the away side early on. Russia played neat triangles in midfield and built up complex attacking moves, whereas Ireland’s approach was rather predictable – square balls from the two central midfielders to the two wide players, who then looked to run with the ball.
The introduction of Kerzhakov was a positive for Russia, even without his 11th minute opener. His good movement and tendency to move to the flanks and open up play in the centre of the pitch worked very well with the two attacking players stationed just behind him, as well as the midfield trio that are used to making late runs to exploit Kerzhakov’s movement at club level.
The understanding between Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov was crucial in the way Russia’s midfield operated. There was no real permanent holding player – Denisov was certainly the deepest of the three throughout the game, but with no Ireland central attacking midfielder, he was happy to break from midfield, or move to the flanks to create another passing option and retain balance when one of the full-backs pushed forward.
The advance of the respective full-backs was another key difference between the sides. Both Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Anyukov constantly provided overlaps and got themselves into the final third, catching Ireland’s wide midfielders out as they became sucked into the midfield battle to try and relieve the 2 v 3 pressure in that zone (similar to the Italian full-backs’ moves against Northern Ireland). One of Anyukov’s dashes forward produced the second goal, as Dzagoev converted his low cross from the right.
Ireland were disjointed in how they tried to win the ball back – generally Doyle and Keane pressed high up the pitch, but the midfield stood off, and so the Russia centre-backs had simple balls out to the full-backs who were ‘free’, as was one of the central midfielders. This is another problem with the 4-4-2 against a one-striker formation – pressing in midfield becomes difficult because, as Australia showed against Germany the opposition can generally simply play around you in midfield. Ireland’s midfield was right not to press, but it meant that Doyle and Keane were chasing and chasing and not doing much good.
Ireland’s most dangerous player was Aiden McGeady, and Russia (perhaps with more knowledge of him than any other Ireland player) were attentive to this threat, always doubling up on him, often with Vasili Berezutski coming out to that side, and Denisov dropping in.
Ireland’s approach was slightly different after half-time – they played more direct balls forward, getting the wide players into the box. Kevin Kilbane also seemed to be more advanced, whilst Igor Akinfeev’s insistence on punching and parrying shots and crosses was encouraging Ireland to keep playing balls into dangerous positions.
They did open up space in the midfield by pushing forward, however, inviting Russia counter-attacks. Shirokov got himself in a good position in the hole and his wayward shot took a fortunate deflection off Richard Dunne, wrongfooted Shay Given, and it was 3-0.
Despite some substitutions, Ireland’s approach remained the same. They got back into the game when Keane converted a penalty he had won after an innocuous Zhirkov trip, and this inspired them to up the tempo. Akinfeev’s constant parrying always looked likely to produce a goal, and his push out straight into the danger zone was punished by substitute Shane Long.
There was nothing flashy about the final 15 minutes – Ireland pumped long balls forward and threw forward as many men as possible. They were winning plenty of balls in the box and Russia had one or two nervy moments, but equally Russia should have scored a fourth when substitute Pavel Pogrebnyak mishit a simple volleyed chance.
Russia simply passed their way around Ireland for much of the game. The formations and tactics were not as pivotal in this as pure technical ability, but the two strategies certainly emphasized the difference here.
Russia were compact, cohesive and very impressive when they had the ball. The understanding and fluidity between the front six players worked very well, whilst both full-backs contributed to the attacking threat with tireless overlapping runs.
4-4-2 seems the logical shape for Ireland when looking at the players Trapattoni has at his disposal, but the problem is that it often becomes too easy a formation to play against, especially when the opposition are simply better players. With the ball Ireland found themselves outnumbered in midfield, and without the ball they found it difficult to press cohesively. Still, this result was more about Russia playing well than Ireland playing poorly.