Ireland: defensive, and no reason to change

November 16, 2011

Ireland's most common starting XI during the qualifiers

Giovanni Trapattoni has guided Ireland to their first major tournament for a decade, yet there are still questions about his tactics.

His basic approach barely needs further explanation from the diagram on the left. There’s a standard back four, two hard-working central midfielders, two wingers who run with the ball, with a support player dropping off a main striker. It’s a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1 if you like, but near enough the most basic system imaginable in modern football.

Trapattoni’s success has come because he’s accepted the limitations of his side. With Barcelona and Spain dominating club and international football the game has, more than ever, become based around technical quality in the centre of midfield. Good passing when you have the ball, positivity when you don’t have it, and a preference for an open game have become the qualities to aspire to.

Ireland, frankly, don’t have a great deal of technical quality in their midfield. They have a fine goalkeeper, some good defenders, tricky wingers and a good deal of options upfront. In the centre they have Keith Fahey, Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, Darren Gibson and James McCarthy. Fahey and Andrews are Championship players, Whelan plays for a club that barely look to pass the ball, Gibson has (slightly harshly) become a figure of fan for non-stop ambitious shooting, whilst McCarthy is talented but barely established in the squad.

Defensive base

Trapattoni, then, has decided upon a negative approach based around getting two banks of four behind the ball, then breaking fairly directly through the wide players and sometimes longer balls to the front two. It has proved successful – Ireland qualified losing only one game from 12 (to group winners Russia), whilst enjoying a particularly good defensive record, with six clean sheets from those 12 matches.

He’s faced criticism for being too defensive, but it’s difficult to see how he can be more proactive given the lack of quality. Aiming for passing game for the sake of it would surely see Ireland undone even against relatively modest sides, and would essentially be shifting the battleground to a zone where Ireland are not particularly strong. Andrews and Whelan are unlikely to scare many opponents, whilst a two-man midfield can often be passed around easily by sides boasting both greater quality and quantity of central midfielders.


He could change formation to one boasting three central midfielders, of course, and move to a three-man midfield. However, this would mean dropping either Robbie Keane – unlikely, since he’s the captain – or Kevin Doyle, which would Keane to play alone upfront, a role that doesn’t suit him at all.

If the 4-4-2 is your ‘natural’ shape yet you don’t want to be outmanoeuvred easily in midfield, the natural option is to drop deep to prevent space between the lines, or in behind the defence. Whichever way you look at it, playing more attacking football looks suicidal.

The main problem is creativity – the wingers have been inconsistent, but that’s what you have to accept from wide players in a defensive side. They’re starved of the ball, and therefore players are always judged based upon one or two actions. It’s difficult to see how this situation can be improved in terms of he formation or selection; the simple response of ‘playing more attacking’ is more likely to expose the central midfielders than benefit the wide midfielders.

Ireland have a different type of squad to usual. As Miguel Delaney outlines, they don’t have a top-class footballer amongst their ranks but do have decent strength in depth, meaning that asking the side to work well functionally rather than relying on one or two individuals is the right way to go, and probably the only way they can perform above expectations. They don’t have many stars – even Keane and Damien Duff don’t have the pace and spark they did the last time Ireland qualified for a tournament.

“For a start, Messi and Ronaldo don’t have Irish passports,” says winger Stephen Hunt. ”We no longer hit is as high as we can, but we do have a direct style of play. We have good effective players at it…it can come across sometimes from the media that we don’t have a fancy style of play, but we never had. Never, ever had. We had Liam Brady, who was talented. Apart from that, you tell me who has been Ronaldo or Messi for the last 20 years in Ireland?”

Tournament approach

There seems to be an argument that now Ireland have qualified for Euro 2012, they need to break out of their shell and be more positive. In aesthetic terms? Well, that’s down to personal taste. In terms of getting results? Almost certainly not. If anything, the challenge for a defensive-minded team is to pick up enough wins to get through the qualification group, especially against opponents looking to play roughly the same type of football. A side based around ‘keeping things tight’ is more suited to a major tournament – certainly the knockout stages, and Ireland have shown in the past that it’s possible to draw your way out of a group.

In modern times, it’s difficult to remember an outsider cause a surprise at a major tournament by playing anything like open, attractive football. South Korea in 2002 were fairly defensive, Senegal were occasionally exciting but inherently counter-attacking, and Greece in 2004 were the ultimate examples of a defensive-minded side excelling through organisation and opportunism at set-pieces. 2006 and 2008 largely went to form, and 2010 saw surprise packages Uruguay, Ghana and Paraguay all based around organisation rather than creativity.

Look at this year’s Copa America, where the first knockout round saw the four reactive sides (Venezuela, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay) progress past the four sides who wanted to play good football (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia). For various reasons, proactive football isn’t particularly successful at international level – the fact that Spain are the World Champions shouldn’t dominate the debate too much; overall trends are more important than one-offs, whilst Spain have the unique advantage of being able to field the majority of a settled, highly successful club side.

So not only does Trapattoni possess little quality to attempt to outwit opponents in an open game of football, he’d also be going down a route which has few, if any, notable recent success stories.

That’s not to say Ireland can’t offer more going forward. Small aspects can and should be worked on – Andrews broke forward more away in Estonia, and if Ireland are to make more of an attacking impact, transitions from defence to attack must be quicker. The overall structure and approach, however, should change as little as possible to maximise the chance of a shock.

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