Euro 2012 preview: Ireland
It is a decade since Ireland last qualified for a major international tournament, and the three biggest stars from the 2002 World Cup will represent Ireland again here – Shay Given in goal, Damien Duff on the wing and Robbie Keane upfront.
They’re probably still the three biggest stars, which rather sums up Ireland’s situation – they don’t have any world class footballers, and that has been foremost in Giovanni Trapattoni’s mind since he took charge of Ireland.
Trapattoni has focused upon creating a solid, reliable unit. Everything he says is about the system, about discipline. “I have given them balance, an equilibrium, and I have underlined that all 11 players attack and defend, without necessarily expecting to play well,” he once said. His quotes are celebrated, his playing style is not. Ireland are ultra-defensive. “In the past [the Irish team] had ships with sails and they had to go wherever it was the wind took them,” Trapattoni says. ”Now, you can set a course and that is what I have done with this team. But if you depart from the course, then you end up on the rocks.”
Because of his focus upon shape and discipline, Trapattoni has been remarkably consistent with his team and squad selection. This has been controversial in Ireland – talented players like Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman have been ignored, and it seemed as if exciting winger James McClean was also set to be omitted, although he’s made the squad despite little international experience. However, the point remains – Trapattoni wants tried, tested and most importantly trusted players, and this team is overwhelmingly about systems rather than individuals. His template is Greece 2004.
Trapattoni was a man of many formations as (a rather unsuccessful) coach of Italy, but with Ireland he doesn’t stray from a traditional 4-4-2, with two defensive-minded midfielders, two wingers breaking down the flanks, one forward dropping off and a big target man upfront. Ireland don’t hoof the ball towards the number nine as quickly as possible, but they’re hardly playing out of their comfort zone: they’ll spend long periods without the ball, then be direct when they win possession.
At the back, Ireland’s key man is Richard Dunne, a defender who has a remarkably basic skillset for a Premier League and international player, yet he is in his element in this system, where his job is to sit on the edge of the box, make headed clearances and get last-ditch blocks in. The fact that Ireland’s midfield stays so deep means he shouldn’t have to move forward and follow forwards out, as he is slow on the turn. His partner is Sean St Ledger – a fairly ordinary centre-back, yet a consistent performer at international level.
At full-back Trapattoni’s first-choices are Stephen Ward and John O’Shea. They full-backs are defensive-minded, and with Ireland attacking directly there are few opportunities to overlap – they generally don’t venture into the final third.
Central midfield is the area that has prompted the most debate. Trapattoni’s favoured men throughout qualification were Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan – again, unspectacular footballers but capable of doing the scrappy things in front of the defence, as well as playing simple square balls out to the flanks. Those two seemed untouchable in Trapattoni’s mind, but recently the Italian has been spending a lot of one-on-one time with Darron Gibson in training, and has declared that he will be an ‘important player’ for Ireland, suggesting there could be a last-minute change in the centre of the pitch. Gibson can spread play with more ambitious passes than either Whelan or Andrews, so he is a more proactive option, but Gibson’s good performance in the friendly against Bosnia, Trapattoni returned to Whelan-Andrews for the final pre-tournament friendly against Hungary.
However, having previously looked the most inflexible of the 16 coaches in terms of formation, Trapattoni hinted this week that he’d consider playing a 4-5-1. “If we have another situation like this [an inability to retain possession in the friendly against Hungary], we need another approach,” he said. “When we have another player in midfield, we can make it more difficult.” That was a shock admission, and for Ireland to change system now would surely be a mistake. They’re unlikely to outpass the opposition – and the 3-2 defeat to Russia showed how clearly a two-man midfield can be overcome by a three-man midfield, but that was when Ireland conceded an early goal and were forced to chase the game for a long period. Prevent an early concession, and Ireland should be OK, although Keane offers the flexibility to help out in midfield.
On the flanks there’s another debate. Two clear first-choices throughout the qualification campaign (Duff and Aiden McGeady) and then a young challenger in McClean, who also performed well against Bosnia – though this seemed to bring the best out of McGeady when he came on as a substitute. Again, Trapattoni has the ability to switch these players. They are all traditional wingers – they look to take on full-backs before crossing to the two forwards.
Robbie Keane is the number ten, asked to play, in Trapattoni’s words, “the Francesco Totti role” – although he also makes the occasional run in behind the defence.
Upfront, Trapattoni has options. Kevin Doyle is the first choice but had a poor season for Wolves, and two West Brom forwards, Simon Cox and Shane Long are able deputies. Jon Walters is another option, and is adaptable and has played a deeper role for Stoke this year. Though all are slightly different players, Trapattoni’s decision will probably be about form, fitness and confidence levels rather than tactical reasons.
That said, the strikers play a key part in the defensive phase of play. “Did you ever wonder why certain strikers no longer form part of the squad set-up? Because they would lose the ball and then stand around and watch. But you’ve got to chase back,” Trapattoni says. “Sometimes, your best defenders are your forwards,” he reiterated this week. “If a striker lets his defender go down the pitch and cross for a goal, he has not helped the team. He is like Pontius Pilate. Instead, I want them to run back with the defender and stop him crossing for the goal.”
System over individuals
It’s not harsh to say that Ireland are probably the most technically-limited side in the competition, but Trapattoni is aware of their limitations and has constructed a solid unit that should thrive as the underdog. More importantly, the players sitck to the plan and have a great team spirit (which seems a patronising thing to say, but after England’s complains of boredom at the World Cup, can be an important factor).
Ireland are nicely prepared for this tournament. Each of the other 15 sides would play the same way against Spain, but while for some that would mean a huge departure from their natural gameplan, Ireland are used to being defensive, organised and reactive.
This is very much a game-by-game campaign, and Trapattoni is looking at the weaknesses of his opponents rather than his own side’s strengths. “I spend all my time watching DVDs of Spain, Croatia and Italy, looking at the tactical approach and what I can do. I have seen all of the games – home and away – of the teams we will play. Every little detail – free-kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins, how they start the game – is important for us and will be important in the games in June,” he says.
Ireland’s most winnable game is the opening fixture against Croatia. From those DVDs, Trapattoni will have seen how poor Croatia were when defending set-pieces in the 2-0 qualification defeat to Greece, and this should play into Ireland’s hands beautifully. A 0-0 will be the target against Spain, and then the final game against Italy will be crucial. If Ireland have pinched four points from the first two games – the dream scenario – another goalless draw should be enough.
This is a very reactive side, but if there’s one thing Ireland have been good at in past international tournaments, it’s squeezing through the group despite scoring few goals. They stand a good chance of frustrating superior opposition.
Coach – Giovanni Trapattoni
Formation – 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2
Key players – the wingers, who must turn defence into attack swiftly
Strength – excellent shape without the ball
Weakness – ball retention and creativity
Key tactical question – does Trapattoni abandon the shape that has taken him this far?
Key coach quote – “I have underlined that all 11 players attack and defend, without necessarily expecting to play well.”
Betfair odds – 110.0 (109/1)
Recommended bet – Ireland to finish 2nd behind Spain at 9.6