Ireland will apply the same brand of dogged football during Tuesday’s second-leg clash with Denmark as they did in Copenhagen on Saturday, which means we’re unlikely to see Wes Holohan until the closing stages.
Many things that were fashionable in the 1990s have since gone by the wayside. The onward march of modernity has put paid to many of that decade’s most contemptible trends. The Morbegs were ousted and replaced by Bob The Builder, Furby’s were recalled when their plan to destroy humanity was discovered and Boyzone were forever disbanded, as per the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Irish football, however, exists in a time vacuum, remaining stubbornly analogue in a digital age – a Discman amongst iPhones.
In the land that tactical evolution forgot, we still play the same brand of long ball, no possession football that we did in the heady days of the Jack Charlton era, just like our fathers and their fathers before them.
Except unlike the Charlton era, this Ireland team does not put opponents under pressure.
Saturday night’s dismal encounter in Copenhagen proved as much, as the Irish players beat an immediate retreat to their own 18-yard line, sat off the technically superior Danes and allowed their centre-backs to move into our half unchallenged.
From here they bombarded the Irish defence from the air with high balls, which, for the most part, very much suited our imposing centre-halves Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy.
On paper the starting eleven chosen on Saturday night looked like a team that was set up to get on the front foot. That proved deceptive and instead our midfield trio of Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter and Callum O’Dowda essentially all played as holding midfielders. O’Dowda suffered as a result, particularly in the defensive side of the game.
The Danes were given 90 minutes with the football and invited to try and breakdown Ireland’s back ten. They huffed and they puffed and they missed two great chances and just like that, Martin O’Neill had once again got one over a side better than his own.
This seems to have become the hallmark of his Irish team. Ireland have played extremely poorly on a number of occasions and gotten away with it.
Watching Ireland you always get the impression that scoring a goal will come about by chance rather than design. Against Wales we capitalised on a defensive mistake to nick an unlikely win and against Denmark managed only two shots on target, neither of which troubled Kasper Schmeichel.
O’Neill, however, has the uncanny ability to deflect attention away from the woefulness of Ireland’s performances, either with a sardonic reply or his monochrome scowl.
Of Saturday night’s encounter, the former Sunderland boss explained calmly that we had simply developed ‘the art of defending strongly’. Any notion that we just didn’t play very well was dismissed as fake news.
And there is no reason to think that O’Neill will adopt a more expansive approach to Tuesday’s game. Hoolohan is unlikely to start as he lacks the work rate and defensive competence of David Meyler who is now available having been suspended for the first leg.
The old argument goes that this is how we must play given the talent available. And there is some truth to that. Meyler is a strong midfielder who does excellent work when closing down opponents, however he isn’t going to produce a defence-splitting pass.
But we could play better than we have been.
What was most depressing about Ireland’s performance against Denmark in Copenhagen was their unwillingness to press high up the pitch.
Daryl Murphy was left to sprint about on his own from one centre back to the other in a futile attempt to win back possession.
His teammates didn’t help him because they were frozen in their own half, too afraid to push up and take the game to the Danes.
Ireland played so deep in their own half that when they did win back possession it was more often than not on the edge of their own box. The problem with this approach is that it basically denies you any chance of counterattacking.
Murphy was the lone white jersey on the halfway line. Hendrick and Arter both had possession near their own goal and were prevented from playing their way out by the fact that most of their players were behind them. Instead they were rushed into hasty clearances which time and again gave possession straight back to Denmark.
Inevitably the instruction from the manager will be to play a low risk strategy, but if we do not push into the opposition half and pressurise them we have no hope. Our team doesn’t have the speed or quality to break from our own box and go the length of the pitch for a goal.
Denmark were made to look better than they are against an Ireland team too bogged down by their own perceived shortcomings to even challenge them.
If we were to take the fight to Denmark in their own half at the Aviva we could get some real joy. McClean, Meyler and Robbie Brady will all happily close down opponents and force mistakes if they are allowed to.
If we continue with the same approach as we did on Saturday then the best we can hope for is extra-time and penalties.