Ireland need to steady the ship in this week’s Nations League double-header, which begins against Denmark in Dublin tomorrow.
MATT DOHERTY COLLECTED the Premier League Fans’ Player of the Month award last week and has been in tremendous form for Wolves since the beginning of the season.
Two assists and a winning goal scored away to Crystal Palace have been a brilliant return for the Dubliner in September, with his excellent form raising the same old questions about how the 26-year-old has so few appearances under his belt for Ireland.
Granted, Martin O’Neill faces a three-fold conundrum in relation to Doherty. Firstly, the player has predominantly played as a wing-back for Wolves, secondly he is one of three right-sided Irish players playing in the Premier League alongside Seamus Coleman and Cyrus Christie, and thirdly Ireland’s captain is the team’s regular starter at right back.
Add to this some reportedly tense words between Doherty and O’Neill in recent months, where the player claimed that “maybe his face doesn’t fit”, alongside supposed complaints from management about his tendency to attack (and wear gloves during training), and there is a whole heap going on.
For the good of the team, however, and with Doherty’s current form simply unignorable (plus the fact that Coleman has been ruled out through injury), one would get the sense that O’Neill will need to find a system in defence to fit Doherty in, if not to solely accommodate one player above all others.
Simply put, Matt Doherty is Ireland’s most in-form player at the moment. This fact alone means he cannot afford to be dropped to the substitutes bench again against Denmark and Wales when Ireland are in such desperate need of positive results after last month’s disaster in Cardiff.
O’Neill has experimented with three at the back before and deployed the system against Poland last month. With Doherty at right wing-back and the possibility of either James McClean or Enda Stevens on the opposite flank, a system to fit all the pieces into the jigsaw puzzle is there to be taken.
Speaking during a press conference at the Aviva Stadium earlier this week, Martin O’Neill admitted that Ireland have struggled to find a regular goalscorer since Robbie Keane hung up his boots in September 2016.
Shane Long was the obvious candidate to fill the skipper’s shoes up top, but poor form for Southampton over the last two seasons has seen the Tipperary footballer look a shell of the forward who slammed that ecstatic strike past Manuel Neuer three years ago.
At the current moment O’Neill’s options lay stacked in Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson, Long, Aiden O’Brien and Scott Hogan. Were O’Neill to choose the aforementioned three at the back system, the opportunity to combine Maguire and Robinson up front is an intriguing possibility in a 3-5-2.
The pair have built up excellent chemistry since joining up together under Alex Neil at Deep Dale — Maguire laying off an assist for Robinson during the Lilywhites’ 4-0 win over Wigan at the weekend in the Championship.
Neither are Ireland stalwarts just yet, and the decision to start two inexperienced strikers up front together against a side like Denmark could carry serious risk. Add to that O’Neill’s loyalty to Shane Long through good periods of form and through bad, and a Maguire-Robinson strike partnership up top seems unlikely.
The former Cork City man has also only just returned from a two month injury layoff following a pre-season hamstring setback, too. With more minutes together for Preston, scoring goals and setting each other up week on week, the prospect of the duo playing up front together for club and country could be a reality for the near future. Especially given Maguire’s flexibility to play as a recognised striker or on the wing.
But for this week’s crucial double-header which starts against the Danes tomorrow, O’Neill will likely rely upon the fit-again Long, calling up either Hogan or O’Brien to partner the Southampton number nine as Ireland try and resolve a long-standing issue in the goals department.
O’Neill’s options in midfield are a lot more forthcoming than in attack. With Graham Burke and Richie Towell both dropped from his initial squad, the Ireland manager has Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane, Alan Browne, Shaun Williams, David Meyler, Harry Arter, Callum O’Dowda and James McClean as his choices.
Once again the system dictates his picks for tomorrow’s game against Denmark. It is commonly accepted that the midfield battle and the space afforded to Christian Eriksen in the second half of last year’s World Cup play-off is where the game was lost, so not making the same mistakes again will be paramount.
Granted, Eriksen will not feature tomorrow. But how Ireland and O’Neill deploy their midfield tactics will be a large part in how tomorrow’s Nations League game plays out. With a 3-5-2 chosen, McClean and Doherty could be deployed as wing-backs.
That leaves three central positions up for grabs. Against Wales Ireland went with a 4-5-1 — Christie, Hendrick, Hourihane, O’Dowda and Robinson lining up behind Jonathan Walters as a lone striker.
Five days later O’Neill switched his tactics to a 3-5-2 — Enda Stevens and Christie played as wing-backs while Hendrick, Shaun Williams and O’Dowda fitted into the middle of the park.
Hendrick was once an unmistakable name on the team sheet for every single international, acting as one of his country’s outstanding performers at Euro 2016. But with limited form under Sean Dyche for Burnley in the Premier League this season, questions have been raised about his automatic place.
Regardless, O’Neill confirmed yesterday that Hendrick would be a guaranteed starter against the Danes, meaning one place is already taken and potentially just two left if he does choose a 3-5-2 formation again.
Alan Browne was in outstanding form for Preston last season, with many believing he has earned enough credit to be chosen as a defence-minded anchor ahead of others like David Meyler.
Harry Arter has also returned to the international set-up following his confrontation with Roy Keane, giving O’Neill even more options. None of Ireland’s midfielders have enjoyed stellar seasons so far in the Premier League or Championship.
But with everyone fit and available, at the very least O’Neill has his best men available to exact revenge for last year’s play-off heartbreak. With Hendrick guaranteed his place, Browne and Arter will compete alongside O’Dowda and Hourihane to make up the remaining numbers.
The crucial aspect is maintaining balance between creative instincts to contribute in attack, and having a steady anchor to cover the three centre backs and link up with both wing-backs running up and down the flanks.
It has been a turbulent time for everyone involved in the Ireland set-up over the past few months.
The 4-1 defeat in Cardiff against Ryan Giggs’ Wales side was a shock to the system, and not the ideal response to last year’s bitter World Cup play-off shortcoming against Denmark.
After Cardiff came the infamous WhatsApp controversy, in-between which Harry Arter momentarily walked away from the Ireland set-up as clashes between the player and Roy Keane came to light, alongside another separate bust-up with Jonathan Walters.
Throughout all of this has been the Declan Rice saga, with the West Ham prodigy ruling himself out of this week’s Nations League double-header as he takes the time and space needed to make a decision about his international future.
With all of these controversies rumbling on over the course of the last month, the pressure has mounted on Keane and O’Neill, with the need for positive results absoutely paramount heading into Saturday’s game against Denmark at the Aviva Stadium.
Many sways of supporters have called for the management duo to be replaced, citing the recent rumblings of fall-outs and clashes, as well as a disappointing style of football which some say has alienated the Boys in Green’s support base.
This week’s double-header will go a long way. It will either calm the storm or add further fuel to the fire around the Ireland camp. The side’s 1-1 draw away to Poland should not be overlooked, however.
Under mounting pressure, O’Neill’s side pulled up a steady and composed performance in Wroclaw. Were it not for an 87th minute equaliser from Mateusz Klich, Aiden O’Brien’s first ever international goal would have recorded a morale-boosting win when the chips were down.
Following last month’s 4-1 defeat in Wales, the WhatsApp debacle, the Declan Rice saga and the reported bust-ups, Ireland need to find the strength to rally back against Denmark and Wales in quick succession.
This pair of games, even though some would dismiss them as glamourised friendlies disguised as something else, could be absoutely pivotal to the future success or demise of Ireland under the current management regime.
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