Passing the Buck: Ireland’s Footballing DNA
In the days and weeks following Ireland’s 2-2 draw with Serbia in Belgrade, much discourse focused on our habit of going on the immediate retreat after taking a lead against a strong opponent.
This is usually doubled up with an ensuing inability to retain possession of the ball. And so begins a virtuous cycle of pressure, desperate defence, hoof, retreat and so on, often until we concede a goal and begin to rally again.
While it would seem that this is mostly a learned behaviour, the question is as to how deeply it is ingrained and whether it is one that can be corrected or not.
The great Richie Dunne doesn’t think so:
“Ireland’s always been about fight, tackle, get the ball in the box and see what you can do.
It’s going to take a long time for it to change. Probably when Roy Keane was playing we might have played a bit of football because he was the one Irish midfielder for a long time who could dictate matches and control the tempo. We don’t have that anymore and we’ve not had it for a long time.
Can we be cured Doc?
While Dunne’s opinion is certainly true of his time in an Ireland shirt, is it more than a psychological state of mind or simply a lack of technical ability from a history of exposure to and influence from English football culture and style?
So often we have seen our players attempt to build play from the back but eventually come under pressure and revert to this default scenario. We have proved an extremely easy team to press into coughing up possession.
It was never more evident than in our opening game in Euro 2012 against Croatia. Set up in a relatively rigid 4-4-2 system, we started the game (despite conceding an early goal) with a positive approach, seeking to circulate the ball quickly from the back. However, a mixture of the flatness of our midfield and the aggressiveness with which the Croatians pressed us meant that the ball regularly returned to the back four and very often to Shay Given, the option availed of was to horse the ball down the field towards our only aerial option - Kevin Doyle.
This continued to happen and we continued to spend less and less time in possession of the ball.
This had become a consistent feature of Irish play over preceding years since the re-emergence of pressing as an en vogue defensive strategy.
Personnel and Shape
A player can have good technique but yet not be naturally conditioned to play in an expressive manner - most of our players who played under Jack Charlton were of a very high technical standard.
We now seem to have midfield players who have both qualities: the technical ability but also the natural inclination and comfort to seek the ball with opposition players close by.
Where they are positioned on the pitch can also be crucial to the creation of simple passing options. Playing a flat 4-4-2 formation can greatly reduce passing options, undermanned in midfield and lacking in flexibility, our 2012 team was simply not constructed to retain possession.
Away in Paris in 2009 has often been cited but more recently than that our play has been peppered with prolonged moment of composure and passing football.
Against Germany last October the use of the diamond midfield was pivotal to our success that evening. By locating four midfielders (as well as advancing full-backs) extremely comfortable in possession - McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady and Hoolahan in close proximity to each other, and at different depths, the midfield passing options increased greatly. The latter three possess the wonderful ability to drop a shoulder or use a shimmy to shake off a marker, and buy a precious extra second with which to pick out the next pass. This was hugely influential in our ability to maintain possession and to relieve our under-stress defence.
The emergence of these midfield players has, at times, greatly improved our ability to deal with aggressive pressing. Their ability to find space often providing an obvious 'out ball' option to under-pressure midfielders and defenders had been lacking in previous Irish teams. The selection of Wes Hoolahan being a very obvious case in point.
The fluidity of movement of midfield and attacking players contribute hugely to the creation of passing options.
Most often it is the movement that creates the great pass, rather than the pass itself.
Players have all been consistent in saying that neither O’Neill nor Trapattoni instructed the players to retreat and/or play the ball long. However, it takes more than just not explicitly instructing Irish players that way for them to do the opposite and play with expression and composure.
There is a level of risk involved that most managers have a limited level of comfort with.
It requires a bravery and level of trust from the sidelines that we have yet to experience with Irish managers. Defensive solidity is something they are understandably unwilling to compromise on.
The broad historic evidence is very strongly in favour of Dunne’s contention.
Stephen Reid feels that this is our natural style and we should embrace it further:
"Do we need a manager capable of coaching our players into adopting a positive philosophy? I don't believe that we do.
The performances that have really impressed me are those where we've gone a bit more direct into Shane Long and played for second balls. Slow build-up play isn't necessary. It doesn't suit us. We are about aggression and intensity."
It is easy to recognise and appreciate his view. Although his assessment of Shane Long is slightly confusing. Back to goal play is one of the weakest parts of his game. But overall his point of having an aerial option such as Daryl Murphy is absolutely valid.
However, it brings to mind that Henry Ford quote - "if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got".
It would be easy to accept that Dunne and Reid are correct and it is just the way we are. But to do so would require you to not have watched Dundalk in their European sojourn this year.
Their astonishing European success this year has surprised the Irish footballing world. Much has been said from all quarters on the subject of the inclusion or not of Dundalk players in the national team squad. Thus far only Gary Rogers has been called up but there should be little surprise if players like Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Patrick McEleney play senior international football at some stage of their careers.
Less has been spoken on the manner of their success and the style with which it has been achieved.
Yes, they have displayed those 'famous' Irish traits of blood, guts and tears but without the poise, composure on the ball and steely belief in their approach it is difficult to imagine this success could have been achieved.
Managers of both Europa League opponents (from whom they have taken 4 points already) AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv have commented on being taken aback by Dundalk's un-'British' approach:
“They’re not a typical British team. They try to play football. In the first half, they were better than AZ with their short combinations and they had more of the ball than us" said AZ boss John van den Brom.
Maccabi manager Shota Arveladze commented
“To be honest (it was a little bit of a surprise), yes. Before I watched their games I expected a more British style of football – long balls and second balls, 4-4-2 – but at the end of the day this is a really nice football team. I have seen two or three games, the two against Legia and the one against AZ and their identity never changed. It’s always good to see someone play nice football.”
While undoubtedly Dundalk possess individual players of an appreciable talent, it is the manner in which the manager Stephen Kenny has organised and instructed them that has stimulated their collective success.
Is Stephen O'Donnell are a more capable holding midfield player than Glenn Whelan?
Most probably not, some would even say he isn't the best holding midfield player in the League of Ireland, yet his willingness to seek the ball even when marked, his calmness in possession and the composure with which he seeks to pass it, suggest a mental rather than technical/physiological quality.
There were times in the first half of the 2nd leg against BATE Borisov (which they won 3-0) where the Dundalk back four were struggling in possession of the ball due to the pressure they were under and either lumped it long or into the stand. They managed to gradually improve this as the game went on but it was the period of the match when their progression looked least likely.
However, this was greatly improved in the recent game against AZ with the return of defensive leader Brian Gartland. Gartland's composure on the ball spread among his other defenders and allowed the crucial extra split-second on the ball with which to pick out an assured pass to a teammate.
While we have had many players of strong character and leadership playing for our national team, this type of leadership has been somewhat lacking in Irish defenders and central midfielders in the past decade. Too often our stalwart defenders, even the likes of Dunne and O'Shea (very competent ball players) have been eager to play the ball long, again facilitated by a reluctance of our defensive midfield players to seek the ball.
This state of mind is created by the manager. A confidence instilled in the players that mistakes will happen but the rewards are greater.
Kenny is totally against the 'truisms' that seek to define an Irish style of play:
"I don't buy into this whole concept. The train of thought that's going around. Many commentators (one example is Richard Dunne) have said that it's in our DNA to play high up the pitch and a more direct style because that suits our psyche. Our level of skill. Or rather, our supposed lack of it.
I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that. But that's the narrative and people believe that. They are conditioned to believe it. And then we go back and blame how kids are coached at U-10 or something. It's about having the ability to pass the ball, the ability to believe in yourself and fulfil your potential as players and seeing where that takes you."
The time required to give a team a strong defensive shape is much less than that required to build a strong attacking shape. Giovanni Trapattoni clearly felt this.
Although it is never comforting when you hear Roy Keane almost irreverently talk about good attacking play as being "a bit of quality", putting it purely down the natural talents of the attacking players rather than being something that can be instigated through planning and working on attacking combinations.
Time with international players is extremely limited. Perhaps this is the crucial difference between the style adopted by Stephen Kenny's Dundalk and successive Irish teams.
Improving our ability to retain the ball is not something that should be pursued for reasons of vanity nor because it is "the right way", but purely because it is the efficient way.
Having the ability to manipulate the tempo of the game, to marry the 'traditional Irish' style of intensity and aggression with the ability to retain possession in order to kill games off, to stem the sometimes relentless waves of opposition attacks and take the pressure off an under-siege defence are dimensions to our game that the team will simply need to discover if we are to improve the output from the talents at our disposal.
The evidence is there.