Opinion: The Long long ball..
It would be a cruel trivia question.
Name the player: He’s won 71 caps for Ireland, playing in two major international tournaments during that time; he’s played GAA for his county in Croke Park; was a League of Ireland youth and senior player, before been signed by an English club. And has won one FAI Senior International Player of the Year award.
Even Shane Long’s mother could be forgiven for falling off her seat as she dove for the pencil to scribble down the answer, but the FAI award she has sitting on her mantelpiece is for Young International Player of the Year, an award he won in 2010 while at Reading, and not the Senior one. The rest, she is spot on about though.
But this bizarre likeness aside, Shane Long bucks trends. He’s usually the fittest. The fastest (he’s been tracked as the fastest player in the Premier League this season). The best athlete. Most consistent. The most intelligent runner. Best at finding space. The list goes on..
It’s no wonder he can cross the divide from hurling to football with such ease. Sport is simple when you possess such natural abilities, after all. The size of the ball can become a mere detail.
But for a man who oozes versatility, why is it that Martin O Neill seems to be struggling with him, of late? The stats suggest he’s doing OK. For starters, everywhere Long has played, he’s shown impressive, albeit not prolific, goal-scoring consistency– Reading, West Brom, Southampton, Ireland (pre O’Neill, and since). 1 goal for every 4 games played. Last season he upped those stats, scoring 1 in every 3 for Southampton. A trend he also duly obliged to bring to international level with goals against Gibraltar, Slovakia, Netherlands, Moldova, and of course, the Germans (which, for the record, was only his second winning goal in an Irish jersey, the first being in a friendly in 2012 against Bosnia and Herzegovina).
That goal may have been a typical Irish goal of sorts, long ball, etc – perhaps just missing a glancing header in there somewhere – but what it also was, was vintage Shane Long. Running diagonally across the defensive line, until the moment the ball leaves Randolph’s foot, then angling his direction towards goal. Similar to Jamie Vardy last season, if the pass lands in the right area, 9 times out of 10 it's a one-v-one and a likely goal.
If it were possible for the World Champions to come to Dublin and commit footballing suicide that night, the noose in their rope, was that uncovered, high defensive line.
So, why did they do it? Probably a combination of two things: Firstly, and they could be forgiven for this, any German defender knows Manuel Neuer’s love of the sweeping game – surely that ball was all his? And secondly, because they were attempting to play their thorn, Jonathan Walters, offside as he sauntered around with mischief, 10 metres behind their line.
That’s the precise formula that Long thrives on. When he’s running into space, getting the ball in front of him, and working in-tangent with a target man who’s soaking in, and confusing, defenders. On their day, there’s very few players who can work better together. The problem for Long now though, is that O’Neill has always leaned towards having the extra man in midfield, rather than upfront, so he, and Ireland’s penetration, have since relied on the near un-humanlike workrate of Jonathan Walters to effectively do two jobs.
It’s therefore no surprise at all, that Walter’s knee injury in March last year, also led to Long’s toughest period in an Irish jersey. During the period after, and into the Euro’s, O’Neill continued to stick to the same formation, but a fifty percent fit Walters made that hybrid-role unworkable. Ireland, and Long, became impotent. No more so evident than against the Belgians, where no Walters at all, meant Long was now playing a target-man role, with his back to goal, fighting off (or to rephrase, been eaten alive by) Vermaelen and Vertonghen. It was a horror show, with Long’s sole function being reduced to trying to win free kicks - something, let’s just say, he’s no Duffer at.
In hindsight, O’Neill deserves criticism for his selection that day – in fact, it’s a massive testament to the teams psychology that they didn’t mentally combust afterwards - but with the same players at his disposal, would he select a similar 11 if we had a repeat of that fixture again today? Very likely. O’Neill has done a good job as Ireland manager, but his aim, in total contrast to Trap, has always been about getting our best players on the pitch, and the diamond-midfield successes aside, adopting a strategy that focuses primarily on personnel generally leads to you asking one or two players who are good at one thing, to do another.
Case in point: Shane Long.
After a great early goal against the Moldovans, made by another peach of a pass by Hoolahan, Long limped off after 62 minutes. The Moldovans had equalised, and were on the ascendancy, gaining confidence from our lack of ability to control the tempo and possession of the ball. O’Neill moved Walters into a more central role, and as easily as that, the whole structure of the game changed - it started looking like a 173rd ranked team versus the 33rd again. We also began seeing something we hadn’t seen from Walters in over a year. He was winning free kicks, soaking in defenders, winning the ball, playing in others – and even more – our long balls were now going down the middle of the park, opening up the pitch, and options, rather than towards the right hand touch-line.
Walters tee’d up McClean for the go-ahead goal, and rather than inviting on pressure as we normally do after taking a lead, we comfortably closed off the game, with Walters walking off the pitch as he likes; as the most hated and kicked man.
None of this says that Walter is a better player than Long. Nor is he necessarily a better striker. But management basics tell you to let the job define the man, and not the other way around.
O'Neill: Ideology v Practicality
That has to have been an eye opener for O’Neill, if the Euro’s weren’t. Whilst all the attention of late has been on Brady in midfield, the emergence of Hendrick, the injuries to Arter, the questions of McCarthy, and the diamond midfield, has O’Neill potentially taken for granted two of his greatest players? If not, then why is he not coaxing them into roles, and a function, where their attributes can be most effective?
If Long is to continue leading our line, Walters needs to be allowed to get closer to him, in central positions, playing the target and link player. Long needs to be allowed find space in behind, pre-empt the second phase, widen the pitch, unhinge central defences, and use his pace. But if O’Neill is unwilling to mould more sense into the questions he’s currently asking of Long, one has to think he might be better suited posing them to Daryl Murphy instead.
It was club football where O’Neill earned his reputation. A job where managers are defined by their philosophy. Guardiola, tiki-taka. Mourinho, power. Ferguson, grit. Wenger, beauty. Klopp, pace. If you don’t have the personnel to play to your philosophy, you buy them. International management, however, is the chalk to your clubs cheese. Personnel can very often decide what philosophy you adopt, therefore making adaptability one of the most important traits for an international manager. It’s most likely this reason that has led to the decline in so-called big managers taking over national sides – their egos are bigger than the footballers. Winning through philosophy is the only credible badge of honour out there.
But with O’Neill having celebrated his three year anniversary with Ireland last week, there is no longer time for him to learn that adaptability skill. He needs to figure out how to get his philosophy, strategy, and personnel to meet symbiotically in the middle, and if that results in him dropping Long to call on a much ‘lesser’, but suitable, equivalent, then let this be the defining moment of his tenure as Ireland manager. And not the fact that he didn’t.
With Long out injured this weekend, he’s got a free pass to figure out how best to use Walters. Something will have to give thereafter, though.
And it can’t be Russia.