Preview: Austria v Ireland - 12 Nov '16
Saturday's clash with Austria is not quite make-or-break territory for Ireland in their World Cup qualification campaign, however it will be an genuine acid test of where Martin O'Neill’s men are post-EURO 2016.
The game in Vienna will be a measure of how quickly Ireland can regain their summer momentum, following a mixed start to qualifying. O'Neill, by circumstance or method, created a formula against Italy and France in June that drew the best from his side, however that verve has dwindled a little in the autumn.
Seven points from three qualifiers is a relatively good return to date for Ireland, particularly given the second half storm that the team withstood away to Serbia, however the wins over Georgia and Moldova have split opinion amongst Ireland fans.
Maximum points and progress is the main point of the eternal optimist within the Aviva faithful and beyond, however whilst the results have been professional and satisfactory, the performances have caused concern.
Particularly against Georgia, Ireland look worryingly close to taking a step backwards towards old, one-dimensional tactics, regardless of the opposition.
The performances of the Boys in Green in France were characterised by confidence, with and without the ball, work rate and a willingness to be creative in the final third.
However on the basis of qualifying so far, much of these positives appear to have deserted the team and they are in real need of morale-boosting performance in Austria in order to get the O'Neill project on track.
The primary problem looks to be a lack of freedom and mobility within the Irish midfield, an issue that needs to be addressed as midfield is the area that O'Neill possesses his greatest options.
The absence of Shane Long, James McCarthy and Stephen Ward through injury will force O'Neill to change things around, and he has the perfect opportunity to shuffle his midfield pack and expose the issues that Austria are battling with.
Following a disappointing EURO 2016, Austria have started their qualification campaign sluggishly, with just four points so far. However to underestimate their capabilities would be a real oversight, the key for Ireland to uncover their weaknesses.
The biggest problem with the Austrians currently is confidence; the group stage exit in France was a real blow as many analysts had predicted them to be dark horses in the tournament. The malaise of performance has continued into the autumn and frustration is growing within Austrians fans, who see a talented team failing to fulfil their potential.
A stumbling block for Austria has been converting possession into goals and positive results, in the Euros they had the greater possession against both Hungary and Iceland, but they lost both games, scoring just once.
Again in all three World Cup qualifiers they have enjoyed better possession than the opposition, and despite their goal tally improving to six, they have still drawn with Wales and lost to Serbia.
Despite the talent of David Alaba and Marcel Sabitzer in midfield they can at times be ponderous in midfield, relying on the craft of Alaba or the dynamism of Marko Arnautovic to create something.
The Stoke City frontman is Austria’s prime threat, as his double against Wales showed, however there does appear to be an excessive expectancy on him to produce when Austria are up against it. Against Serbia they struggled to create chances, benefiting from defensive errors to score, with a disguised ball in behind from Alaba to Arnautovic their go-to pass to create something.
Tactically, Serbia got it exactly right against the Austrians, and Ireland should take heed of their performance.
Southampton’s Dusan Tadic was a menace to Austria the whole game, unnerving defenders with his movement in the Austrian half. Instead of deploying a deep midfield away from home and allowing Austria to have possession within shooting range, Serbia played their midfield higher up into Austrian territory. This allowed Austria to enjoy more possession, but in a much less dangerous area, and when play broke down due to Serbian pressure and a wide gap between midfield and attack, Serbia pounced.
For Ireland to implement this style they need to play with adaptable midfielders, capable of seeing a pass and playing with aggression.
In all three of their qualifiers so far there has been a real lack of cohesion between midfield and attack, with the attackers struggling to retain possession and midfielders unable to find the necessary creativity. Whilst O'Neill has had his hand forced by injury, this could be an opportunity to right certain wrongs. If the attack is finding it difficult to keep the ball with quick support, then a structure needs to be implemented that allows the right midfielders to get forward quicker.
Jon Walters is likely to lead the line in Long’s absence, and he will need creativity and speed around him, to have an effect. Austrian defenders including Tottenham’s Kevin Wimmer will not be fazed by Walters’ physical approach, what they can be undone by is speed of movement alongside him.
Ireland need to ensure the space between the midfield and Walters is kept to a minimum, for this Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan must start, with Aiden McGeady or possibly even wild-card Daryl Horgan options as cover on the right, and Jeff Hendrick potentially used as a sole anchor, in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
All three have the flexibility and creative nature to pin Austria, and utilise the running power of Hendrick and James McClean to full effect.
Like always, O’Neill is difficult to predict and with the players at his disposal the option of using a diamond midfield can’t be ruled out, despite it’s apparent binning after the Swedish game in Paris.
To start Glenn Whelan and Hendrick as a deep lying pair, would be a negative omen for Ireland, as despite the necessity for pragmatism against a tough opponent, O'Neill’s team desperately need a performance to ignite their campaign.
By Feargal Brennan
Feargal is a football journalist, based in Liverpool covering the Merseyside Big Two. Also writer of tactical and feature pieces on Ireland and La Liga.
Follow him on twitter - @feargalbren