Victory in Vienna - One for the Ages
Throughout the years we've had our share of big nights but Martin O'Neill has achieved more big wins for Ireland in the past 13 months than all of the previous managers since Jack Charlton combined. From 2001 until last October we beat only 1 team ranked ahead of us (we essentially drew against France in 2009), but since then we have beaten 4 (Germany, Bosnia, Italy and now Austria).
While we had developed a decent record of not losing to many big teams in Dublin during that period, an almost sadomasochistic habit of self inflicted tragic away defeats seemed to continually haunt us. Almost like an institutionalised prisoner's inability to ‘go straight’ upon release, yearning to return to the safety of what they knew best.
Notching 'big' away draws (Italy in 2009 etc) seemed to be as high as we could realistically aim for.
It was somewhat astonishing to see an opponent ranked as highly as Austria suffer from such collective self esteem issues. Even more remarkable to see a captain demoted during an actual game as the armband passed to Alaba midway during the second half. Indeed, Alaba's performance seemed to epitomise the entire teams'. So meek was their display, it wouldn't be in anyway surprising to hear of their manager's dismissal in the coming weeks.
It was all the stranger to see an opponent of ours resort to lumping long balls up to their big centre forward. But Marc Janko gave a display of hideous finishing only on a par with his physical feebleness.
Martin O'Neill must be credited with the tactical approach, starting initially with a diamond and later in the first half into 4-2-3-1 with McClean retreating to his more usual position on the left flank.
Our diamond formation (which hadn't been used since the Sweden game at the Euros) helped us congest the midfield and frustrate Austria's passing. Having McClean and Walters as a strike pair also meant our ability to press was greatly increased. Austria's lack of potency on the flanks meant that formation's vulnerability to overlapping full-backs wasn't exploited.
However, very strangely O'Neill strategy seemed to involve our back 4 adopting a very deep defensive line, which undermined our efforts to close down the space their midfield had. Indeed, the gap between our back 4 and front 2 was far too generous and difficult to comprehend given the lack of pace in Austria's attack or use of the ball over the top.
We didn't get the level of fluency in midfield that we are capable of. However, given the state of the pitch and the fact that this combination of midfielders had never played together before, it was somewhat understandable.
This didn't explain the sloppiness of some of our passing with Hoolahan, Hendrick and Arter all guilty of losing possession meekly at times. Our inability to bring our full-backs into play regularly contributed to this. When we did, they made telling impacts, with Walter's 1st half chance being a perfect case in point.
An Emerging Team
Whilst it was well documented that ours was the oldest squad competing at the Euro’s, the team, post Belgium has shed its elder statesmen. And last night when Whelan exited the field on 22 minutes a young team (in caps less than age perhaps) had taken shape. O’Neill has shown faith in quite a few of these players when many have called for the return of the likes of John O’Shea and Glen Whelan. There has been a rapid maturing process among many of them. Performing on big stages such as those of the past 6 months has expedited this maturation. We explored that in greater detail in a recent article here.
By selecting him for the critical game against Italy in Lille O'Neill has invested very heavily in Shane Duffy and has continued to do so despite his culpability in goals conceded against France and Moldova. It is clearly due to the potential the big Derryman has. He seems to be constantly close to scoring from our set-pieces, he most certainly has goals in him. A colossal in the air. However, he needs to be more aware of being exploited by canny centre forwards looking for frees when challenging for aerial balls. Using his arms, like he does, doesn't help his case.
Somewhat less clear however is how O’Neill rates Duffy’s defensive partner Ciaran Clark. An unconvincing display at the Euro’s (noteably the second half against Sweden) certainly didn’t do him any favours but last night he looked again like this was his level. Strong in the air, good off the mark, and positionally excellent, making 2 or 3 crucial clearances when the Austrians got behind us. O’Neill will have been delighted with him.
As Irish fans we are very guilty of developing Messiah complexes for the excluded/uncapped players watching from afar. Nobody quite achieved the levels of Shunned Saviour than James McClean in the months leading up to Euro 2012. Giovanni Trapattoni could be excused for being taken aback by this.
“When I heard the crowd I thought Messi or Pele or Maradona was coming on” .
was his reaction to the excitement of the crowd as McClean made his international debut.
Truth be told, it has taken McClean 4 years to become the player we were claiming he was back in his Sunderland days. But Vienna was arguably his finest moment in an Irish shirt.
The transformation has involved developing a level of composure to balance his natural intensity and instinctive play.
Harry Arter has been the latest cause celebre of Irish fans and while his performance last night on his first competitive start was underwhelming, he showed enough to suggest he can also evolve his way into this side.
Had a victory not been achieved against the Austrians, undoubtedly accusations of negativity would have been levelled at the management and their failure to unleash the most recent wing sensation Daryl Horgan. Last night was not one for the Galwayman, but he will have his day.
Last night was about McClean.
He can often struggle in congested spaces, the types of spaces a traditional flat 4-4-2 provides, where a left winger operates in a very specific zone of the pitch. Last night, there was a flexibility to our approach that found him sometimes playing with his back to goal alongside Walters and also dropping into a wide left position. The angles presented to him allowed his natural yet wild instinctive gallops the space it needed. Winning balls. Finding support. Spatially aware. Stretching Austria. Pressing. The list goes on..
He was superb throughout and unplayable at times. And all with a torn back muscle.
Not only did we overcome our "away day hoodoo", we also overcame an arguably greater unwelcome association, Winning From The Front. "We scored too early" is a phrase we've heard said on far too many occasions.
On taking the lead in the 48 minute, we faced the seemingly omnipresent dilemma - Stick or Twist?
It is true that Austria almost encouraged and coaxed us along, such was the insipidity of their display and at times we looked like we might have been reluctant to actually finish them off but belief and steeliness are truly only developed from achievement and this Irish team has racked up more significant victories than all of the Irish teams of the past 20 years combined.
While Lithuania were indeed seeded two places above us when we beat them away in 1997, last night was our first true victory at the home of a ‘decent’ opponent since defeating Scotland in Hampden Park 10 years earlier, yes 29 bloody years ago.
A large milestone has been achieved. Make no mistake about it.