Ireland v Austria: Squad Announcement Reaction
Martin O'Neill announcement of his 35-man provisional squad for Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Austria next Saturday has been met with the usual mix of negativity towards O'Neill’s pragmatism and curiosity over a number of new faces.
Despite the excitement from League of Ireland stalwarts at O'Neill acknowledging the form of Dundalk stars Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle with a call-up, most of the attention is focused on one noticeable absentee.
Shane Long’s hamstring injury has ruled him out of the squad, with him unlikely to be back in action for Southampton until later this month. Despite experiencing a goal drought for Ireland, prior to his strike against Moldova in September, he remains the most potent attacking weapon and goal source in a green jersey.
His pace and willingness to stretch defenders, alongside an instinctive knack of creating havoc with his dribbling, has already flagged him as the dangerman within the Austrian media.
When looking at the situation with a sunny perspective, Long’s absence could lead to another stepping into the breach and stating his claim for a regular starting place. However given Ireland's dearth of attacking options, with Newcastle forward Daryl Murphy also out injured, where the goals will come from against Austria is a concern.
The likelihood is that fans favourite Jon Walters will be moved in from the right wing to a central role as a replacement, as he performed well there in the second half against Moldova.
The inclusion of Horgan and Boyle, to borrow a cliché, is a great advert for the League of Ireland and Horgan could be something of a secret weapon for O'Neill.
The ex Cork City man has been in excellent form for Dundalk in both their domestic and European campaigns, full of verve and creative intent.
Boyle’s retention in the final squad is likely to hinge on the fitness of his fellow defenders. John O’Shea and Stephen Ward are both facing a race to be fit for Austria, with Ward an almost certain starter if fit. O’Shea will be considered for a recall if he recovers, particularly following the jittery performances of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark in the last two games, as despite his advancing years, O’Shea does still offer valuable experience.
In the absence of Ward, Robbie Brady will slot in at left back, leading to a reshuffle in midfield. Brady has in truth struggled to continue his EURO 2016 form into the qualification campaign, but O'Neill sees his future in midfield. The other major injury headache for O'Neill is the fitness of James McCarthy, who is 50-50 to play against Austria. O'Neill was heavily criticised for playing McCarthy against Georgia and Moldova by Everton boss Ronald Koeman so soon after the midfielder’s operation, and starting him not fully fit in Vienna would be a risk.
However with or without McCarthy, Ireland need a fresh approach in midfield, in order to maximize their potential and assuage the absence of Long.
If McCarthy is fit he should play as a solo deep-lying midfielder, not as part of a two, as his best performances in an Ireland shirt so far have come as an anchorman.
If Walters is to play up front, he needs support from creative and mobile midfielders, that are capable of pressuring Austria and supporting the Stoke City man.
For these two roles, Ireland have Brady, Wes Hoolahan, Eunan O’Kane, Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick all well capable, although Hendrick is likely to take Walters’ place out wide.
The crucial tactical aspect that Ireland need to focus on is drawing the Austrian centre halves out through creativity, as both regular starters for Austria do lack pace and mobility, and are unlikely to be fazed if Ireland offer an approach based on the physicality of Walters.
Midfield is the one area that O’Neill does have options, although despite the positivity surrounding his call ups of Stephen Gleeson and Conor Hourihane both could well be culled next week.
With a number of new faces in the squad and the retention of plenty of others O'Neill has once again come for a degree of criticism for selecting veterans for non-playing roles. If kept, Paul McShane, Alex Pearce and David Meyler are unlikely to play a role, and certain factions with Ireland fans are unhappy at in-form youngsters being overlooked.
Defenders John Egan, Matt Doherty, Darragh Lenihan and Greg Cunningham have all enjoyed strong starts to the Championship season however they have all been missed out this time, in favour of older campaigners.
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