On the verge of our Euro 2016 venturing commencing, we take a brief look at the tactical approach the Irish team have adopted to date and how the team is likely to set up in the forthcoming Group E matches.
Diamonds May Not Be Forever
For the duration of Martin O'Neill's tenure he has sought to give the team more flexibility both in terms of tactical formations and also team shape than had been the case under Giovanni Trapattoni.
The evolution of our tactical approach has seen O'Neill predominantly settle on a diamond formation. This has never been a hugely popular option in English club football, essentially regarded as the antithesis of the traditional 4-4-2 which focuses on wide players supplying crosses for aerially dominant strikers.
It can be said that Ireland do not employ a true diamond, usually it involves Jonathon Walters playing a slightly recessed role, often doubling up as a right winger in defensive situations.
The use of the diamond against Germany was pivotal to our success that evening. By locating four midfielders 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.
Germany's formation, which almost resembled a 4-6-0 at times, employed Ginter and Hector as full-backs, neither of whom contributed an attacking dimension to the team. Further, their wide midfielders generally sought to attack through the centre. By congesting the midfield and ceding the flanks Ireland managed to establish a defensive barrier which the Germans only managed to penetrate on a few occasions.
A Pressing Concern
We have long displayed a worrying vulnerability to opposition teams pressing us in possession. It was never more evident than in our corresponding fixture 4 years ago 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 in possession meant that the ball regularly was returned to the back four and very often to Shay Given in goal, the option availed of was the 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 has been a consistent feature of Irish play over recent years since the re-emergence of pressing as an en vogue defensive strategy.
However, the formation change undertaken to include a genuine no. 10 and Hoolahan's particular individual quality has greatly improved our ability to deal with aggressive pressing. Hoolahan's ability to find space often providing an obvious 'out ball' option to under-pressure midfielders and defenders.
Attacking From Deep
Overlapping fullbacks are crucial to the success of the system, as by its very nature a diamond midfield is deficient in terms of width. So too is a vulnerability to opposition teams who use the wings as focus for attack. And more specifically the space behind our full-backs, exploited so adeptly by Belarus in the recent friendly in Cork, detailed very well here by Alan O'Brien.
Therefore strong attacking performances by Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady are essential if Ireland are to penetrate their Group E opponents barriers. The possibilities offered by a full back attacking from deep can be difficult to counteract by teams whose wide midfielders do not possess a natural diligence to defensive tasks.
Such an assessment can never be aimed at Jonathon Walters. His importance to our team needs little emphasis. He essentially occupies two positions in the Irish team at once. As a partner for Shane Long in attack and as a defensive right winger when we lose the ball. Question marks over his fitness and his lack of game time may reduce the amount of ground he covers from the Trojan status to just the Extremely Good status.
An interesting development since our qualification was secured has been the emergence of James McClean as a striking option. O'Neill, cannily, has exposed a dimension to McClean's play that was not obvious to many of us from his career to date: an ability to play up front. Playing as part of a two man forward line, in front of a diamond midfield, in parts of the past 3-4 friendlies, he has displayed an ability to play a similar dual role to Walters, with an athleticism that allows him to provide defensive cover for our left back. The McClean option becomes a different back-up alternative to Darryl Murphy, who prefers to engage the opposition centre back in a traditional no.9 style, whereas McClean (who perhaps does not possess the same back-to-goal ability) constantly seeks opportunities to run the channels and occupy the defenders with his movement.
Like everything with Martin O'Neill, all of the above could prove redundant when he picks his starting XI to face the Swedes. There is always a rabbit in the hat with O'Neill, a totally unpredictable manager, who will probably see things from a different angle.
The rollercoaster is about to commence. All aboard !