The Devils We (Don't) Know
A Positive Start
The performance against Sweden, above all, showed we fronted up, our tournament started from the first minute. Sadly, in 2012, this never happened. We shrank rather than rose to the occasion. This was the Martin O'Neill factor that we never saw for the first year of his campaign, that reached its nadir in Glasgow with our defeat against Scotland. The past year has seen the O'Neill stamp on the team grow and grow. The big moments, the big performances. Against Sweden, we saw that.
But after a wonderful opening 60, another trait reared its head. The struggle to play out a tight game when ahead. There were a number of reasons for this, tactical, physical and perhaps psychological.
Belgium will be a totally different type of opposition to that which the Swedes presented. But tournament games seem at times to flow from one into another.
The Narrowness of a Diamond
In the second half against the Swedes, tasking James McCarthy with marking the opposition left back from a position of central midfield seemed extremely ambitious, given that Jonathon Walters initially started out doing so.
Moving Walters to the left of our front two and eventually his replacement McClean being located on the left wing was a bizarre move on O'Neill's part, when placing McClean on the right side appeared a much more logical move given that Sweden has relocated Lindelof (a centre back) to right back. Instead, Olsen had a huge amount of space to gallop into and provided the impetus to drag Sweden back into the game.
O'Neill's point, that a number of our players' physical conditions (Walters, McCarthy, Hoolahan) meant that they began to wane exactly at this stage, certainly has merit.
Much has been made about potential unrest in the Belgian squad and a disunity in relations between certain players and the Belgian management. Marc Wilmots has many options at his disposal and many decisions that could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the game.
You would assume that the Belgians will seek to increase the tempo of the game today and the speed at which the ball is circulated. Selecting Dembele in place of Naingolan seems to bear this out. As suspected Fellaini will not start at no. 10 and instead De Bruyne will play centrally with Carrasco on the right wing.
Glenn Whelan had one of his best performances in an Ireland jersey on Monday. He is likely to have an even more challenging task today, to block off the channels to Lukaku while also limiting the space De Bruyne has to operate in.
Belgium have selected Thomas Meunier, a natural right back, in place of Laurent Ciman, a centre-half by trade. You would assume that Wilmots sees the narrowness of Ireland's midfield diamond as something to exploit by utilising attacking full-backs, having seen the damage Sweden's left back Olsen created in the second half on Monday.
The ability of Meunier (and Vertonghen, a centre back, on the left) to exploit this space remains to be seen.
Decisions Decisions Decisions
The likely selection of James McClean in place of Walters offers the potential to adapt to this scenario by locating McClean on the left wing, if Meunier becomes a problem. Otherwise O'Neill is likely to place McClean up front alongside Long, with a brief to cover the full back if and when he can.
The logic behind choosing McClean up front may well be with the ability of Long and himself to aggressively press the Belgian back four and his pace on the counter attack, something that Walter's lack of match sharpness prevented against Sweden. This may prove to be a very profitable scenario. However, any aggressive pressing needs to be done without providing the Belgian attacking quartet with too much space to run at our back four with.
It appears very unlikely that our fullbacks will be offered as much opportunity to attack as against Sweden. Coleman and Brady provided a very valuable attacking output that is likely to be nullified today by the presence of Carrasco and Hazard on the flanks.
Brady's selection at full-back is primarily motivated by his ability to contribute to our attacking play. If he is unlikely to be able to contribute from an attacking perspective and if we are struggling to get a foothold in midfield, should the option of moving Brady up the pitch be availed of?
This could certainly be a consideration O'Neill needs to address during the game.
A Day for the Long Ball
Long was largely nullified against Sweden, predominantly due to the depth at which the Swedes defended. Belgian's likely dominance of the ball means that they will likely play further up the pitch, leaving opportunities for Long in behind.
Alderweireld was beaten by a ball to Giaccherini in behind for Italy's first goal, the type of run you could imagine Long looking to make today.
He was also totally out jumped by Pelle for a seemingly routine cross in the second half which Courtouis saved well from. While for the 2nd Italian goal (albeit in the dying stages when Belgium were desperately chasing the game) he had ventured up field and left a major gap in the Belgian defence from which Pelle scored Italy's killer goal.
Another Big Day for O'Neill
This week Martin O'Neill deflected all attention and focus from his role and the influence of tactics and team structure in our performance against the Swedes. While his stance that it is the players who determine the outcome of the match is without question, the manager has another big performance to deliver and many choices to make.
Prediction: An optimistic point - Ireland 1-1 Belgium
Fantastic illustration provided by @howayaprints, available to purchase at www.howaya.ie