On the face of it, escaping with a draw from a rain sodden pitch in Belgrade looks an excellent result. But the final score of 2-2 doesn’t properly reflect what was a strange evening for the Republic of Ireland.
Having started the game superbly, netting early on through Jeff Hendrick, Ireland retreated to the confines of their penalty area and proceeded to hack balls up the pitch to a forlorn Shane Long, who was forced to chase lost causes while hopelessly outnumbered.
Ireland survived until the second half, but the inevitable eventually happened when Serbia’s relentless pressure brought them 2 goals in 7 second half minutes.
Ireland rallied and secured a late equalizer through Daryl Murphy’s first international goal. But encased within what should be considered a glorious moment, I couldn’t help but feel that familiar pang of frustration.
There is an established pattern for this set of Irish players, which has been evident under successive managers and it vexes the hell out of me. Last night’s game was a perfect example of the trend.
Immediately after Ireland’s early goal, nine of the ten outfield players packed their defensive third, engineering a bizarre concession of space and possession to Serbia with 80 minutes still to play. The opening gambit of the second half was particularly comedic, when the Irish team pretty much turned and ran back towards their own goal straight from kick off like the panicked lines of a routing regiment.
It was the same tactic that saw the Republic torn to shreds against Belgium in June and it seems to be their “go to” tactic when facing any opposition considered tricky. It never EVER works.
In fact, Ireland’s most impressive performances come when they are chasing something – be it a win or even a goal. Consider the Italy victory in the final group game at Euro 2016. Ireland needed a win to qualify, so they went out, played positive football from the start and put in a sensational performance albeit against a weakened Italian side.
Last night, once again, when it was required, Ireland began to play, moving the ball through the lines, manufacturing space off the ball with clever runs and the Serbians couldn’t cope. 10 or 15 minutes of positive play brought Ireland a scantly deserved draw. What would just an hour of that kind of play achieved?
It begs the question: why aren’t Ireland playing in that manner much more often? Does Martin O’Neill have the same lack of faith in this set of players as Trapattoni did when Ireland are anything but clear favourites going into a fixture?
The strengths in Ireland’s current squad are markedly in more attacking areas, but O’Neill seems intent on setting his teams up around a set of defensive players of questionable quality with depressing regularity.
Relying on players like John O’Shea, Richard Keogh and Stephen Ward to keep opponents at bay for 90 minutes is asking a hell of a lot. The screening midfielder in front of them, Glenn Whelan, would make an excellent sniper – his ability to appear invisible amongst the short grass on a football pitch is almost super human.
Collectively it’s defensive unit that would struggle in the Championship. And while Seamus Coleman gets a pass for his offensive contributions, his defending is also sub par, which is probably why he is still plays at Goodison Park.
In Belgrade, we saw an Ireland team organized tactically in a manner that screamed they were afraid of the opposition. Encumbering the players with instructions to sit deep and whack the ball clear is telling them that they aren’t as good as their opponents. It’s a dangerous mind-set to have walking onto any pitch. Some might call it pragmatism, but last night it was completely unnecessary. This was an ordinary Serbian side – not a world class German outfit.
It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that Ireland’s results under O’Neill have generally been very good and I expect to see a very different looking Ireland side in Dublin against Georgia in October – a game the Republic are expected to win. But therein lies that frustration once again. The agricultural pragmatism will probably return for the return trip to Tbilisi.
If Ireland concede the same space and possession of the ball during the trips to Austria, Moldova and Georgia, then chances are points will be dropped. By the time the last tough away game of the group in Cardiff comes around, qualification might already be out of Ireland’s grasp.
Unless of course they need to win…….