Trapattoni's tumultuous reign comes full circle

Posted by Miguel Delaney

It was at the peak of Giovanni Trapattoni's time with Ireland, as the country secured qualification for Euro 2012, that the manager resurrected an old quote that effectively sums up the era's end.

"Football is about equilibrium and application, about when you have the ball and when you don't," the Italian said. "All the rest is poetry... all that matters is the result and I have sweated blood to get results."

There can be no denying the last part. Ultimately, Trapattoni added to his long list of legendary achievements by fulfilling the one main objective of his appointment as Irish manager: he qualified for a major tournament, and just the fifth in a mid-tier nation's history. That means that his reign must be considered a success -- and likely will be in the longer view of history.

It is all the rest of it, however, that means there are a few qualifications to that, well, qualification.

Most of all, there are some of the other results. Although Trapattoni secured that single qualification, it was significantly offset by what was statistically the worst European Championship ever endured by a qualified team. That was immediately followed, after a somewhat contentious decision to offer the Italian a new contract, by what has been Ireland's worst qualification campaign in 30 years. The 1-0 defeat away to Austria that sealed the manager's fate also meant that Ireland's hopes of qualification have been ended in September, the earliest that has happened since 1983 -- and worse than the shambolic Euro 2008 campaign under Steve Staunton that Trapattoni was initially brought in to remedy.

The troubled last 15 months have effectively eroded the respectability that the Italian had indeed restored. It has also not gone unnoticed that Ireland have now lost more competitive home games during his five and a half years than in the entirety of the 22 years before he took over.

In effect, Trapattoni has come full circle with Ireland, which is somewhat appropriate given the cyclical nature of so many of the vociferous debates about his time in charge.

That "equilibrium" he mentioned does not just apply to his approach, but also his entire reign. In 13 games against sides who would have competed with Ireland for the top two spots in any given qualification group, Trapattoni's team drew nine. Such a frequent type of result set the tone, creating this consistent and enduring uncertainty over how to feel about draws -- at least until the last week.

Giovanni Trapattoni and Richard Dunne Ireland
GettyImagesToo much pressure was placed on Ireland's defence during Trapattoni's tenure.

It was also another of those draws, as it was officially recorded anyway, that became the ultimate reference point of the reign.

In November 2009, Ireland claimed a 1-1 draw in France to narrowly miss out on qualification for the World Cup in South Afirca. As with so much of the era, though, the bald facts of those results only told so much of the story.

Despite a brilliantly dynamic performance in which Ireland admirably took the game to the French and deserved to win, they were denied by one of the cruellest and most unjust decisions of the last few decades as Thierry Henry literally handed William Gallas a controversial equaliser.

What became most recalled from that night, however, was not the ructions but the rigorousness of the Irish display. The recurring question was why Ireland could not recreate it more often, and especially against lesser teams.

This is perhaps the enduring issue from the Trapattoni regime, beyond even the inevitable and understandable decline after a managerial spell that went on far longer than most other international coaches: there always just seemed this potential for more, as illustrated by Paris.

It was not just that Trapattoni "sweated blood" for results; he also made his team do so.

It must be acknowledged that, initially, the Italian was absolutely correct in basing the entire gameplan on his backline. Aside from the fact that most of his main figures were defenders or played in defensive positions, Trapattoni badly needed to shore up the team after the chaos of Staunton's time in charge. One of the games he apparently watched most in preparing for the job was Ireland's dismal 5-2 defeat to Cyprus in late 2006.

Yet, while Ireland gradually and impressively came to defend as a unit, they never really attacked as one. There was a conspicuous individualism to their play up front, an evident lack of planning or innovation. Many players spoke privately of how he effectively neglected the area, and that much of his training was surprisingly reductive for a manager with such a reputation.

That is perhaps the point. While Trapattoni had amassed one of the finest CVs the game will ever see by the early ‘90s, it is arguable that his evolution and comprehension of the game effectively stopped then. Aside from only ever applying the most basic tenets of his constrained approach from the 1980s, and downright refusing to adapt to modern tactical trends, Trapattoni still seemed to view the game from the standpoint of that point.

For him, the international game was still an elusive level of quality lorded over by the finest players. For most other nations, the utter unpredictability of the 2002 World Cup was a watershed which marked the domination of the club game that created more openings than ever for mid-tier nations such as Ireland. Since then, there have been far more surprises in the latter rounds of elite international competitions, leading up the point where we now have a country as small as Iceland on the brink of a play-off spot for the World Cup.

It was this unreconstructed viewpoint that informed so much of Trapattoni's reductive approach, explained so many of his more curious decisions, and ultimately led to the humiliation at Euro 2012 and the sudden unravelling of his previously successful spell.

While it is absolutely forgivable for a country such as Ireland to lose handsomely to Spain, it is wholly unforgivable to not learn the lessons from previously successful approaches against such a fine team. Since the 2010 World Cup, virtually every opposition outfit has known that one of the only ways to stop Spain is to congest the area in front of goal and especially the space for Andres Iniesta and Xavi to spray the ball around.

Within two minutes of Ireland's Euro 2012 match against the world champions, one of the Barcelona midfielders had picked out an effortless through ball to the other. It summed up so much.

Since then, Ireland's backline has never been the same. The characteristics of the team have altered. Trapattoni, however, has struggled to alter with them. It has meant he has stopped getting those results. It has meant his dismissal, after almost six years, is somewhat justified.

It does not, however, mean his time was a failure. Far from it.

There was always Paris -- but that was also part of the issue.


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