With a little over 5 days to go until Ireland kick off against Croatia I think it's time we look a bit more closely at current state of the Irish squad. After the shambolic reign of our previous manager Steve Staunton, the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni was nothing short of a Godsend. He quickly restored order, and imbued a sense of purpose, cohesion and discipline. He has also increased the depth of the squad and given Ireland good options off the bench. Trapattoni has not been without his critics - there are many who see his approach as one-dimensional, questioning his exclusion of some of the more creative players in pursuit of the players who follow and fit the 'system'. The system in question is a rigid 4-4-2 with a flat back four and two midfielders playing in a defensive role, breaking up play and hitting it up-field to a target man, usually Kevin Doyle, trying to win free kicks and throw-ins in attacking positions and nicking the odd goal from well-practised set-pieces. The wide players, usually Duff and McGeady, are the attacking threats but also cover the full backs when the opposition have possession, which is almost all of the time.
Trap does not do change (in tactics or in personnel) unless it is forced upon him and we can expect more of the same over the coming weeks. Given, Ward, Dunne, St. Ledger, O'Shea, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Doyle, Keane will most likely start for Ireland on Sunday, employing the Jack Charlton tactic of hoofing it long and putting the opposition under pressure. What is somewhat heartening to see is that Trap is willing to change his mind and accept that he might have been wrong on the rare occasion. James McClean is a case in point. Initially Trap said he is one for the future but on further viewings Trap decided that he is also one for the present and has taken him to Poland. Trap's loyalty has gone only so far and he is not afraid to make the tough decisions. Leaving Kevin Foley out of squad was a disappointing affair but he didn't shirk the call and it made sense logically. He is still a pragmatist and these are just rare glimpses of a change of mind.
He doesn't do change, or lack of it, for no reason. The decisions he makes are not to spite the fans or the media who criticise his methods, they are done in order to get the most he can out of small pool of players. It is worth remembering that we don't have 1 player playing for a top 4 Premier League team. The only player we have playing somewhat regularly in the top 5 is Leon Best for Newcastle, and he isn't even in the Ireland squad. Darron Gibson for Everton (who finished 7th) is the highest Irish player from the PL in the Irish squad and - yes, you guessed it - he doesn't start for Ireland. Long gone are the days when half the Irish team played for Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal and Spurs. It is easy to forget that Trap is working with a limited squad. And yet, expectations are high, as they should be because when everyone plays to the system Ireland are very hard to beat and collectively are worth more than the sum of their parts.
The Little Details
Creativity has not been a watchword of Trapattoni's with this Irish team and, quite frankly, we have not been easy on the eye over the past two campaigns. Tiki-taka it most certainly ain't. But, and nobody can dispute this, it has been effective. We were within touching (quite literally in Thierry Henry's case) of qualifying for the World Cup two years ago, and played France off the park in the second leg of our playoff. What ultimately cost Ireland was our profligacy in front of goal. We could, and should have scored more goals in the 90 minutes but we failed to do so and, that ultimately, set the scene for what followed in extra time. Never have I felt so gutted after a football match and it was hard to stomach Henry's 'contrition' towards the Irish team afterwards. The deathly silence that descended over everyone leaving the stadium that night was palpable. The French fans felt they had been lucky and, to be fair to 99% of them, they didn't celebrate out in the streets of St.Denis and rub the Irish fans' faces in it.
We have gone one better this time around and the 'little details' and 'mentalita' that Trap likes to mention have become more ingrained into the minds of the squad. Ireland are currently on an unbeaten run of 14 games, stretching back to March of last year, 11 of which have been clean sheets, with only 3 goals conceded. Grit, discipline, heroism, and the odd slice of luck have all contributed to that impressive run. Under Trap we have climbed up to our current position of 18th in the world rankings, from a position in the high 30s when he took over. Worryingly though, Trap's Ireland have failed to beat a team ranked ahead of them in a competitive game (France playoff apart), and in Poland we face teams ranked 1st (Spain), 8th (Croatia) and 12th (Italy) in the world. Major trends will have to be bucked in order to make it out of the group.
What I'm hoping for is that Ireland can rise to the big occasion, when it really matters, like we did in Paris and Moscow when our backs were to the wall. We usually do well in the group stages - we won our opening games against England in Euro 88 and Italy in WC 94. Nobody is in any doubt as to the importance of our first match. We have to go out and take the game to Croatia and leave the pitch with no regrets. We need a bit more adventure in our play. A conservative approach might prove disastrous. A win, or draw, against Croatia will set us up nicely for the showdown against Italy on June 18th. A loss and we can start packing our bags.
Hungary 0-0 Ireland
The morning after the night before. Just like the weather last night, dark clouds hang over the Irish squad as they make their way to their base in Poland. Ireland were below par in their final warm-up match last night. Maybe we didn't give it 100%, maybe the weather affected the 'mentalita', maybe the team were tired, as Aiden McGeady claimed this morning. Whatever the reasons, we didn't look sharp. How Hungary did not score is beyond belief. They should have scored 3 last night. We had a few chances ourselves but we played in fits and starts. It was backs to the wall stuff from Ireland last night and there was a looseness and sloppiness to our play which was worrying. We didn't close down the opposition and they were allowed shoot almost at will. Given, Westwood and Hunt all made vital saves to keep Hungary at bay. Our midfield was typically overrun and if we play like that against the other teams in our group we'll be hammered.
Thankfully this performance came in a friendly. It should be a bit of a reality check from the sound-bites of the lads in training who are 'flying' or 'buzzing' and it might make a few players realise that they have to raise their games. Whelan, Andrews, Doyle, I'm looking at you. At least the unbeaten run continues and expect the '14 games unbeaten' line to be trotted out several more times before Sunday's opener.
Interestingly, Trap mentioned, or at least I think he did, that he might change his formation to a 4-5-1, in order cope with Croatia's style of play. Hungary play in a similar fashion to Croatia so Trap presumably saw that we couldn't cope so will have to change. Is it a ruse? A bit of gamesmanship from the wily Italian fox? We shall see. Trap is no fool. It would be very unlike him to change his 4 years of a 4-4-2 philosophy with the Irish team 5 days before the start of a major tournament. If he had felt this way then surely he would have tried this out at some stage of the match. Slaven Bilic was in attendance last night and will not have been to concerned with what he saw. Let's hope the problems's are ironed out by Sunday.
In the second instalment of famous Irish football songs, I take you back to where it all began with Joxer goes to Stuttgart. It is the granddaddy of them all, written and sung by Christy Moore and it summed up what it meant to Irish people to be appearing at major tournament for the first time.