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Saturday, September 8, 2012
Lessons not learned by Trap

Miguel Delaney

In one sense, at least, Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland made progress on Friday night. Against Kazakhstan, they narrowly avoided an embarrassment that would have been every bit as bad as the humiliating whitewash of Euro 2012. In every other aspect, though, this represented a number of backward steps from that already lowly position. Even more concerning for the Irish, it seems that a manager as experienced as Trapattoni has learned absolutely nothing new. The lessons of the summer have not been heeded. Because, as moderate as Ireland's quality is and as good as their group opponents were in Poland, the Italian effectively minimised their chances of getting results by refusing to budge from a rigid, outmoded 4-4-2 system that had been given repeated warnings of its obsolescence. Against a team as poor as Kazakhstan, Trapattoni amazingly did the exact same by continuing to utilise a confusing long-ball approach despite the inferior quality of the opposition. It resulted in a situation where, against a weak defence, Ireland just about snatched a late win through desperation rather than any dynamism. It does not augur well for the rest of the campaign or any repeat of the Euro 2012 qualification. And, in Dublin and the rest of the country, it is bringing to a head an increasingly vociferous debate about whether Trapattoni should be kept on as manager. As it stands, few doubt that the manager has been a success in guiding Ireland to their first international tournament in 10 years. That success is highly qualified in another sense, though: there are many, many caveats. The biggest of all lately has been how, despite an already limited pool of top-class players, Trapattoni has apparently alienated a number of younger, Premier League-level players who represent the future of the team. Most recently, Darron Gibson withdrew from the squad during the week, with that decision only following accounts that he was ready to walk out of the camp in the middle of Euro 2012 due to the frustration of Trapattoni's approach. Certainly, with the likes of Shane Long also disgruntled, Ireland did not exactly play like a team that had either cohesion or belief against Kazakhstan. Although Trapattoni was finally forced to start the most promising and technically accomplished player available, in James McCarthy, the young Wigan midfielder was continually bypassed as Ireland inexplicably hit long ball after long ball. It made for another unedifying spectacle. It also raises other, bigger questions. First, if Trapattoni refuses to change his system in any way despite previously admitting there were problems with it, despite the lessons then given at Euro 2012 and despite the opportunity for a bit more innovation presented by inferior opponents, when will he? Because it's not as if that change isn't needed. After Euro 2012, something of a fresh statement was needed. Secondly, there is the wider question as to how much previous successes and results are relevant in modern football? To those who back Trapattoni, for example, the argument boils down to two historical facts: Ireland have no history of success other than a few qualifications and no real pedigree of great players other than isolated examples; by contrast, Trapattoni has an awful lot of medals. The fact is, though, that the game has changed. Since the expansion of the Champions League in 1999, the elite end of international football has gradually been eroded. With the players from the big countries often over-exerted from the demands of club football, they are more prone to being picked off by unified, fresher mid-tier teams than ever before. Sides like Senegal 2002, Slovenia 2002, Greece 2004, Turkey 2008 and Uruguay 2010 have shown how the elevated stages that used to be closed off to lesser sides are now within reach. Simple qualification for mid-tier teams like Ireland is not the outstanding achievement it used to be. Trapattoni, however, has failed to move with the game. For one thing, despite the impressive array of medals he has accumulated, the only two to have come in the last 15 years are the Portuguese league with Benfica and the Austrian league with cash-rich Salzburg. If he was still the same manager who was winning so much in the eighties, then the likelihood is that he wouldn't be managing a team like Ireland - he would still be wanted by teams capable of winning the European Cup. As a comparison, consider one of his contemporaries. Both Trapattoni and Alex Ferguson made their name in the late 70s and early 80s. Both are genuinely legends of the game and have enjoyed very similar careers... to a point. Ferguson has continuously adapted and remained at the elite level of the sport. Trapattoni has not. And, here, adaptation is the key. For one thing, regardless of achievement, the average spell of an international manager at a European country is two years, 11 months. This is because, generally, that point represents the natural end of a cycle and, with old approaches not quite having the same effect, fresh ideas are often required. By contrast, Trapattoni has now been in his job four years. Throughout that four years, he built a relatively successful team on solidity and defensive resilience. Euro 2012, however, shattered that solidity. It is questionable whether it can ever return. Certainly, the Ireland of Paris 2009 would not have conceded a set-piece goal to a team as poor Kazakhstan in the manner they did on Friday. And, if Trapattoni no longer offers that old solidity, there is a genuine question as to whether he can give the team anything else. Certainly, in Astana, they were lacking. Trapattoni has a lot of work to do to prevent the team going backward, let alone take anything resembling another step forward.

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