“Just to say, thank you very much for giving us the space,” Danish manager Age Hareide sarcastically said following Denmark’s 5-1 drubbing of the Republic of Ireland, before going on to say, “they [Ireland] made it a little bit easy for us.”
To have an opposition manager make comments of that ilk about a fellow professional’s tactics does not bode well for Martin O’Neill’s future.
O’Neill got it drastically wrong on Tuesday, maybe not initially, but his response to Ireland conceding was nothing short of farcical. Ireland had not conceded more than one game in a competitive home match under O’Neill prior to Tuesday night, mainly because they never leave themselves exposed as they did. To abandon such an approach with such a huge game still delicately poised beggar’s belief.
Ireland were absolutely outclassed by an average Danish team at home in what surely ranks as the country’s worst defeat since the embarrassment that was the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus in 2006 (there have been bigger defeats since then, but the losses to Spain and Germany in 2012 can at least be put down to the fact that both teams were world class).
It started so perfectly as well. Shane Duffy’s sixth minute goal gave Ireland the lead in the tie and seemingly set up 85 minutes of nerves for the Irish fans. Unfortunately, those nerves, or the lead, didn’t even last half an hour before the wheels came off.
The equaliser changed everything. Ireland were moderately comfortable up to that point and even carved out two decent chances to extend their lead. However, once the Danes got on the scoresheet (shambolically) it was one-way traffic.
Ireland proceeded to play with what Keith Andrews labelled ‘gung ho’ football and threw bodies forward in the immediate aftermath of conceding the equaliser and paid the ultimate price for it. There was no need to panic. With over an hour left, there was plenty of time to probe at the Danish defence and regain the lead.
Instead, they played like they were 2-0 down and left themselves exposed on the break and were punished within three minutes. What was a manageable task suddenly became exceedingly difficult and the half time substitutions only compounded the problem. Removing two defensive midfielders exposed the Irish defence even more and Christian Eriksen made them pay dearly.
Eriksen is genuinely world class and to give him the space that the Irish midfield did at 1-1 is criminal, especially when there was a need to be compact and see the game out to half time.
Of course, O’Neill cannot have accounted for the individual errors that were the catalyst for so many of the Danish goals. Stephen Ward, a mark of consistency throughout Ireland’s campaign, froze on the big occasion and two of the Danish goals came directly from his errors. Cyrus Christie, usually dependable in a green jersey, looked edgy from the off and should have done so much better with his goal line clearance for the Danish equaliser. However, the tactics remain unjustifiable and inexcusable despite the errors.
The ends have always justified the means during O’Neill’s reign, impressive 1-0 wins against Germany, Austria and Wales were built off the back of a rearguard action, but any one of those games could have gone the way Tuesday night’s match did. Had Germany put away one of the many first half chances they had in Dublin, you could make a case that the final score would resemble the one against Denmark. The same goes for Austria, who absolutely dominated the opening half in Vienna and, to a lesser extent, Wales.
It is not last night that should be seen as the killer blow in Ireland’s qualifying campaign however. It is the absolutely abysmal 2017 that wrecked any hopes of automatic qualification.
The group was there for the winning – ten points out of twelve at the beginning of the year was the perfect launchpad, but a lack of ambition against Wales at home (who had ten men for the best part of half an hour), an Austrian side who were in complete disarray, and a Georgian side that were sixth seeds in the group ultimately saw Ireland pick up three points from their next four games.
Losing at home to Serbia, who were reduced to ten men around the hour mark, was also inexcusable. A lack of ambition on the manager’s behalf was at the forefront of these results. Sitting back on a 1-0 lead in Georgia perhaps best showcased this lack of ambition, and saw the Georgians enjoy more than 70% of the ball.
Austria came to Dublin in June lacking confidence and lacking any real hope of qualifying for the World Cup. That should have been the game where Ireland laid down a marker and really went at the opposition, instead they resorted to the same type of football that had seen them drop points against Wales in March.
O’Neill’s reign has not been all doom and gloom by any means and qualification for Euro 2016 and the subsequent qualification from the group stages are undoubted high points. However, these feats were only achieved because of the expansion of the Euros into a 24 team tournament. Ireland would not have qualified for any previous European Championship based off their last qualification, nor would they have made it out of the group stages in any other tournament.
Admittedly, O’Neill has been a vast improvement on both of his predecessors in Giovanni Trapattoni and Steve Staunton, but his refusal to blood new talent and continue with the tried and trusted has led to Ireland continuing to play negative football where the ball is treated as the enemy.
Whether O’Neill stays or goes, whoever is in charge next year has a rebuilding job on their hands and has to give youth a chance. There are some promising players in the Irish Under 21 squad, and friendlies in March offer the perfect chance to hand the more promising players their debuts. There is a plethora of promising players in the squad already that for too long have been overlooked, it is time also to put that to an end.
By Shane O’Brien