Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Israel- Lessons Learned

As the dust settles on the debacle of last Saturday, and the Republic of Ireland squad this evening attempt to escort three points from the Faroes and thereby progress closer to the Promised Land of Germany 2006*, TSA looks in constructive fashion at what went wrong and what can be learned from Battle of Lansdowne Road...

*- obligatory lame and tenuous Faroes/Pharoahs/Moses pun

1. Tempo

It has become painfully obvious over the course of this qualifying campaign that Ireland have played their best football when playing with a degree of ambition, and at a tempo that enables our creative players, in particular Damien Duff, to exert most influence. The portion of the match prior to Robbie Keane's injury saw Ireland play some of their most effective football of the campaign thus far. In both legs of the harrowing double header with Israel, Ireland looked poorest when trying to play a more controlled game. It is obvious that Brian Kerr wishes his team to develop the ability to contain opponents, hence the accusations of conservatism directed towards him. There is some merit to this ambition, in that good teams should be able to kill a game when holding a lead, but there is no evidence that this Ireland team possesses any of the attributes required to play like this. On the contrary, the team has looked anaemic and vulnerable when Kerr has pressed cruise control. With razor sharp hindsight, his decision to substitute Keane with Graham Kavanagh took the steam out of Ireland, taking Duff, our best player, out of the game up front, and losing Kilbane's dynamism in midfield gave the Israelis respite from the initial barrage.

2. Leadership
A common mantra since Saturday has referred to the fact that the squandering of a two goal lead and the recklessness of the second half would not have occurred had Roy Keane played. In fairness, Keane the Elder played in Tel Aviv, and that lead was also lost. There is no doubt, however, that without the Corkman Ireland lack direction on the field. One of the often ignored post 2002 issues for the Irish team was not just Keane's absence, but the loss also of Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton, and perhaps also, at a stretch, Gary Kelly. An awful lot of years of experience and achievement were denied the Irish team after the last World Cup, and performances such as the loss in Basel in 2003 and the recent Israel fixtures have been characterised by this lack of leadership on the pitch.

But leadership must also come from the bench, and it is my worry that Kerr has yet to mould a team in his image, or one that can discernibly be seen to be carrying out successfully its manager's vision. The performance in Paris was the closest we have seen to such a satisfactory embodiment.

When will teams from these isles learn? Repeatedly in the face of gamesmanship and the dark arts of continental teams Anglo-Saxon/Celtic teams visibly lose the plot. Perhaps the inability to maintain our cool is linked to the aforementioned absence of leadership or experience, but the antics of the Israeli goalkeeper achieved their desired outcome with Andy O'Brien's sending off and the general absence of coolness throughout the team in the second half. Time perhaps to heed Damien Duff's post-match words to the effect that we were too "nice". No surprise that the Duffer plays under the Prince of Machiavellian football, Jose Mourinho.

TSA is not in the business of assassinating managers. Too many have been hounded out of work by fans whipped into a howling mob my mischievous media. However Brian Kerr in putting Gary Doherty on so early in place of Andy Reid sent an unhealthy message to his players. It was the Code Red to go long. The fact that Doherty was played up front alongside Clinton Morrison, himself a player best at holding the ball up, rather than with a more suitable smaller striker more adept at feeding off the inevitable detritus of the Ginger Pele's efforts, doomed the plan. The manager should have encouraged calmness and patience in his players by allowing them to continue to play the ball on the ground, a style he obviously places more faith in than his predecessors.

And for this we must pray. What if John O'Shea's shot had squeezed in in Paris? What if we had held on the extra couple on minutes in Tel Aviv? What if Robbie Keane had not gotten injured; what if the referee had not awarded such a dubious penalty? What if one of those second half chances had been put away? What if the referee had clamped down on Dudu Awate earlier thereby avoiding the raising of Ireland's tempers? Many teams and managers live or die by the amount of luck they enjoy, no matter how much they try to eliminate chance in their preparations. Remember Gary MacKay, without whose unlikely contribution Jack Charlton may have been another footnote in Irish football's grim history.
Lets hope we've used up our bad karma for this campaign.


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