Having seen his team thoroughly out manoeuvred by Hungary in Budapest, Giovanni Trapattoni has suggested a belated and improbable tactical insubordination.
On Monday evening, the predictable looked to precede the improbable and utterly unpredictable. The sixth scoreless draw of the tenure of Giovanni Trapattoni, the fourth stalemate in the space of nine months, in an analytical sense served only to underline the self-imposed inadequacies that the Republic of Ireland have had to fight to prevail against in their qualification for a major tournament. In practical terms it too acted as the last opportunity for proving fitness and cementing worth. It was an exercise in surety. Of the aforementioned draws, only against an inconsistent Slovakia team in Dublin last September could Ireland lay claim to a points victory. Beginning on Saturday, the bouts come thick and fast, three heavyweight clashes in eight days. Now is not the time for pulling punches and the timeframe for redemption is not accommodating. Starting against Croatia, it’s a knockout.
All of which makes the admission of Trapattoni to the assembled press in the immediate aftermath of proceedings at the Puskas Ferenc Stadium all the more startling. A tactical rethink is on the cards. A nuance of the Hungarian language sees surnames come before christian names, hence Puskas Ferenc etc. Ireland’s final preparations seemed set to follow a similar sentiment, backwards. In the minutes after the third and final warm up match for a first tournament in ten years, Trapattoni delivered more than a strong hint that he was willing to consider a belated and improbable insubordination to a system he himself has previously defended to the hilt and beyond.
“I will speak with the team and I will show them our difficulty because we need to take a decision to sacrifice a striker or we need to change the situation.” He continued, “To have balance we must renounce one striker, or put one more in midfield.” An alteration to either role would directly impinge on the other.
Despite the cloak of staggered English which complicates the Italian’s communication, one unfamiliar word has been on the tip of his tongue frequently of late. When calling for patience in the face of mounting injury concerns, Trapattoni insisted he was unwilling to ‘renounce’ players too hastily. He was referring to Keith Fahey, ultimately a victim to a persistent groin complaint thus alleviating the Italian of the decision altogether. No such convenience for the manager when he opted to push pragmatism to the edge of downright ruthlessness in his ditching of Kevin Foley. The past two weeks has seen the wily veteran renouncing players and now tactics for fun. It is a far cry from a stance on loyalty and tactical purification that has been the hallmark of his reign, from the spring of 2008 to the summer of 2012, this week to be precise. Monday evening’s match in Hungary was played in conditions as far from summery as you could have the misfortune to experience. Afterwards, Trapattoni was too displaying a similar refusal to conform to the once accepted norms of his personal Indian summer.
This confession lacked the uncertainty that so often tends to confuse a Trapattoni eulogy. By succumbing to the realisation that Ireland smack of vulnerability in the current formation, the Italian is preaching to the choir. Manuela Spinelli, (described by herself on Twitter as the ‘official translator of Giovanni Trapattoni’ in an apparent bid to distinguish herself from those hoards of unofficial pretenders) did not deem his message worthy of further interpretation. In the recent past, the desperation for a good line has seen the need for clarification passed up by some in the media but a thorough few of the press corps do insist on it however. Clarification has offered no climb down. Amidst the thunder and rain that threatened the prospect of the teams taking to the field, Trapattoni was nothing but cut and dry.
The decision should it be taken to sacrifice or renounce a striker will send shivers down the spine of Kevin Doyle.
Inhibiting factors aplenty threaten such plans. The importance of Ireland’s all time record goalscorer Robbie Keane evidences itself in his title. Fifty three international goals and counting. The Tallaght striker’s goal plundering exploits have moved up in place in the table of certainties that can be taken with this Ireland side following Trapattoni’s apparent late deviation from his own script. The decision should it be taken to sacrifice or renounce a striker will send shivers down the spine of Kevin Doyle. His place in the first choice selection has been the most under threat and while Trapattoni has continued to show faith in the former Cork City frontman, others have impressively staked their claims from the bench, injecting an oft one dimensional team with freshness, impact and tangible threat. Were Doyle to lose his starting position, once thought of as unchallengeable and indicative of his struggles in the last two seasons, it is arguable that he would not be first choice to be sprung from the substitute bench.
In Doyle’s favour, and likely to benefit other contenders for a striking berth Shane Long, Simon Cox and Jonathon Walters is the tactical straightjacket that restrains Ireland, exemplified in chief by Keane. A tactical reshape is inhibited by the confines of the captain’s versatility. His inability to successfully plough a lone furrow decides without consultation that this side cannot deviate from their prosaic flat banks of four formation. The team are not fully incapable but Keane simply is unable to fulfil the role with any assuredness that he can perform to his best in that role. The incapacity of the team would be clear further if Keane was to be removed in search of tactical stability. It will not happen but his inclusion to feed from penalty area scraps will directly impinge on the midfield hand that feeds it.
Nor can Keane fulfil with any substance the role which Trapattoni may have asked him to deploy sporadically in the past, the deeply drawn conduit between midfield and attack. The LA Galaxy man does not have the discipline or patience to play that particular game.
Against France at the Stade de France in 2009, and in hindsight the credence of this suggestion is lessened given Keane scored in Paris, but there were weighty beliefs that Keane should have been dropped in favour of a third central midfielder. The thought process behind dropping the then forty goal international in the most defining match the country had faced in seven years in favour of Doyle? The then Reading striker was in form and in possession of the ability to lead the line independently of Ireland’s omnipresent little and large combination.
Prompts for tactical reshuffles have been the bane of the Trapattoni era and have been largely the only aspect of inquisition that has visibly irked the veteran, hardly a luddite when it comes to issues of set up and formulating a system that allows limited players to fulfil a collective potential. But how is that possible when a player of Keane’s ilk, whose contribution to the cause is worth its weight in gold and goals, remains so incapable of adaptation to a system bereft of a traditional and out of fashion two pronged attack?
Great emphasis, great in quantitive terms as opposed to quality, in this team is put on the wide players to supply and support, in attack and defence, in equal measure and against superior opposition in Poland they will find themselves positioned, even fastened, for the majority close to the their full backs. Judging by their showings in Budapest and respective worries about fitness and suitability, John O’Shea and Stephen Ward will need all the help they can get. An extra midfielder’s remit would see the support for a lone striker secondary to matching up numerically, again if not in quality, numerically. Robbie Keane would be left criminally isolated and with that hopes of Irish success would become exactly that.
Outgoing Croatia manager Slaven Bilic was present as Ireland’s preparations wound down with a whimper on Tuesday night. The former West Ham United and Everton defender has watched four matches in his surveillance of his opening match opponents, the four scoreless draws since a friendly stalemate against the Croats last August. When quizzed on his thoughts on Monday night, he seemed relaxed. “I have learned nothing new,” he offered unsurprisingly. The best Ireland can hope for is that Bilic has been lulled into a false sense of security.
Shunning the predictable, Giovannni Trapattoni has sprung some noteworthy surprises in the past week. Regardless of whether he sticks or twists with his formation, his side will be not be better off to the extent such a move might suggest. What will play a big part will be the collective effort of the rearguard that has proved the basis for a qualified success. Richard Dunne and Shay Given will need undoubtedly rise to the challenge and the same will be asked of their defensive colleagues; luck, profligacy and luck.
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