Wesley Hoolahan is not the best footballer in Europe. He’s probably not even the best footballer in Norwich. But he may well be the finest and most creative player available to the current Ireland manager. Which means that Martin O’Neill should probably consider allowing him to actually set foot on the pitch in an Ireland jersey for a period more significant than ten minutes at the end of a match.
To be fair, the arguments against selecting Hoolahan are fairly obvious.
Starting with the fact he’s about a foot shorter than everyone else on the Ireland team and isn’t great at winning flick-ons. He’s also not known for thundering into tackles with the aggression of a caffeine-high Boris Johnson bundling head-first into a human pyramid of EU bureaucrats. Or lying on the ground screaming and holding his face for three minutes after being gently nicked on the ankle by an opponent.
All of which are vital components of the Martin O’Neill Ireland international footballer.
Only a few days until the next game. Let’s spend them talking about Wes Hoolahan. pic.twitter.com/hC3JokPnGg
— Paddy Power (@paddypower) November 11, 2017
In fact, in almost every way imaginable, Wes Hoolahan is the exact opposite of what Ireland-era O’Neill requires of his players, and particularly those in the midfield. The little man likes to get on the ball and pass – but, according to Opta, ‘no Ireland player made more passes in [Denmark v Ireland] than goalkeeper Darren Randolph (31)’.
Thirty-one passes. 31! In 90 minutes, our most proficient passer made 31 passes – and it was the keeper. For a bit of perspective: against the Irish at Euro 2012, Xavi completed 127 all by himself.
And so it’s clear that Wes is very much the odd-man-out in this group of players.
He does something very different to the rest. Which is exactly why Ireland need him on the pitch on Tuesday night.
McCatenaccio is all well and good when you’re looking for a clean sheet away from home. But not when you need to actually win a game on your own patch against a team who are visibly superior when it comes to the technical side of things.
When you’re protecting a lead, it’s easy to understand why Hoolahan could be seen by O’Neill as a weak link in the chain. He’s not a physical monster like Jeff Hendrick or James McClean, or a tenacious runner like Robbie Brady. He won’t stand up to an aerial battle or the type of trench-warfare that Denmark and Ireland served up on Saturday.
But it’s not true to suggest he’s a defensive liability. Aside from the much-needed creativity and imagination he would provide in a scenario where Ireland have to break down an opponent, Wes offers an alternative way of relieving pressure:
by maintaining possession.
So often in Copenhagen did the Boys in Green punt it away only for it to come straight back – would they not benefit from having a player who can receive the ball, manufacture some space and keep play in the opponent’s half for more than a ten-second period?
Besides, there’s a distinct possibility that Hoolahan’s deftness and spark will be absolutely vital in the second leg. Denmark know that, probably, they will only need a single goal to progress and may set out with a very passive approach – someone on the Ireland side will have to try picking the lock.
Even if it’s only for 30 minutes or an hour, Wes Hoolahan needs to be given a chance to make them think about something other than dealing with a long ball towards the head of Daryl Murphy.