Barely a year has passed since Ireland’s World Cup dreams were obliterated by Denmark in a whirlwind of Christian Eriksen screamers last November. With the sides due to meet again on Monday night, the contrast in form between the two teams could hardly be more stark.
While the Danes enjoyed a decent World Cup and an even better Nations League in 2018, Irish fans have had precious little to cheer this year.
Thursday’s draw with Northern Ireland brought with it plenty of unwanted statistics that encapsulated just how bad 2018 has been for the Boys in Green. The draw meant that Ireland have failed to score at home for the third successive home game, registering just eight shots on target in the process. The fact that Cyrus Christie is responsible for 25 per cent of those does nothing to lift the gloom surrounding that particular statistic.
The draw also means that Ireland have only won one out of eight games this year. Failure to win against Denmark on Monday would mean that Ireland have failed to win more than one game in a calendar year for the first time in over 30 years. Meaning you would have to go back to the days when Eoin Hand was in the late 1980’s to find a year that rivals this one.
The manner in which Northern Ireland dictated the game and dominated possession on Thursday is something that will rankle Ireland fans more than anything else. On paper, Northern Ireland do not have a better squad than the Republic and it could be argued that the Irish squad is a bit better, if anything. They can at least boast more Premier League players, with nine of the Republic’s current squad coming from England’s top tier compared to just three from Northern Ireland’s.
It is, therefore, unfathomable that Ireland would only have 42 per cent possession on their home turf against a side that they are arguably better than and the blame lies squarely with the management. Setting up with a 5-4-1 formation in any game is questionable, but to do so at home against a very beatable Northern Ireland team is unforgiveable.
The way Michael O’Neill has his Northern Ireland side playing football is admirable, and it is something that could be easily mirrored in the Republic if the right man were in charge.
It was exactly the same story when Ireland entertained a Gareth Bale-less Wales in the Nations League. On that occasion, six of Ireland’s starting 11 came from the top flight in England, compared to only two from Wales. Similar to Northern Ireland, Wales enjoyed 58 per cent of possession in Dublin and made the Irish chase shadows.
The difference with Wales of course is their willingness to pick young players and four of their starting 11 that day were under 21. In contrast, Martin O’Neill has shown virtually no trust in young players and has only handed debuts to two players under 21 years of age in his five years as Ireland manager.
That certainly indicates deeper issues with Irish football, but the manager’s reluctance to pick young players does nothing to quell the despair that currently accompanies Irish football. What hope, for instance, do any of the extremely promising under-19 squad have of breaking into the first team in the near future? Virtually zero.
Michael Obafemi looks like he will make his debut against Denmark on Monday, and he will join Callum O’Dowda and Declan Rice in the exclusive club of young debutants under Martin O’Neill. However, his inclusion is not borne out of a change of youth policy from O’Neill, but from necessity as there was a very real danger that either Nigeria or England could have swooped for the talented teenager.
It is hard to believe that it is just 13 months since Ireland’s famous win in Cardiff, when optimism was rife throughout the nation.
Most Irish fans were delighted to get Denmark in the play-offs and almost expected them to qualify for this year’s World Cup. How quickly things have changed.
Apart from the results though, have things really changed? The 1-0 wins over Wales, Germany and Austria, three of the most important results of the O’Neill era, were all won largely thanks to an impressive rear-guard action. Ireland enjoyed just 28 per cent of the ball against Wales and Germany and fared a little better in Vienna when they had 34 per cent.
They scored three goals from just four shots on target and on another day could have lost any of those games comprehensively had they conceded an early goal. Martin O’Neill might have found himself coming under pressure a lot earlier if they had.
That is the danger of playing defensive football though, as Giovanni Trapattoni discovered during Euro 2012, and as Jose Mourinho is currently discovering at Manchester United. As long as the results are satisfactory, fans will accept defensive football. But if things start to go pear shaped, they will turn a lot quicker than usual.
On that memorable night in Cardiff, it would have been inconceivable for public opinion to have turned so drastically against Martin O’Neill within 12 months. But such has been the nature of the performances this year that it is hardly surprising there is now a clamour for O’Neill to be sacked. Cardiff seems like a lifetime ago.