NOBODY does last minute meltdowns quite like Ireland. Remember Croatia and Macedonia in 1999, Israel in 2005, Slovakia two years later? Under Giovanni Trapattoni, they blew a victory against Italy in 2009 but that didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as last night.
At 9.35pm, Ireland were cruising to a 2-1 win,10 points, and second place in Group C. The manager was a genius, shoring up the midfield with Paul Green’s introduction, refusing to bow to the crowd and go for a third.
Then, David Alaba scored and we turned back time. Doubts about Trapattoni returned. It was now 9.36pm and the manager was a fool for opting for such a negative approach, substituting Shane Long, Ireland’s best player for a defensive midfielder. Surely his ideas are finished? As are Ireland’s World Cup hopes. After the German debacle, the obituaries were written and the body buried even though it still had a pulse. Then, after that credible draw in Stockholm last Friday, the campaign was full of life again.
And now? Now we are back to where we have been all the way through the Trap regime – up for one game, down for the next. He has made the team capable of achieving impressive draws, especially away from home, but when it comes to winning competitive games, Trap’s successes have been confined to mediocre opposition, the Macedonias, Georgias, Cyprus, Armenias, Faroes, Kazakhstans, Estonias. Even a team as ordinary as Austria cannot be outthought. That’s the reality.
Yet for all the bluster that will dominate this inquest, some positives remain. One of which was the manager’s persistence with 4-4-2, a formation which is dormant throughout most of Europe but which remains the core element of Trap’s philosophy.
Because of this approach, Ireland grabbed their equaliser – Conor Sammon winning the initial ball, Shane Long, his strike partner, being on hand to collect possession and win a penalty. Had there been a 4-2-3-1 system in operation, the goal wouldn’t have happened.
Yet every tactical formation has its flaws and its weaknesses. Trap’s 4-4-2 can, at times, be positive but for the main part, is defensive, as his two central midfielders rarely move forward. More to the point, they get regularly outnumbered in midfield. And for 20 minutes last night, that was precisely what happened, just before Ciaran Clark’s meltdown resulted in Austria taking the lead.
From here to half time, Ireland played reasonably well. Jon Walters kept his head before scoring with it. A victory was there for the taking. And then, Trap reverted to habit. Long was subbed. Wes Hoolahan was ignored. Having cried out for three in midfield, Irish pundits and fans had what they wished. But all three were placed in a straight line. There was no outlet. An exhausted and earnest Conor Sammon needed a break.
But it was Austria – and David Alaba – who got it. Distressingly, for all the numbers back in defence, no one was available to close down the Bayern Munich midfielder when he received possession moments from time. He scored. And Trap is back in the dock. “Why should I go?” he asked afterwards. “We are in a good position. We are level with Sweden and Austria. We are still in it.”
But are we? “We need to be beating Austria,” said Long afterwards. “We have dropped two points. Tough games lie ahead. We need to win our next three games.”
Those are against the Faroes and Sweden at home and then Austria away. A trip to Germany and a visit from Kazakhstan await. Twelve points from 15 are required and the manager is demanding the Press and public to be positive which is fairly hard to accept when his approach for the last 20 minutes of this game was so utterly negative.