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Tuesday 19 September 2017

I fear Serbia after Tbilisi chaos

Rudderless Ireland lose their way

Shane Duffy heads Ireland into the lead in Tbilisi on Saturday.
Shane Duffy heads Ireland into the lead in Tbilisi on Saturday.

This is what happens when fear takes over. Molehills become mountains, Georgia become competent and Serbia world-beaters - which they are definitely not.

There is something radically wrong with a team full of professional footballers who are afraid of the ball.

That's the Ireland I saw in Tbilisi and because of it, I'm very fearful of Serbia.

But the Serbia I saw in Belgrade was not a team to fear. They've improved since and they have good players but the reason they now look like such a threat is because of the depths plumbed by Ireland against Georgia.

That was the worst I can remember and believe me, I'm going back a long, long time and yet, even playing as badly as they did, Ireland created enough chances to win the match.

Ireland made Georgia look a lot better than they were by handing them the pitch. Once Shane Duffy scored, everyone dropped back.

It was quite astonishing to see Jon Walters take up station just in front of Cyrus Christie shortly after Duffy's perfect goal start, leaving Shane Long running his legs to stumps on his own up front.

Blush

Apart from Long and James McClean, there were many others with reason to blush.

It was terrible to see Harry Arter, who passes for a living at Bournemouth, reduced to a stuttering schoolboy who couldn't control the ball or the pace of the game.

Robbie Brady was a lost soul, mooching around the pitch never really knowing where he was supposed to be or what he was supposed to be doing.

There was no coherent pattern to what Ireland were doing in that first-half and it left me wondering: where's the coaching?

What are these players doing on the training ground and why, after so many games, is there no visible evidence of a way of playing the game, a pattern which doesn't change from match to match and is recognisably Ireland.

There was no structure to this, no organisation other than to smack the ball long and often into open space or back to Georgia.

Players turned their backs on Darren Randolph in possession and I'm sure there were schoolboy coaches all over Ireland looking at that and scratching their heads.

But O'Neill's players clearly knew what was coming next and felt comfortable facing away from the ball for a kick-out.

They were neither asked nor encouraged to make themselves available and if someone like Duffy or Ciaran Clark dropped off to take a short pass, the nearest green shirt was at the half-way line and the only option a long ball. If long ball is to be the way, I've no problem with that but do it properly.

Press the ball. Follow it up and apply the pressure where it can do some good and don't hand them easy possession and repeatedly try to defend a line ten yards out from your own box where green defenders faced Georgians who had time and space to play to their strengths.

Before the game, Martin O'Neill spoke about the need to retain possession in the heat and I'm sorry to say, I saw nothing on that pitch to suggest that he gave instructions to suit such an approach.

In fact, entirely the opposite and Aiden McGeady's introduction underlined the point.

McGeady was sent on to attack, obeyed his instincts and got on the ball. He made other people play and suddenly Ireland were able to create chances.

But sitting on the bench was a man who does that in his sleep while McGeady is subject to fitful levels of confidence and only very rare bursts of class at international level.

O'Neill seemed to be pinning his hopes on some sort of magical impact McGeady had in Tbilisi three years ago.

In between, Wes Hoolahan has changed many games for Ireland and almost all of them in a very positive way but O'Neill's final substitution brought Daryl Murphy into the action.

I've never followed the fashion about Hoolahan that he should play in every game.

But I did think that Georgia, far from a physical team, would have suited him a lot better than a battle with Nemanja Matic or Dusan Tadic tomorrow night so I don't expect him to start in that one either.

Someone said to me after the game that we can only hope that this was a glitch and that the team would come back fighting against Serbia.

We live in hope, of course, and fighting is in their nature but it will need more than that to beat Serbia which is what Ireland must do.

Based on Georgia and too much of the same throughout this group, this wasn't a glitch.

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