Friday 9 December 2016

Let Wes loose for Moldova

Injuries and suspension may force O'Neill's hand in team selection

Wes Hoolahan, who is likely to feature in tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier in Moldova, pictured in Ireland training with Robbie Brady, who is doubtful for the game
Wes Hoolahan, who is likely to feature in tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier in Moldova, pictured in Ireland training with Robbie Brady, who is doubtful for the game

Well at least there is now a consensus. Ireland have a mental disorder when it comes to holding possession or even passing the ball.

Martin O'Neill agreed with this proposition in the context of the game against Georgia but it is fair to extrapolate and generalise.

What we saw on Thursday evening was a very poor version of the standard in qualifying games. Far too often in the last decade, winning positions were conceded because of poor ball retention or teams like Georgia allowed a foothold in a home game which they should never be granted.

And despite banking three points at the Aviva against Georgia, O'Neill travels to Moldova for tomorrow's World Cup qualifying test with doubt in his mind.

He could hardly disagree with the general assessment of his team's listless demeanour for the first 45 minutes against Georgia and generally haphazard approach to collecting a crucial win.

But still, he put his hands up when sometimes in the past he has stretched the fabric of reality with his own analysis and disputed the evidence of our own eyes.

There is something perverse about O'Neill admitting that we didn't keep the ball well when he left the one man capable of doing that as easily as breathing, Wes Hoolahan, on the bench.

Robbie Brady is developing rapidly and may be the long-term answer to Ireland's creativity deficit but he cannot direct traffic in the way Hoolahan's natural game allows him too.

There is some merit in the argument that Hoolahan is great at using the ball when Ireland are on the front foot but less effective when it comes to holding possession when the crank comes on from the opposition and cool heads are needed.

But surely Georgia at home was the right game for Hoolahan to do his stuff?

As it happens, injuries and some amount of mystery surrounding the fitness of Harry Arter, the greater question of speculation about his interest in playing for England and Jeff Hendrick's suspension mean that Hoolahan might just get a chance to weave his patterns in Moldova from the kick-off.

Clearly, O'Neill has is eye on the long road and that's why he favoured Brady in midfield over Hoolahan and picked Stephen Ward at left-full.

But the Russia 2018 finals are not that far in the future and if the missing piece in the Irish jigsaw is someone who can keep the ball, Hoolahan is the only show in town.

After the break against Georgia when O'Neill had clearly refocused minds, there were sporadic outbreaks of controlled passing but the players looked like they were walking on ice they were so careful and deliberate with their passing.

The irony was probably lost on them during one spell in the game when Ireland knitted together about 20 passes with great care and concentration and the response from the crowd was palpable.

Boot it long and put them under pressure was the message roared from the stands and therein lies the paradox. At that moment, Georgia were creaking and the fans were right.

We want Ireland to play well but we want them to score too and it has hard to avoid the certainty that very often, the only way to do that will be to lump the ball into the sky and pray for a break. That or a set-piece.

But then there was France. Remember?

Not so long ago there was genuine optimism that this group of players had found a way to play which mixed it all up nicely and was a pragmatic response to the talent pool available.

With the exception of Richard Keogh and Daryl Murphy, this was the team which started in Lille and Lyon.

Somewhere in the last few months, the balloon emptied and players who were confident about their work lost their way.

With Shane Long, Ronald Koeman's departure is undoubtedly a big factor and at the other end of that equation, James McCarthy has a lot to do to impress the Dutchman at Goodison which can't have helped his sense of well-being.

Brady didn't get the move he deserved back to the Premier League but across the rest of the team, there is no logical reason why they shouldn't have kicked off the Georgia game in great form.

O'Neill has always seemed to take it personally when he is asked about the vexed question of passing and possession but he should know by now that this about a culture which has taken root in Irish football and not a criticism of his management.

That said, he could have picked Hoolahan and Brady in the same team against Georgia and the night might have turned out very differently indeed.

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