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Sunday 22 October 2017

O'Neill picked up valuable lessons from friendlies

Conor Hourihane of Republic of Ireland in action against Mexico during the International Friendly match. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Hourihane of Republic of Ireland in action against Mexico during the International Friendly match. Photo: Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill gained a great deal from the two friendlies against Mexico last week and Uruguay on Sunday although at first glance, it might not look that way.

They were rare chances to see some of his marginal options on a pitch and to try something he would never contemplate if there were points on the line.

Anyone who watched both games saw a huge contrast between Ireland as they should be in the 3-1 win and an experimental Ireland against a decent Mexican side.

That Ireland played three at the back and was staffed by a lot of young lads just starting out at this level.

The Uruguay game was more valuable with Austria in mind because I saw Harry Arter do for Ireland what he has done all season for his club.

He gets about the midfield area very well and shows no sign that he has been infected with any of this 'holding' midfielder nonsense.

Instinct

His instinct is the same as any good midfielder's and that is to chase down the ball and when he gets it, use it positively.

I can see him playing a bigger and bigger role in O'Neill's plans as the group heads towards a conclusion in the Autumn.

In fact, I would start him alongside Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean in the Ireland midfield.

That's a selection which would make Austria think long and hard about how they would approach a game they must not lose and probably need to win.

If O'Neill sticks with Jon Walters as lone striker, it would leave room for Jeff Hendrick but none for Glenn Whelan,

To be honest, Hoolahan tackles as much when he plays as either Whelan or James McCarthy when he's fit and available.

Hendrick is a better option although his form since Euro 2016 has been patchy.

He can be a very dangerous player when he's on form and on the front foot but he hasn't really moved forward since France.

He didn't register at all against Uruguay and now that O'Neill has several midfield alternatives, he can't afford on off day.

O'Neill must have picked up on that and that's why these games really are important.

I can't understand why Austria didn't take on a warm-up but I'm happy they made that call.

I wouldn't write off the Mexico game as a source of important information for O'Neill either.

You just never know what he might have spotted in some of the young lads, something he can store in his mental library for another time.

And you can never underestimate what it means to lads like John Egan and Conor Hourihane (above), who have taken the long route to senior recognition and will have a clear memory of events in the MetLife Stadium for the rest of their lives.

Sure, it won't be their best memory in football. They lost the game and pretty badly if we're honest. But it will be a marker for them and a target reached.

O'Neill doesn't get too many chances to see so many new faces and small pieces of information can drop at the most unlikely moments and even in a game in which Ireland were at sea playing three at the back.

Even that fact is of value to O'Neill who can tick a box in his head or remove some names from his thoughts if he is considering a shift away from orthodoxy.

Value

As ever, it is all about the players and to adopt the system which won Antonio Conte the Premier League title, O'Neill must feel he has men who can do the job.

Personally, I'm not a fan of the system unless your players understand it and have practised it but I wouldn't critical of O'Neill for giving it a try.

Why not? He had no real idea how Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy and Egan would respond until he saw them actually play in the system and there was nothing to lose.

Further up the pitch it was a difficult night for Hourihane, Daryl Horgan and Callum O'Dowda.

I thought David McGoldrick had some promising moments but it looks like he's out of the running now because of an injury.

That seems to be the story of his international career to date which is a pity because he offers something different up front.

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