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Wednesday 28 June 2017

O'Neill's three-man defence experiment needs to be parked for foreseeable future

International Friendly Rep of Ire v Uruguay Tomorrow, Live Eir Sp 1 (KO 6.0)

Cyrus Christie looks nailed-on to be right back tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Cyrus Christie looks nailed-on to be right back tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

Richard Dunne was on the money in midweek when he was asked whether Martin O'Neill should consider a three-man defence for Austria and dismissed the idea out of hand.

"Let's not," said Dunne in mock horror.

And he really meant it. Dunne calls a spade a spade and he really doesn't think it's a good idea. The basis for his scepticism is the belief that to stray from Ireland's orthodoxy would require an investment of time and patience which could stretch beyond two years.

He doesn't believe that it is something which can be learned quickly.

In fact, nothing less than a concerted effort across age groups and perhaps even a generation would create the mindset which would allow Irish players to shift mentally from the traditional two banks of four to something more exotic. Given that Ireland sit at the head of Group D and in the box seat as World Cup qualification turns into a decisive phase, why would O'Neill want to make such a radical change now?

Drastic

"There's no need to do anything drastic," said Dunne. "We're doing fine".

Indeed we are, but Dunne wasn't to know when he made his judgement on the possibility that Ireland would start with three at the back against Austria that O'Neill was readying his fringe men in America for exactly such an experiment.

Of course, O'Neill used the most fashionable formation in football himself at Celtic and Leicester a long time ago but a club environment means such things are possible.

A few days on a nice paddock in Cork is no substitute for weeks and months of repetition on the training ground. Not by a mile,

Dunne went against the consensus line that Antonio Conte had a moment of inspiration a month into the season and decided to run with three at the back after losing heavily to Arsenal.

The manager had used that formation with Juventus and the Italian national team.

Conte was probably grinding it into his players during months of intensive practice before the Arsenal defeat.

If Dunne needed any confirmation that his view carries substance, it arrived in New Jersey. The result against Mexico was predictable enough and the way they ripped O'Neill's new-look defence to pieces added a mountain of weight to Dunne's argument.

Shock

It would be nothing less than a shock if Ireland line up in the same shape tomorrow against Uruguay, a team just as capable of finding gaps in a poorly organised defence as Mexico were.

O'Neill flagged that his line-up for the final warm-up before Austria would be as close as he can get to the one he wants to use to chase three more qualifying points.

If anything, those Premier League men who were resting while Ireland were being filleted, have trained the three-man defence less than the Championship group that went to Fota Island.

It would be an exercise in folly to expect them to strap on a completely new set of instructions with virtually no time invested in practice.

The positive side of the formation could be seen in the opening ten minutes of the game against Mexico.

Cyrus Christie had licence to push forward, as had James McClean on the left and for a time, they unsettled the Mexicans to such an extent that O'Neill's tinkering appeared to be worthwhile.

Dark

But the dark side took over, Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and John Egan flapped and Mexico's counter-attack exposed the flaws. Perhaps O'Neill wants to confuse Austria with a bit of what Jack Charlton used to call "silly buggers" but all he managed to do was leave his own players a bit bewildered.

That will not be the case against Uruguay if O'Neill is true to his word and aims for his strongest line-up. He will play four at the back and five across the middle.

The American trip helped bolster Christie's case as the nailed-on replacement at right-full for Seamus Coleman and O'Neill's team selection tomorrow will give an indication about how he intends to resolve other outstanding issues. There is a question over the left-full slot and whether form man Stephen Ward is preferred to Robbie Brady, a choice which might leave the hero of Lille kicking his heals on the bench.

Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick are certain starters in midfield but O'Neill has options to mull over for the other three slots and James McClean, Wes Hoolahan, Aiden McGeady, Harry Arter and Brady all have good reason to be at their best against Uruguay.

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