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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Brains not brawn needed for Irish success

Hosts' superior stats means Mick's men need to play it smart to gain win

Teenager Aaron Connolly during Irish training in Geneva
Teenager Aaron Connolly during Irish training in Geneva

The statement was delivered with certainty. Mick McCarthy declared that setting up for a draw in Geneva this evening would be a recipe for disaster.

It could be construed as an assertion that his team are prepared to go toe-to-toe with the top seeds, yet the suspicion lingers that the strategy will be slightly more reserved.

The 60-year-old admitted that Ireland can play better against superior teams, a truism that is often linked with a fighting spirit, and the stereotypical view of a side that never knows when it's beaten.

Throw in the Swiss propensity for conceding late goals, including in the Aviva Stadium last month, and there's a temptation to conclude that this could be an evening for brawn to get the better of brains.

It's not that simple, however. Switzerland might have lost their way at times in this group, showing an incredible ability to turn wins into draws and draws into losses. But weak isn't a word that springs to mind when assessing Vladimir Petkovic's options.

Their physical strength and athleticism was a striking aspect of that September encounter. With a handful of exceptions, Ireland looked like inferior athletes to their guests, with a few gasps from the natives when the pace and power of Breel Embolo ripped through the Irish defence and made his pursuers look like they had weights attached to them.

Two years ago this week, Ireland called on strength of character and some old-school aggression to do a job on Wales in Cardiff, with their conductor Joe Allen unable to see out the first half after becoming the meat in a David Meyler and James McClean sandwich. Switzerland should be able to withstand that.

To prevail this evening, Ireland genuinely need a strategy that outsmarts their hosts. The statistics back up the argument that the Swiss can mix it up between direct attacking and sophisticated build-up play.

In their five Group D matches, they have attempted 149 crosses into the box. Ireland have tried to send in exactly that amount in their six matches. Switzerland have another game against Gibraltar to come, so all of their figures will shoot upwards.

With 90 fewer minutes on the pitch, they have also attempted (2,726) and completed more passes (2,333) than Ireland (2,612 & 2,034 respectively). Strikingly, they've had 93 attempts on goal in five matches compared to Ireland's 73.

This isn't a selective choice of statistics; all of the headings back up the argument that the away side have a mountain to climb.

The threat presented from Shane Duffy remains significant, of course, and the hosts are very aware of that. However, Ireland need to be able to pull the Swiss out of shape in order to fashion proper opportunities.

In Dublin, the home side were only able to force four corners and get four attempts on goal across the duration of the fixture. Switzerland won five corners and got 14 shots away.

Granted, the Irish equaliser did come from Swiss dawdling and the sheer willpower of McClean to win the ball back and send it into the area for David McGoldrick. But on Switzerland's home patch, they will need to be more clever and inventive to truly hurt the opposition.

McCarthy praised Scott Hogan's impact off the bench in the first meeting because he ran the channels and posed an extra problem for the sturdy Swiss back three that had lorded it until that point.

That was evidenced by Fabian Schar being able to stroll forward with the ball to instigate the passage of play that broke the deadlock.

Ireland have to try and occupy that defensive line and every reference to Aaron Connolly's likely inclusion has been complemented with a suggestion that he would need support. 'One up front and one in behind' was the line.

It's plausible that Alan Browne or Alan Judge could be brought in as a number ten, with Browne a more aggressive version. Callum Robinson has to be on the ropes after another struggle, but he might be a closer fit to the definition of a second striker.

Ireland need to be compact through the middle and it's possible this could be one of those matches where Jeff Hendrick is sent to the right side; that's where he was sent in Tbilisi when Browne was summoned.

A stretched affair is likely to play to Swiss strengths and that's why a compact unit with subtlety is required.

They move around from venue to venue, but the Swiss haven't lost at home since 2014, so they are a tough nut to crack.

Northern Ireland came as close as anybody by pushing the Swiss all the way in the World Cup 2018 playoffs. They had 12 shots on goal in Basel in an adventurous display that somehow ended scoreless. Ireland's approach is likely to be more patien, but this Irish group require a gameplan in orderto make their own luck.

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