So, Ireland’s three game run in Euro 2012 has come to an end. Allow me to look at the various parts of the Irish performance from the back up, before going on to talk about the future of Trapattoni in the Ireland job.
Shay Given should not have played in this tournament. He is carrying a knock that has slowed him, but on the basis of last night and other games he is also simply out of form for whatever reason. He made three awful errors in the first half, one after the other, racing out of his goal unnecessarily and becoming stranded during an Italian attack, letting slip an easy shot and conceding a corner (that could also have wound up in the net), and hopelessly flapping at the resulting Cassano header, even though he had his arms up and in the correct position initially. It has been a tournament to forget for Given, in what is likely to be his last international outing. The preference for an aging, injured, out of form keeper is an insult to Kieran Westwood on the Ireland bench. Some leap to defend Given based on his past glories: that is the exact attitude, the mollycoddling of long term squad inclusions based on performances of long ago, that has seen us get where we are. We owe Given respect, he is not owed an automatic starting place at all times.
The backline had their best game of the tournament, but even with that they were not convincing. O’Shea and Dunne looked painfully slow at times, having trouble dealing with the passing game they were presented with, little more then obstacles to block the occasional shot or through ball. Ward was mostly anonymous and did nothing worth really noting. It was a similar story with St Ledger. The Irish defence was able to contain Italy in play, which was an accomplishment, but as with other games their set-piece organisation has been truly appalling, as is their attempts to deal with crosses from the wings. Five of the nine goals we have conceded have come from such efforts. The Irish defence consistently stood off the Italian attackers and refused to press. When they got the ball they were slow to move it out of defence if opting for short passes and were quick to waste possession if they chose to go for a long pass. They are also depressingly quick to raise the hands and arms to call for frees and offsides, unable, or unwilling, to play the whistle.
The midfield suffered from the same problems that have plagued them all tournament. McGeady, frequently going for a central midfield role, burst forward often but had no patience or intelligence to pick the right pass when it mattered. Duff, with his lack of pace and facing a strong defence, was ineffectual. You could have taken Whelan off the field and seen little different in the way Ireland played, such was his lack of impact. Andrews ran, passed and put in the hard tackles, but that wasn’t enough. He was guilty of his fair share of wastage and his red card was not undeserved.
The forwards then. Both Doyle and Keane had limited service and failed to do much when they got the ball. Ireland had two shots on target the whole game, both after the hour mark, both from the foot of Andrews, both straight at Buffon. Worse than that, Keane was guilty of some lazy play, casually strolling back and finding himself offside when Ireland tried to break on an unexpected turnover in the first half. The forwards have been a total failure in Euro 2012.
That includes all three of Ireland’s strikers and forward players who were brought on one after the other as the second half wore on. Shane Long had some decent bits of play, Walters closed people down and Cox tried, but they were playing in a system that stifled their creativity and had the same lack of supply that Doyle and Keane had. The decision to leave Keane on as long as he did was baffling, and the sequence of substitutions had an air of haphazardness and desperation about it.
Ireland pressed a bit more in the Italian half and put together some decent touches and bits of movement at times. But they were still outclassed, frequently outpassed, and undone all over the pitch. This result, despite an especially incompetent refereeing performance from Cuneyt Cakir, was not an injustice. John O’Shea clearly fouling Mario Balotelli and still being unable to stop the Italian from scoring is an apt image for this game. Ireland tried, but this ageing squad was beaten by a younger, hungrier team. None of them are blameless, none of them played to the extent that we have seen them play before. They did not give 100%. None of them go home absolved of doubt. For many, this dire performance at Euro 2012 will be a lifelong regret, never to be rectified or made up for. That is a worse feeling than any other criticism I can offer.
So what about Giovanni Trapattoni then?
Simply put, I believe that Trapattoni’s time as the manager of Ireland is increasingly looking like the borrowed variety. Euro 2012 has seen the illusion vanish, the weaknesses, deficiencies and the tactical nuances exposed. We went into this tournament believing in a tough team that could compete with those above them, make it hard, grind out the results, could provide a shock. Well, the curtain has fallen on the Italian wizard and he will be hard pressed to convince us again.
I can outline briefly, for fear of repeating myself over and over, the mistakes and disasters that Trapattoni has overseen. The continued and baffling faith placed in older unfit players when alternatives were available on the bench who could match or conceivably better the effort being put in by the starting line up. Shay Given, John O’Shea, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane. They all started every game despite varying levels of unfitness, barely concealed injuries or lack of impact. The exclusion and ignoring of Kieran Westwood, Stephen Kelly, James McClean, Darren Gibson, Shane Long and Jonathan Walters has gone from concerning to confusing to actually damaging. Add in the likes of James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman who did not even get the honour of a place in the squad. That these players may have to wait on news of retirements to get their chance is appalling.
No better argument of this line can be made then the sight of Paul Green being sent on against Spain while Darren Gibson was kept on the bench. Trapattoni’s continuing loyalty to a set of players who were not performing is unacceptable from a manager at this level. We all know that Trap has his favourites. While they were good enough to get through a tough qualifying campaign, more and more we look back with a critical eye, at failure to achieve wins at home to Slovakia, of disaster’s and brushes with fortune against Russia, of an easy play-off victory over Estonia that blinded us to the reality: the first team was mediocre and flattered to deceive. Better, younger players sat on the bench or sat at home. Euro 2012 is their answer to Trapattoni’s insulting dismissive attitude towards them. While the inclusion of some of them is debatable, the examples of McClean, Gibson, McCarthy and Long is not.
Then there is the tactical problem. Trapattoni has rigidly stuck to an antiquated 4-4-2, the most adventurous he has seen to be being the 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 he employed against Spain. Other teams, better teams, have adapted to the new realities of modern football which places such an emphasis on the attacking midfielder and the short passing game. Trapattoni, whether it is his own stubborn resolve or lack of experience with anything else, cannot evolve and cannot change. This is especially bad as you could see it simply was not working against Croatia, Spain or Italy, and he was unable to effect any difference, had failed to prepare for the eventuality of a formation that was pitifully unready for the task expected of it. Ireland are painfully predictable, and those ranked higher than us have no difficulty in dealing with us.
The long ball didn’t work, just as it has failed to work over and over again in qualifying, the lack of good target men the death knell for that system. Stepping off didn’t work, as Croatia, Italy and Spain were given the freedom of the midfield and wings in which to run Ireland’s defence ragged. The defensive game didn’t work, seeing Ireland pegged back to an unreasonable extent and unable to affect anything resembling an quality counter attack.
The substitutions were a final affirmation of my opinion. Putting Cox on the left wing against Croatia then the centre of the midfield against Spain. Throwing James McClean on after conceding four goals against Spain, as well as the embarrassing sight of Paul Green getting a run out. Flinging on three strikers against Italy with no real sense of a changed offensive attitude, giving Keane the longest amount of time in which to flounder about on the pitch.
The substitutions and the positions they were asked to take up was abysmal management. Trapattoni spent his time on the sideline staring grim faced at the successive defeats unfolding in front of him, seemingly paralyzed from doing anything to really change the situation. There was no sense of control and no sense of confidence. Ireland’s continued clinging to the same old formation and tactical game even when losing – the lack of “Plan B” that I previously discussed – was shocking to see from a nation that was classing itself among the top 16 teams in Europe and a potential qualifier from a very difficult group.
I said before that I thought Trapattoni was employed on borrowed time. I did not mean that he will quit or be sacked within the next short while, or even this year. But he is not going to last as Ireland manager. The World Cup qualifiers, featuring tough contests against Austria, Sweden and Germany, are going to be judged differently from now on. The Italian may be forced to finally place his faith in some of the players listed above, but will it matter if they are told to go out and play in a rigid 4-4-2 system? If Gibson and McCarthy are by-passed by a long ball game that comes from a distant decade?
When the losses and the draws come, the response will not be “bad team, acceptable result, hard to beat, doing well with what he has”. It will be “same old story, not good enough, bad formation, undeserving mainstays”. The fact that we haven’t beaten any team ranked above us in Trapattoni’s tenure, despite talk of emulating Greece in 2004, will rankle and stay in the memory as we struggle to keep up with Germany and Sweden, as we find ourselves neck and neck with Austria. We travel away to distant Kazakhstan to play our first game: how many of us are truly confident of a win there, against a fifth seed?
We aren’t and the reason why is a manager who is out of his depth at this stage and, as so many only realise now, has been so for some time. The players carry some blame, but the majority must rest with a manager who has failed his employers totally, who could not make the hard calls, who could not make the necessary changes. Trapattoni might be retained for a time, probably out of concern at the payout he will be due in the event of an early termination of his contract, but he won’t last in this job. The poor results, disguised as good ones last year and before, will not be accepted or excused anymore and each one will add to the mountain of dissatisfaction that has been built over the last few weeks. I expect Ireland will have a different manager by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around. I do not expect Ireland to be there.
What we have to remember from Euro 2012, and potentially to look forward to, is an Irish team that has a bad formation, bad players undeserving of the faith they were given, substitutes, squad members and others who were criminally ignored, a fear of possession, a rabbits-in-the-headlights aura, a long ball game that doesn’t work, positional changes that were laughably ineffective, a midfield that is anonymous, wingers that play only to draw fouls, forwards who have no options in the system they are given, defenders who cannot defend against set-plays, a goalkeeper who is unfit and looking past it, no ability to adapt to changing situations, no decent passing, no decent attacking, no good tactics, no good shots, no belief, no determination, no clue, no hope and a manager who has allowed all of this to come to pass with no reasonable expectation of changes being made beyond ones that are unavoidable due to injury and retirement.