Striker search goes on but O’Neill must make case for de­fence

What­ever about un­cov­er­ing a new source of goals, man­ager’s big­gest task is to stop con­ced­ing them

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Em­met Mal­one Soc­cer Cor­re­spon­dent By the num­bers

It clearly says some­thing about the state of Martin O’Neill’s strik­ing op­tions that the Repub­lic of Ire­land man­ager has been asked more than once by the me­dia over the past few months about the prospect of giv­ing Troy Par­rott a se­nior call-up.

No­body was sug­gest­ing that a 16-year-old, who has not been any­where near Tot­ten­ham’s first team, should be start­ing for the Ir­ish se­nior side. But af­ter he im­pressed at the Un­der-17 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships back in May, there has seemed at times to be a hint of im­pa­tience amongst some of the press over the progress of a player who might be re­garded as the coun­try’s bright­est strik­ing prospect since Rob­bie Keane 20 years ago.

Keane com­pletely ripped the se­nior team’s pre­vi­ous goalscor­ing records apart, and so it is no great won­der that O’Neill name-checks him on a pretty reg­u­lar ba­sis. “My is­sues up front have been the same as they have been for five years,” he said on Mon­day, for in­stance. “Hon­estly. We had, as we said, a rather older Rob­bie Keane and at this minute no one has proved them­selves to be a nat­u­ral goalscorer.”

The Danes, sure enough, are un­likely to be un­duly in­tim­i­dated by O’Neill’s op­tions ahead of this evening’s game. Ire­land’s one Premier League op­tion, Shane Long, as­sum­ing he plays, will be look­ing for his first goal for Ire­land in two years (he will, at least, be re­lieved that his last goal for Southamp­ton is not so long ago that peo­ple are tot­ting up the end­less min­utes that have passed again) while Seán Maguire has played next to no foot­ball of late due to an in­jury, and As­ton Villa’s Scott Ho­gan has not kicked a ball in anger since the sum­mer.

Ai­den O’Brien did well on his de­but in Poland, scor­ing and look­ing gen­er­ally busy, while Callum Robin­son has hit a healthy bit of form for his club, Pre­ston, in the weeks since. Four in seven in the Cham­pi­onship is not to be sniffed at, and yet the step up to in­ter­na­tional level is sub­stan­tial, so no­body is likely to be get­ting too car­ried away.

For all of that, though, the team’s re­cent his­tory ac­tu­ally sug­gests that Ire­land’s com­pet­i­tive prospects are far more closely tied to how well they de­fend than how many goals they score.

In seven of the last 10 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns, Ire­land have con­ceded less than a goal a game. In five of those in­stances, that has pro­vided the ba­sis for a sec­ond-placed fin­ish which gen­er­ally, as it will again next year, pro­vides a ticket to ei­ther the play-offs or the fi­nals.

To qual­ify for Euro 2016 in France, the third place achieved was good enough for the play-offs. The only oc­ca­sion in re­cent his­tory, in fact, when the team didn’t at least stay in the hunt for a place at a cham­pi­onship af­ter keep­ing things tight at the back was in the World Cup cam­paign of 2006.

Only five sides in the en­tirety of that qual­i­fi­ca­tion cam­paign con­ceded fewer than Ire­land’s five goals, and all pro­gressed. Of those who failed to make the cut, Scot­land, who fin­ished third in Group Five, came clos­est to match­ing it, hav­ing let in seven over the course of their 10 group games.

Brian Kerr’s team ac­tu­ally fin­ished fourth but would, the­o­ret­i­cally at least, have won the group had they not sur­ren­dered two leads against an av­er­age-look­ing Is­rael side. Al­most in­cred­i­bly, three of the five they con­ceded were in those games, while eight of the 12 they scored came against Cyprus and the Faroe Is­lands.

Min­nows

Re­move the min­nows from the equa­tion in those 10 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns, in­deed, and Ire­land’s re­turn in front of goal has been strik­ingly sim­i­lar since 2002. On the way to Ja­pan and South Korea, Ire­land scored so many goals, 23 of them, that even when you ex­clude sixth-placed An­dorra, they av­er­aged more than two a game.

Ir­ish teams have never come close to equalling that achieve­ment in the in­ter­ven­ing years, and when you ex­clude the sides that fin­ished last in their var­i­ous groups, they av­er­age al­most ex­actly one per out­ing re­gard­less of where they ul­ti­mately fin­ished and whether they qual­i­fied or not. The free-scor­ing high point over the last 16 years was – wait for it – un­der Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni on the way to the 2012 Eu­ros when his side av­er­aged 1.25 goals in the eight games played against the four other sides to fin­ish in the top five.

Last time around, the cor­re­spond­ing fig­ure was 0.875, sig­nif­i­cantly but not hugely down on the 1.0 they av­er­aged in five of the eight cam­paigns.

Keane was well gone by then, and his loss has been felt, although the scale of the im­pact re­mains a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to quan­tify.

The Dubliner played a part in nine of those 10 cam­paigns, and dur­ing that time scored just over 25 per cent of Ire­land’s qual­i­fy­ing group goals and a fifth of those man­aged against the “bet­ter” sides.

There were a few other fac­tors at play, though, with his sta­tus as the side’s penalty-taker help­ing, for in­stance, and just one of the 11 goals he scored in his last two cam­paigns was from play against a top-five side.

Not hav­ing a nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor is clearly a con­cern for O’Neill, though, and un­less some­body sud­denly steps up to the plate, there is no ob­vi­ous rea­son to an­tic­i­pate things get­ting bet­ter in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture. Keane, as it hap­pens, was only six months older than Par­rott is now when he started play­ing first-team foot­ball for Wolves, but the Tot­ten­ham teenager is, for all his prom­ise, a dis­tance off that as things stand.

Press­ing dan­ger

The more press­ing dan­ger for O’Neill is that things con­tinue to slip on the de­fen­sive side of things, which is how it has tended to fall apart for most of his pre­de­ces­sors.

Mick Mc­Carthy de­parted just two games into the Euro 2004 cam­paign with his side hav­ing al­ready con­ceded six times. Tra­p­at­toni tight­ened things con­sid­er­ably af­ter Steve Staunton’s brief reign but then de­parted him­self to­wards the end of his third cam­paign dur­ing which the early 6-1 home de­feat by Ger­many had fa­tally un­der­mined his claim that, what­ever else, Ire­land were well or­gan­ised at the back. That one game also did much to drag his 0.75 av­er­age goals con­ceded against top five sides down to 2.0.

O’Neill had suc­cess­fully ad­dressed de­fen­sive is­sues so that a goal a game against what might be de­scribed as Ire­land’s group ri­vals was, once again, enough for the team to earn a play-off place. Then the sec­ond leg against Den­mark hap­pened.

It need not prove fa­tal for him, although there is a sense that, like that de­feat by Ger­many un­der Tra­p­at­toni, its mem­ory will linger and re­turn to haunt the man­ager when­ever things go wrong – as they did again, rather spec­tac­u­larly, in Cardiff.

All of which may be just a very long-winded way of mak­ing the most ob­vi­ous point ever made in a na­tional news­pa­per about an in­ter­na­tional man­ager. That what­ever about un­cov­er­ing a new source of goals, as he re­peat­edly says he wants to, O’Neill’s more press­ing need is for his side to stop con­ced­ing them, be­cause Ire­land are not a team that can count on outscor­ing op­po­nents of any real qual­ity in high-scor­ing games.

It’s close the flood­gates, then, or hope the FAI doesn’t look to some­one else who per­suades them he has the or­gan­i­sa­tional skills to achieve the de­fen­sive base re­quired for a team that doesn’t score much to suc­ceed.

And if you’re think­ing you’ve heard all that be­fore, it is, of course, be­cause you have.

Ire­land are not a team that can count on outscor­ing op­po­nents of any real qual­ity in high-scor­ing games

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