Thursday, 16 August 2012

Michael O'Neill's tactical quandary ahead of trip to Russia

Northern Ireland’s home friendly matches are notoriously boring.  Therefore last night’s 3-3 draw against Finland, which not only saw plenty of goalmouth action but was also played at a reasonable tempo, is attracting descriptions like ‘thriller’ and ‘classic’. 

Hardly - but in new manager Michael O’Neill’s 3rd game, it was nice to see his players finally score some goals.  Their previous two outings were 3-0 and 6-0 defeats against Norway and Holland.

Michael’s positive approach to the game, his openness with the press and his easy manner with players, are a refreshing change from his negative predecessor, Nigel Worthington.  Although O’Neill must already be acutely aware that he faces a difficult task to produce respectable results.  The Northern Ireland team he has inherited is rather short on quality, morale or ideas.

The new young manager wants to implement a fashionable, flexible tactical system nonetheless.  To dip into technical jargon, it is best described as 4-3-3, although, when the team is being forced to defend, it can look more like a 4-5-1. 

The key aspects are that it doesn’t include conventional wingers or a traditional pairing of centre-forwards up front.  It does require the players to remain in a compact formation rather than being strung out loosely across the pitch, and it depends upon swift, accurate passing and quick, instinctive movement to break down opposition defences.

It would be wonderful to think that O’Neill can coach Northern Ireland to play this way, and it may even be fun watching him try (as it was for the first 20 minutes last night when his players gave it a darned good attempt).  I wonder, though, whether there are not already signs that he’ll eventually be forced to abandon his favoured tactics.

For a start, the shape the team is currently adopting is anything but compact.  Three crooked, incoherent lines of defenders, midfielders and attackers are ungracefully splayed out, with yawning gaps in between them.      

Secondly, if a team is to maintain any width at all playing this system it needs its full-backs to be willing to push on up past the midfield on occasion.  Last night Lee Hodson looked desperately reluctant to adopt this style, even though one foray saw him create a good opportunity for Kyle Lafferty to score, and Ryan McGivern was simply not prepared to give it a try at all. 

Despite a good opening period for Northern Ireland, the football was not particularly pretty. 

Any possession which was retained went sideways across the three unlovely lines (particularly the defence) and tended to break down when an attempt was made to advance, or interplay the ball between them.  The team didn’t look like a tight unit.  Yet there was also very little width, because the midfield and forward players were unwilling to go too far out unto the wings and Hodson and McGivern were reluctant to overlap and provide their midfielders with an extra option.

The outcome?  Possession was often lost with some very hopeful and unrealistic straight balls over Kyle Lafferty’s head, which he was supposed to chase, but had no realistic chance of retrieving. 

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this lack of shape for Northern Ireland was that the defence was desperately exposed.  Hence Finland, an average side, managed to add three goals to Holland’s 6 and Norway’s 3. 

That defensive record is extremely worrying as Northern Ireland prepares to face Russia in Moscow in the first World Cup qualifier.  Although we eventually claimed a draw last night, after a doubtful penalty, if Finland had won 6-2 it would not have been an unfair reflection of the balance of play.

The team simply has to be set up in a more compact fashion, if it is to avoid an embarrassing scoreline at Lokomotiv stadium.  Then, of course, an away tie looms with Portugal. Terrifying. 

Michael O’Neill did perform miracles at Shamrock Rovers, getting a limited set of players playing a tricky technical system and achieving excellent results.  Who’s to say he can’t do the same at international level? 

Unfortunately he won’t have the luxury of working daily with Northern Ireland, or even selecting the same personnel for each squad, so his opportunities to coach players in the intricacies of his strategy will be more limited.

Whoever was appointed Northern Ireland’s manager quickly had to come to terms with the limited available resources.  Many of the players who contributed to memorable results during the Lawrie Sanchez era have retired, struggled with injuries or simply didn’t reach their full potential. 

The international team is moving into one of those natural slumps which all countries as small as Northern Ireland are forced to suffer from time to time.  Michael O’Neill’s job is either to manage that decline or deliver creditable results in spite of it.     

He’ll need to be hard headed and pragmatic to do either.  I wonder whether the first compromise may be to change his team’s tactics.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Rodgers reign will require patience.

Am awful lot has changed since my last post about developments at Anfield. 

Kenny Dalglish joined Daniel Comolli and others in being given the sack by Liverpool’s owners.  It was an unpopular decision with supporters, who were loyal to ‘King Kenny’ to the end.  A tortuous period of rumour and speculation followed, before Brendan Rodgers was prised away from Swansea City, becoming the 2nd youngest manager in Liverpool’s history.

The Carnlough man has impressed with his forthright press statements, and now that the season has officially started, he will get an opportunity to make improvements on the pitch.

It could be a slow process, but Liverpool fans (and the club's owners) must be patient.  Rodgers needs to be given a number of years to implement his system, barring all but the most unforeseeable disasters.

The manager has made two signings over the close season.  First to arrive was the young Italian striker, Fabio Borini.  He marked his competitive debut at Anfield by scoring with an adept volley, after clever play from Luis Suarez.

Last week he was joined by Joe Allen, captured from Swansea, after a £15 million release clause in his contract was triggered.  At that price his signing is a gamble.  I suspect that the fee was inflated by the fact that Allen is a British player.   

Still, Rodgers has a high regard for the midfielder’s ability and the system which he intends to implement does require mobile players who are comfortable on the ball in the centre of the pitch.

The manager’s preferred tactics have been described variously as 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and ‘tikka takka’.  As I noted previously, it is a strategy which is likely to suit Luis Suarez in particular.

So it’s an exciting time for Liverpool supporters, but a note of caution.  The manager can make some improvements straight away, but the current squad is still in need of renovation.  Allen and Borini have arrived, but the likes of Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and Stuart Downing remain.  They have also, rather worryingly, played a notable role in pre-season matches. 

The hunt for a wide player continues.  The Uruguayan, Gaston Ramirez, has been mentioned, while Portugal’s Ricardo Queresma is viewed as a possible alternative.  Though Liverpool has a notoriously patchy record in the transfer market, where it comes to wingers.

As ever, the manager’s season will be considered a success if the club is in next season’s champions’ league.  Cup success is regarded as an optional extra these days. 

A top 4 finish is achievable,  but if it is not attained, it will be time for the owners to demonstrate some patience.   

Friday, 10 August 2012

Put Pussy Riot in context

The British press, as a rule, covers Russia badly and the Pussy Riot trial is no exception.  In many of the articles which I’ve read, there is precious little distinction between reporting and comment. 

Now, I would not for a minute suggest that the three young defendants should receive the three year prison sentence which prosecution lawyers are seeking, but the notions that the proceedings constitute a ‘show trial’, represent a return to Stalinism or are purely politically motivated don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Read Mercouris’s carefully researched post which looks at the legal issues and some of the lazy assumptions which have been reported persistently by newspapers in the UK.

The law in a particular country reflects quite properly the values of the society in which it operates.  If a protest were to desecrate a mosque in a devout Muslim country the punishment would most likely be severe.  International opinion would not be appalled.  If an anarchist collective performed a profane song at the altar of St Peter’s, and if its members had a history of other provocative and criminal actions in the Vatican, it would not be surprising if they were tried, convicted or even imprisoned.  Any outcry would be muted.

The difficulty with much coverage of Russia in British newspapers is that every story is used to build a case against Vladimir Putin and is not, therefore, treated on its own merits.  There is very little attempt to provide context, balance or even full disclosure of the facts.  Reporting is often bent into a shape which suits comment writers and the newspaper or broadcaster’s editorial line.

It would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the Pussy Riot case.  The defendants may well be acquitted or dealt a less than draconian punishment.  However the fact that the case has come to trial is certainly not as absurd as it has frequently been portrayed.