The blooding of James McCarthy in a starting role as well as a change in the tactical shape bodes well for Ireland's 2014 World Cup qualification campaign
By Ronan Murphy
Last night's 0-0 draw with Serbia in Belgrade marked a significant turning point for Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland side. The 4-4-2 which failed at Euro 2012 was gone, while a number of relatively new faces were given a chance to prove their worth on the international stage.
Trap's new 4-5-1 tactic worked well with and without the ball, allowing midfielders more passing options and also closing off angles for the opposition to open up the Irish defence. Ireland held onto the ball better, and even when launching the ball long to the solitary figure of Jon Walters up front, the midfielders contested for the loose ball each and every time. Against Spain, Italy, and Croatia, the Boys in Green seemed content to let the ball break to their opponent, but youngsters James McCarthy and James McClean tried their hardest to pick up any scraps.
It was also the night on which James McCarthy proved himself to be worthy of the hype. It's easy to forget that the Wigan Athletic midfielder is only 21, having broken into the Hamilton team six years ago, with nearly 200 club games under his belt already. Missed chances in the Carling Nations Cup and in friendlies delayed his international impact, but last night he was the best midfielder on the pitch. On this evidence, it will be difficult for Trapattoni to choose anyone else ahead of him.
The retirement of Shay Given has seen Keiren Westwood become the de facto number one for Ireland. The Sunderland goalkeeper performed admirably, keeping out efforts from Aleksandar Kolarov and Zdravko Kuzmanović to prove that the loss of Given won't be as difficult as feared. Westwood is currently backup to Simon Mignolet at the Stadium of Light and may need a loan move to keep match sharp, but as of now, he looks more than capable of filling Given's gloves on a permanent basis.
Sunderland winger James McClean was tried in unfamiliar positions in Trapattoni's new system, and although he worked hard, he's still a raw, unfinished product at international level. McClean should be allowed more time to develop on the international scene, and should be used in a Stephen Hunt role, sent on late in matches to inject a bit of urgency when it's needed in the second half. As of now, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff should remain first-choice wide players, but it's good to have people like Hunt and McClean in reserve to offer something more direct.
Despite all the positives, Trap's tactical switch did not merely paper over the cracks of Euro 2012. Stephen Kelly was disappointing at left back, and was regularly caught out of position. Trapattoni has yet to find an adequate replacement for Kevin Kilbane, as Stephen Ward has rarely been better than average for Ireland, while Marc Wilson and Greg Cunningham have not yet got the chance to prove themselves for the senior side due to injuries and under-21 commitments respectively.
The new system often left Jon Walters exposed up front, with too much of a gap between him and the midfield for large parts of the match. Shane Long may be better suited to the lone forward role, but was dropped just before the game as Trapattoni felt that he wasn't fit enough, despite protests from the West Bromwich Albion striker. James McClean and Simon Cox were both tested in the central role behind Walters, but neither player did enough to make the position their own. The formation is crying out for a player like Stephen Ireland, but that call up may be a long way off under the current regime.
The Serbia friendly was a good exercise, and much more valuable than most pre-season games. Even if Trapattoni does revert to 4-4-2 for Kazakhstan and Germany, it is wise to have an alternative if the need arises, while the much-anticipated international arrival of James McCarthy bodes well for the future.