Belarus blunder a tactical lesson for Ireland

Brendan Moran, Sportsfile
The Boys in Green fell at the final hurdle in their Euro 2016 send-off, in a game which demonstrated the limitations of O'Neill's alternative tactical approach


History repeated itself at Turner's Cross on Tuesday night, when Martin O'Neill's decision to switch from 4-3-1-2 to 4-1-4-1 coincided with the Republic of Ireland tasting defeat in their final Euro 2016 warm-up friendly against Belarus.

After switching to the diamond formation for the home draw with Scotland in June 2015, O'Neill's side followed up that result with a three-game winning streak that culminated in the famous victory against Germany on October 8.

Three days later, Ireland travelled to Poland in the final round of games, with automatic qualification still possible. In the absence of Wes Hoolahan, the player whose talents the 4-3-1-2 was designed to best exploit, O'Neill opted for the same 4-1-4-1 system that struggled to break down Georgia on the opening day.

Ireland were comfortably beaten, and looked more defensively brittle than they had in the theoretically more expansive diamond configuration.

Robbie Brady and John O'Shea endured a torrid time on the left of the Irish defence, as did Stephen Ward in the first leg of the playoff, away to Bosnia, when O'Neill plumped for a 4-4-1-1.

Reverting to the diamond for the second leg produced a victory, a clean sheet, and qualification for Euro 2016. Persisting with it in subsequent friendlies, save for a brief and underwhelming dalliance with 4-4-2 against Switzerland, produced creditable draws - and performances - against Slovakia and the Netherlands.

Although Ireland enjoyed an encouraging start down the left flank against Belarus, with Ciaran Clark stepping into midfield and Stephen Ward overlapping, this proved to be illusory.

With no coherent pressing plan evident from a loose Irish XI, Belarus found it easy to move the ball quickly from back to front. Their 20th-minute counter-attacking opener was a prime example of Ireland's structural failure, when the hosts comprehensively failed to reassume their shape quickly after David Meyler's loss of possession in midfield.

Indeed, Ireland were very fortunate to escape further punishment on the break a mere minute after that goal. The slowness of Meyler and Jeff Hendrick, who both lack match fitness, to assume their defensive positions was compounded by Darron Gibson's questionable positional play in front of the Irish defence.

Further, all three midfielders' profligacy in possession subsequently fueled the Belarusian breaks, with Gibson arguably the most culpable. Ireland clearly needed a conduit, blessed with guile, to play in front of that trio and provide a passing option.

The hosts improved slightly in the early stages of the second half to fashion headed chances for Daryl Murphy and Ciaran Clark. Both were created singlehandedly by the determined dribbling of Aiden McGeady and Cyrus Christie respectively however, rather than by any coherent build-up play.

Clark, like Shane Duffy against the Netherlands, represented a consistent aerial threat throughout the game. Combined with his ability to carry the ball out of defence, and his defensive performances against Bosnia, his claim to start against Sweden is a robust one.

Although another defensive lapse from Christie, guilty also of overcovering for the opener, saw Ireland fall further behind, the hosts finally sprung to life upon reverting to 4-3-1-2 after the first raft of substitutions.

Shane Long and James McClean reprised their frontline duet against Slovakia by creating goals through sheer force of will. Their harrying won the Christie throw-in that was half-cleared to Long and rifled home by Ward.

Improvements in Ireland's attack, defensive structure and transitions were marked. Numbers in the box, combined with Christie's new-found freedom to advance, led to a string of chances emanating from the right flank, one of which was guided just over by McClean.

O'Neill's decision to again trial a 4-1-4-1 in this final warm-up game suggests that he may be leery of fielding a diamond in the supposedly tougher group games against Belgium and Italy.

The Irish manager might benefit from learning the lessons of history, with a particular focus on events in Gdansk and Turner's Cross, before he makes his final determination on that front.

O'Neill should also recall that it took the world champions 80 minutes to bypass Ireland's diamond to fashion their first shot on target. With its deployment in the opener against Sweden likely, the evidence is persuasive in favour of the diamond featuring throughout Ireland's subsequent French odyssey.