Hoping for the best, Expecting the worst

Match Facts

Group C: Spain vs. Republic of Ireland

Thursday, 14 June 2012

20:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

PGE Arena, Gdansk

After the opening matches in Group C of the 2012 UEFA European Championships, Ireland and Spain find themselves in very different situations. The Spanish will have been relatively satisfied with their 1-1 draw against an Italian team that surprised many with their excellent display. Ireland, by contrast, suffered a chastening (but not unexpected) 1-3 defeat to Croatia. Ireland must avoid defeat in order to stay in the championships. Spain will be expecting a win to take a large step towards qualification for the quarter-finals and to lessen the pressure of a final game against a good Croatian side. So facing into Game day 2, what can we expect from the matchup between these two sides?

Spain have probably been the most fascinating side from tactical point of view at the tournament so far. Call it what you will, a “false 9”, a 4-6-0 formation or whatever but the fact of the matter is that the reigning World and European champions started the game against Italy with no recognised striker on the pitch. This formation has of course been patented by the (until this season) all-conquering Barcelona team and indeed Del Bosque experimented with it in certain games leading up to the Euros.

Del Bosque has indicated that he will continue with this formation in spite of the fact that Spain created more chances and looked more dangerous against Italy after Fernando Torres and Jesus Navas were brought on in the second half. However, as the Spanish coach has pointed out, the equalising goal for Spain was scored by Cesc Fabregas, playing in the “false 9” role, while the original match tactics were still in operation. Del Bosque has further said that he thinks the best way to use Torres is as an impact substitute, bringing the misfiring Chelsea forward on later in the game when it has become more stretched.

It is a matter of debate as to whether the performance against Italy bears this theory out – did Torres get (and miss) so many chances because the Italian defence had tired by the time he and Navas came on, or is it simply the case that playing with an out-and-out forward player is just a better system?  This remains to be seen and it would be presumptuous of anyone to claim too strongly to know better than a manager with Del Bosque’s track record. However, I will say this: Barcelona’s use of this system has Lionel Messi in the “false 9” role – a man who has scored a phenomenal 82 goals this season – there is nobody in the Spanish squad (or in world football) who can match his genius in this role.

It could also be argued that the Barcelona system (as now used by Spain) came up short this year, specifically against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in La Liga and Chelsea in both legs of the Champions League Semi-Final. I believe that one of the major reasons for this was the absence of David Villa; the striker was vital for both his club and country – his absence was keenly felt by Barcelona and unfortunately for Del Bosque and Spain, their all-time record goal scorer is not available for these championships. Despite this however, Del Bosque appears to be committed to this “false 9” system and thus, for the present, this is the Spanish game plan and I would not expect any change in either formation or personnel for the Ireland game.

The Spanish will dominate possession (expect somewhere in the region of 70%) and this will obviously mean they will control midfield. The movement of Fabregas, Silva and particularly Andres Iniesta will cause the Irish defence serious problems. Xavi is capable of picking any defence apart and it will be a question of whether any Irish player can get close enough to him often enough to stop this happening. I doubt it quite frankly. The Spanish defence, minus the outstanding Carles Puyol, is probably the weak link in their team if only for the reason that with the team’s aforementioned and perennial dominance of possession they don’t normally have a lot to do and can switch off. If Ireland can put some sustained pressure on the Spanish defence they might get some joy; this of course, is easier said than done.

Will we see such images against the World and European champions?

Ireland’s best chance of scoring will most likely come from a set-piece as in their first match against Croatia. The Irish tactics or more specifically, their selection policy has generated some debate since the Croatian game. There was a lot of optimism here that the team could get a win over the Croatians; this was based on not a lot of evidence to my mind. The 0-0 draw we got in Moscow during qualification disguised the fact that Ireland had been completely outplayed – only heroic performances from Shay Given and Richard Dunne, combined with monumental levels of luck secured us a point. Neither Given nor Dunne were at their best on Sunday and luck deserted Ireland for the Croatian second goal (probably offside) and when Robbie Keane was taken down in the Croatian penalty area (almost certainly a penalty).

Despite this, there is no doubt that Croatia were a far better team than Ireland – Trapattoni admitted as much in his post match comments. Ireland’s tactics under Il Trap are too simplistic for this level of football. There is no coherent strategy of how the team can play against and challenge the top teams in world football. The contrast with how Denmark (a country of comparable size and footballing strength to Ireland) played against Holland was marked. The Danish pressurised the Dutch in midfield and counter-attacked superbly.

All three of Croatia’s goals on Sunday ultimately came from the fact that there was no pressure put on the Croatian players around the edge of the Irish penalty area or in midfield. Luka Modric was given the freedom of Poznan and he made Ireland pay dearly. Neither Keith Andrews nor Glen Whelan got close enough to the Croatian playmaker nor did they provide sufficient cover for their beleaguered back four. Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff, the wide players in midfield, did not hold on to possession well enough and they tend to drift in to central areas in an effort to help out their central midfield colleagues. This means that when the Irish do win the ball back, the only out ball that is on is normally a hopeful punt in the vague direction of Kevin Doyle. This is not something that is going to trouble any even moderately competent backline and most certainly will not be good enough against a team of Spain’s quality.

It would be great if Trappattoni took a leaf out of Cesare Prandelli’s book and changed his tactics against the world champions. Prandelli switched to a 3-5-2 formation to counter the Spanish midfield threat and, despite Spain still dominating possession, it was widely accepted that the Italians got their tactics exactly right. The same option is open to Il Trap; he could drop Ward from the back line, move Robbie Keane further back in behind a front two of the impressive Jon Walters and Shane Long. It would also be great to see James McClean given an opportunity on the wing. This would give an Irish starting line-up of Given, Dunne, O’Shea, St Ledger, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, McClean, Keane, Walters, Long. To my mind this would be a team that stood a far greater chance of causing the Spanish problems – it may not get the result that Ireland need – but it would put up a better show than the capitulation against Croatia.

However, given Trapattoni’s conservatism during his Ireland tenure, such a situation is most unlikely. The most likely scenario is that Kevin Doyle will be dropped from the starting XI in favour of Walters. This would be a fair enough call but I do not think it goes far enough. Spain will dominate possession, territory and chances created – if their finishing is good Ireland could be in serious trouble.

Teams & Formations

I don’t really think individual battles will come into this game too much – Ireland don’t really have the players to go man-for-man with Spain and will need a complete team effort to get something from the game. However, there are some players that both teams rely on to play to their best.
Shay Given & Richard Dunne Vs Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva (& Torres?)

Given and Dunne are probably Ireland’s two most important players. They have saved the boys in green on countless occasions in the past (particularly in the qualifier away to Russia that I alluded to earlier). Neither man was at his best in the opening game against Croatia; Given is probably still not fully fit after a recent injury and Dunne was just not able to get to the Croatian forwards in time to make his usual last ditch tackles and blocks. Ireland will need both to be at the peak of their form to thwart the Spanish. Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva will most likely be the front three for Spain with Fabregas probably filling the “false 9” role again. All three are superb technical players and the only critiscm that can really be levelled at them is, given their ability, they don’t score more goals. Fabregas obviously got an important one against Italy and Iniesta is always a serious treat. If these players are given more space than was afforded them against Italy by the Irish defence than I fear the worst could happen and Ireland could ship a heavy defeat.

Keith Andrews/Glen Whelan Vs Xavi Hernandez

Simple one this – the Irish central midfield has to get close to the Barcelona maestro and stay close to him. One or other of the two Irish midfielders has to take the responsibility to track the Spanish playmaker and prevent him from completely dominating the midfield area. A huge ask and one I am not sure either Whelan or Andrews is capable of (this by the way is not a specific critiscm of these players – many of the top midfielders in world football have failed at the same task).



Spain will look out for this trio


Jon Walters Vs Gerard Pique

It is expected that Walters will start in favour of Kevin Doyle and based on the last number of games he definitely deserves it. The Stoke player is quick, strong, aggressive and tends to get on the end of chances. Pique is an excellent footballer and a fine defender (notwithstanding a fairly poor season with Barcelona) but he has been vulnerable to strong and aggressive forwards in the past, notably Didier Drogba and Karima Benzema. Walters does not possess the quality of either of these strikers but may just have enough to cause Pique a few nervous moments.

Spain (4-3-3): I. Casillas; Á. Arbeloa, G. Piqué, S. Ramos, J. Alba; S. Busquets, X. Alonso, Xavi; D. Silva, A. Iniesta, F. Torres

Manager: Vicente del Bosque

Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): S. Given; J. O’Shea, R. Dunne, S. St Ledger, S. Ward; K. Andrews, G. Whelan, D. Duff,  A. McGeady; J. Walters, R. Keane

Manager:  Giovanni Trapattoni


“Against Ireland we will play a number nine – though it depends what you understand by a number nine. David Silva is a forward; Andres Iniesta plays like one, so does Cesc”

Vicente del Bosque,  Ireland Manager.

“I can’t give you the lineup. I have an idea, but we can’t always give our opponent the lineup in advance. I won’t change three or four or five players, I can assure you. Maybe one or two. Maybe.”

Giovanni Trapattoni,  Ireland Manager.