The Republic of Ireland’s dreams of playing at the 2018 World Cup faded when they failed to make it through qualifying having advanced to the second round. With the chance to earn a place in Russia, the national team were unable to capitalise on a brilliant start which saw them take a 1-0 lead at home against Denmark, having achieved a commendable scoreless draw in the away leg. But a hat-trick from Christian Eriksen contributed to a 5-1 win for the Danes and guaranteed their place at the World Cup finals.
Manager Martin O’Neill’s defensive, hard-working approach has seen the Republic of Ireland become a tough team to play against. They performed well in World Cup qualifying, finishing ahead of Wales to move into the play-off stage, and only lost a single game along the way. But O’Neill’s style – his disciplined pragmatism – has irked some fans, who clamour for more goals and a little more freedom up front.
The team’s failure to make it to the World Cup in Russia has cemented fan distaste for O’Neill’s tactical playbook. Indeed, the team’s solid defensive displays and rather limp attack would make the chance to win a bet predicting a scoreline in their next outing all the more likely. And fans would likely take that opportunity in 2022 if it meant those same tactics put the Republic of Ireland on international football’s most prestigious stage.
Yet, if O’Neill stays in charge, you’d expect him to change very little given how close the team came to qualification. He has, after all, reinforced the team’s real strength: a club side’s sense of spirit and cohesion that international teams generally do not possess.
A 1-1 draw with Georgia last year and an inability to win on home soil against the bigger teams meant topping the group was not possible. But the Republic of Ireland still proved to be tough, well-drilled opposition, conceding just six goals. During qualification, they did succeed in winning some notable fixtures, including beating Wales in Cardiff and Austria away, as well as earning a 2-2 draw in Serbia. Crucially, the manager will hope he can set up the team in future to be more clinical at home where it simply hasn’t scored enough goals.
Still, scoring so few goals against teams such as Austria, Georgia and Moldova will be a cause for concern for O’Neill, who knows he’ll have to find a better balance between attack and defence. Fans might be clamouring for change but it all relies on what is available. With Daryl Murphy and Shane Long leading the attack, the personnel simply isn’t there. Currently, the Republic of Ireland are better equipped to withstand the opposition through positional awareness, disciplined structure and hard work than to go on the front foot.
As the national team looks to the future, it must decide whether to stick with O’Neill who gets the best out of what’s available or seek fresh ideas and a manager willing to take risks in terms of players and playing style. It may mean taking a step back before the team moves forward. Making sweeping changes might be more difficult given that Euro 2020 qualifying games take place later this year. It’ll be a tournament O’Neill will be targeting for success, especially given Wales’ exploits in 2016, a team the Republic of Ireland went undefeated against during World Cup qualification.