Early Ireland exit raises doubts over Trapattoni's future
After summoning the spirit of Greece 2004, veteran coach is facing questions over his tactics as Ireland's campaign ends in disappointment
Sunday 17 June 2012
Three days later, and the Irish team are still very evidently struggling to come to terms with it all. Because, in the end, Euro 2012 wasn't a reprisal of Greece 2004 or even Ireland '88. It was Greece 2008 — out by the second game.
And, at the squad's last training session in their Gdynia base before departing for the final game against Italy in Poznan and then home, there was a definite sense of post-mortem. To a man, the players were visibly in mourning.
So, how did the dream die? What went wrong? Did anything, in fact, go wrong? Was this just a mid-tier nation regressing to the mean? Or can the squad have regrets?
Richard Dunne, who appeared particularly despondent, attempted to explain but didn't yet seem sufficiently detached to do so.
"It's heartbreaking. It's your dream to go and play in a championships but it's just not happened for us," he said.
"We've done everything we possibly could. You have to hold your hands up. We're playing against teams who are better than us and it's hard to accept that our best, at the moment, isn't good enough.
"We came here with the aim and the dream of winning the European Championships. It's gone completely wrong for us."
It was, of course, manager Giovanni Trapattoni who first fostered the idea of actually lifting the trophy by mentioning "Greece" at pointed intervals – not least on the night Ireland qualified.
Over the past week, a couple of long-held fears about the manager's approach finally came true to illustrate why that notion was always fanciful.
For one, there was the fact Trapattoni refused to evolve in any way. Despite perceptions, Greece actually did repeatedly and radically innovate in every 2004 game, adjusting their style to suit the opposition. By contrast, Trapattoni had a system, stuck to it and then came unstuck in it.
As Slaven Bilic said on the eve of the 3-1 defeat to Croatia: "Ireland play simple football so, objectively, they are not such a difficult side to analyse."
In other words, they provide any observant manager with a blueprint of how to beat them.
Of course, rigidity is OK if you've also got solidity. But Ireland didn't. Indeed, it was remarkable that a team with the second best pre-tournament defensive record of all Euro 2012 teams couldn't actually seem to defend. As good as Croatia and Spain were, there were individual Irish errors in at least six of the seven goals conceded.
Yesterday, Trapattoni re-iterated his belief that this sloppiness was not evident before, but that the height of the stage caused a "change" in his players.
"Our behaviour on the pitch gives me the impression we start with fear, with too much respect for the opposition. My feeling is it hasn't been normal."
When you look back, though, almost all Ireland's games against superior opposition in the last four years have been played anxiously on the edge. Despite the perceptions given by their defensive record, it was often secured with a fair degree of fortune. That was most evident in qualifying against Russia in Moscow, where a clean sheet was only claimed thanks to a miracle. But, against the same opposition earlier in the campaign, luck ran out as Ireland conceded three at home. As such, there was a certain inevitability to the reality checks of the last few days.
The onslaughts Ireland endured also raise further questions about the wisdom of Trapattoni's formation. In a modern international context where almost every elite team play with three in the centre, how can he continue to let his two midfielders get so overrun?
Unsurprisingly, this was most evident against Spain. But it was also astonishing when Andres Iniesta was allowed to pick a through-ball for Xavi right in front of the Irish box just two minutes into the game. Since Spain won Euro 2008, most opposition teams have realised the obvious need to congest that area or else completely surrender to the Spanish. Ireland didn't and, as such, gifted the world champions their biggest tournament win since the start of Euro 2008. For a country that supposedly prides itself on ferocity, that is lamentable.
Of course, these are all really just details in a wider debate that has raged in Ireland since Trapattoni started to show people how reserved his football would be. For some it's simply too small a country to question such a famous manager. For others, Trapattoni is not modern enough to make sense of a new world where countries as tiny as Slovenia can regularly qualify.
The truth is probably somewhere between. There can be no denying Trapattoni has been a – literally – qualified success. But there can be no denying the doubts either. And the very pertinent question now is whether Trapattoni's time should come to an end. Although he has already signed a contract to take him through the World Cup 2014 qualifiers and was defiant about sticking it out on Friday, there is a growing minority that feel it might be time for a fresh approach. A poll on one Irish website, The Score, said 42% felt he should stay, 28% that he should go. Meanwhile, 25% "weren't sure".
That could be applied to the reasons for such a disappointing campaign. At the least, the players want to end it on a high.
"We have to go out and try and put some pride back into ourselves and the whole country and get three points," Dunne said of Ireland's final game. "The fact we've lost two in a row is hurting us more than people will imagine."
Not when you see their faces.
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