Ireland euro 2016 campaign – long ball wins the battle but unlikely to win the war

“We avoided 99 of those long balls but the 100th they made,” said German manager Joachim Low after their 1-0 defeat to Ireland.
The comment sounded bitter in the aftermath of defeat. Irish fans and pundits have rightly highlighted some of the good football on the ground that Ireland played that night. 
Wes Hoolahan, the most technically gifted player on the Irish team, received the Man of the Match award on a night where Ireland performed against the toughest of opponents.
However, if we take off our Irish-supporting hats for a moment and we consider Ireland’s football over the course of this campaign, then maybe Low has a point. 
It is also hard to escape the fact that the goal was classic route one from a long boot up field by goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
Ireland have never been adverse to a more direct game. From when Kevin Sheedy put the ball in the England net in 1990 to Robbie Keane’s spectacular equaliser against Germany in 2002, “pumping it in the mixer” has been a mainstay of the Irish attacking plan. 
The unorthodox philosophy of Jack Charlton, continued in some form by most Irish managers since, unsettled more illustrious opponents.
Ireland went long again against Poland, landing ball after ball in the opposition penalty area. On a disappointing night in Warsaw, it did not look like the glory days of Packie Bonner putting the ball on Niall Quinn’s head, but looked rather like a limited Hail Mary tactic that may have given us many of our best moments, but has also exposed fundamental weaknesses in the Irish game.
Martin O’Neill and his boys should be immensely proud of their four points against the world champions in this campaign. But it is concerning how abject that Ireland have looked in games against teams of similar ability with no win from four games against Scotland and Poland. 
The long ball is a low-percentage style of play that has largely been phased out at the top level of the game. 
Barcelona and Spain’s incredible success with possession-based methods had a profound effect on coaching all across Europe and beyond. 
Even more direct styles like the quick, counter attacking of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund would view launching the ball into the box an entirely counter-productive exercise.
Perhaps these are not realistic examples. Ireland will never possess the quality of these teams. However, they have a much larger pool to choose from than the likes of Wales and Iceland. 
Both teams have qualified for Euro 2016 already with much more refined methods focused on player technique.
The Irish long ball is not so much a systematic decision to play that way, but rather a symptom of a number of small deficiencies starting with the last line of defence.
Legendary Dutch player and manager Johan Cruyff, whose style is the basis of Barcelona’s team now, viewed his goalkeeper as the first attacker when he set up his team. 
In Cruyff’s view, the distribution of the keeper is vital to the overall function and cohesiveness of the team. Irish goalkeepers, Shay Given in particular, have one idea when they receive the ball – to hoof it as far away from danger as possible.
It is a similar situation at the centre of defence where taking the ball out with confidence from the back is a standard among top quality teams.

Unfortunately John O’Shea and Richard Keogh were found wanting with their ball control and composure when put under the pressure that a demotivated German team failed to put on them.

The Irish midfield has been the subject of criticism for many years for lacking a player that can dictate a game in the way that Pirlo, Scholes or Xavi would do. 
The Irish midfielders, used to having the ball played over their heads from defence, do little to combat it and are equally culpable as the defence for the breakdown in ball possession for leaving the defenders with no viable passing options other than to pump it long.
This poorly organised build up play creates a style which has looked stale. Football is a team game and magic is less likely to happen upfront without the basis at the back.
The mistrust of Wes Hoolahan from successive Irish managers perhaps sums up the situation. The 33 year old has only 20 caps for Ireland. To put it into perspective, it is the same as the tenacious but technically limited Paul Green.
While he is not quite the world-class player that Eamon Dunphy claims him to be, the Irish team plays a different way with Hoolahan in midfield.

Hoolahan did not create a goal against Germany, but he stood out in this Irish team because of how courageous he was with the ball at his feet. 

He did not panic when pressurised by a German player and his ball retention in tight areas was key to Ireland’s eventual victory. He was an example of how Ireland could play. 
Shane Long’s unforgettable strike against World Champions Germany gave Ireland their first competitive victory over a top-ranked team since 2001. 
It was a welcome boost for Irish football, which has been in the shadow of their rugby counterparts recently.
Ireland now have the playoffs to build on that morale-boosting win. Unlikely to be seeded, they face a tough task. 
Like a speculative free-kick into the box from the halfway line, Ireland’s progress to Euro 2016 is based on hope rather than expectation.