Pros and Cons: Is there a case for Wes Hoolahan in a deeper-lying role against "weaker" opposition?

Attacking players in deeper roles can be a risk but it can also work

BY Raf Diallo 15:59 Friday 14 October 2016, 15:59 14 Oct 2016

Ireland's Wes Hoolahan with Vadim Bolohan of Moldova ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Nine points available, seven points won.

That is the headline figure from Ireland's first three 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Serbia, Georgia and Moldova.

But scratch below the surface and the performances were not particularly convincing at all.

Keeping possession, as has been the case for many years, has not been a traditional strong point of ours under a succession of managers.

While playing away in Serbia was always going to be difficult - making the 2-2 draw a good result on paper - one would have preferred to achieve a greater sense of control in the subsequent matches against Georgia and Moldova, the two sides deemed to be weakest in the group.

That wouldn't for the sake of keeping possession as a goal in itself because that isn't the aim of any game.

To put it in the most basic of terms, if you have the ball, the opposition can't score. 

Georgia didn't score in the Aviva Stadium last Thursday but they did give the Boys in Green many a scare and enjoyed 56% of possession on our own patch.

Against Moldova, who are the least favoured team in Ireland's group, it was a little bit more comfortable in Chisinau.

Hoolahan played in that game at the tip of the diamond, linking play as he does so often and also putting the through ball in that led to Shane Long's opener.

He did not start against Georgia three days earlier when Ireland were out of sorts in possession and won thanks to a slightly fortuitous Seamus Coleman goal.

The Norwich midfielder's absence - both in this regime and in the Giovanni Trapattoni era - is a case of a lack of trust according to John Giles who made that point on Newstalk this week.

But he also made another pertinent point by stating that: "I think a lot of people are suspicious of creative players."

If there are already suspicions about putting the ex-Shelbourne playmaker in a No 10 role against the likes of Georgia, the idea of playing him even deeper against the side from the Caucuses or against Moldova would be anathema.

Granted, having Hoolahan as a deep-lying playmaker with the play in front of him against Wales, Austria and Serbia would likely be a risk too far when the opposition have the ball.

But against teams like Georgia and Moldova when you would like a greater level of control, his ability to link play would on paper add greater fluidity if you have the likes of James McCarthy or Glenn Whelan as the nominal holder.

It can be done, albeit with teams at the highest level. Juventus had Andrea Pirlo fulfilling that role as a playmaker sitting deep and dictating play despite having started his career as a No 10 and never really developing a truly defensive side.

With Santi Cazorla, Arsenal have found a similar ability to have a controller there when he is placed alongside the more forceful Granit Xhaka or Francis Coquelin.

Now, let's be clear. I'm not saying for a second that Hoolahan is on the level of Cazorla or Pirlo. Not at all. But it's the overall stylistic argument that you can put a creative force in a deeper role to start threading play further back the field.

And again, just to emphasise, that would not be a risk to be used against stronger sides but against teams that Ireland should be able to control on paper like Georgia and Moldova.

I put that argument to Off The Ball's Kevin Kilbane and his concern is the defensive side.

"I don't see that for him because I don't see him as a player that's able to see danger. If you look at it the other day [against Moldova], he was the player that was initiating every press. I felt without the ball the other day he was excellent. But everything was on the front foot. I think when you play him as a deep-lying midfielder, you've got to see danger over your shoulder. You've got to have awareness behind you a  little bit and you've got to be a little bit more disciplined and hold the position," he said, adding that Hoolahan's at his best when he was freedom to move and thread and that his importance lies in his ability to both play the killer ball and the key pass (assist to the assist).  

Speaking previously to ex-Ireland full-back Paddy Mulligan, he feels a deeper position suits him rather than the No 10 role in order to dictate play.

"I'd prefer to see Wes go back and receive the ball, turn and get on it and start playing it forward, rather than trying to play off the front man. I think he can do that job in the Irish setup because we don't have too many players who are comfortable on the ball," he said.

Ultimately it will come down to whether the management trust Hoolahan in a deeper role the next time we visit Georgia and host Moldova and whether the defensive, control and attacking is better balanced with Hoolahan further forward, further back or out of the team.

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