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Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Paul Lambert has a simple reply whenever he needs to deflect questions about his tactical nous or the unerring impact of late substitutions to tilt a contest in the Canaries’ favour.
“It’s all about the players.” Five words underpinning the Scot’s managerial philosophy. Lambert and his coaching staff may pull the strings from the wings on any given matchday, but ultimately success or failure hinges on the ability of those men entrusted with carrying out his instructions.
Gravitate towards the middle ground for something approaching the truth. Grant Holt slots a stoppage-time penalty to rescue a Premier League point against Blackburn; but Holt’s starring cameo only came about because Lambert and his coaches backed their judgement that City’s number nine could decisively alter the course of a game which appeared beyond even City’s recuperative powers of recovery.
Likewise, Lambert would scoff at any suggestion there was an epiphany moment triggering the rejection of the midfield diamond in favour of whatever variant you care to label the one-up-top formation that saw Steve Morison unleashed to full effect at Bolton for that memorable opening league win.
Systems are only as good as the players that make them work in Lambert’s world – which contrasted with the thoughts of Ray Houghton when I spoke to him earlier this week on Wes Hoolahan’s continued omission from the Republic of Ireland international set-up.
Anyone who has watched Hoolahan operate at close quarters during City’s accelerated climb will know there are few better at Giovanni Trapattoni’s disposal in that creative midfield mould. Hoolahan links back to front effortlessly, is comfortable in possession, always happy to take the ball in tight situations and re-distribute it to one of his own. The Dubliner’s game bears all the hallmarks of the modern day template exemplified so captivatingly by Spain.
Yet Hoolahan has never had a look-in under the Italian since a fleeting friendly appearance back in 2008. Fair enough, perhaps, as City tumbled backwards into the depths of League One.
You could even justify it at a push in the Championship – albeit two of Ireland’s line-up that featured in the recent thumping first-leg play-off win over Estonia which smoothed their passage to next summer’s European Championships currently ply their trade at that level.
Houghton is a confirmed admirer of City’s creative spark. He also knows the game inside out after winning plenty of medals in a dominant Liverpool side and 73 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
The Skysports pundit is also an influential voice in Irish football circles to the extent he was part of the consultation process that led to Trapattoni’s original appointment.
Houghton’s assertion was the Italian has a rigid way of playing. The pieces of the jigsaw fit his puzzle. Not vice versa. To accommodate Hoolahan means solving the conundrum. Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff provide a degree of devilment in wide areas, but Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews are solid citizens in the centre of the park. Up front, it’s one plus Robbie Keane. And that one appears to be a muscular targetman of the Jon Walters variety.
Taken at face value Hoolahan looks the odd man out. Trapattoni was schooled in the ‘catenaccio’ defensive style of football synonymous with his native homeland. Caution trumps cavalier. Hoolahan’s game is tailor-made for the international stage – when flawless technique is a priceless commodity.
Right now, the Irish success story in qualifying for their first Euros since 1988 is all about the manager. Not the players. Which could be the biggest stumbling block to Hoolahan’s prospects of an international recall.