Thursday, October 7, 2010

Delap: Perfect for Trap?

Picture the scene. It’s St James’s Park, there are 83 minutes on the clock and Newcastle are drawing 1-1 with Stoke City. Suddenly, the home side are on the back foot, camped deep inside their own half, all because they’ve conceded a throw-in a full 50 yards from goal.

Rory Delap steps up and fires a trademark a missile that is cleared for another throw and a nervous-looking Newcastle side retreat even further. Delap launches the ball once again and gains some more vital yards for his team when the ball is cleared behind for a corner.

Matthew Etherington swings the ball menacingly into the penalty area and Newcastle collapse under the sheer weight of territorial pressure, with Jamie Perch nodding into his own net to win the match for Stoke. 

When Arsene Wenger described Stoke City as a rugby team he didn’t have this in mind, but the way they had forced their opponents to retreat further and further back with three simple set plays, eventually grinding them into submission, was reminiscent of a finely executed drive in rugby.

In the analogy, Rory Delap played some bizarre hybrid between a fly half projecting his side forward with purpose and a hooker dictating play from the touchline.

Stoke had won a match they never looked like winning before Delap’s introduction in the 57th minute and the former Irish international contributed in a way that few, if any, other players in the world could have done.

That Giovanni Trapattoni has such a weapon at his disposal yet continues to ignore it makes little sense.

Delap just looks perfect for Trapattoni’s Ireland - a side whose attacking prowess has been based almost exclusively around set-plays and aerial ability.

The statistics tell a story. In the 10 group matches Ireland played in attempting to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, they scored 12 goals. Of the 12, an incredible seven were headers. Furthermore, eight came from crosses and seven from various set-pieces.

Against the better teams, this reliance on set-plays was even more pronounced and they accounted for all five goals Ireland managed against their group’s top seeds, Italy and Bulgaria. Glenn Whelan’s cracker against Italy in Croke Park was the pick of the bunch and came in a match that also featured Sean St Ledger heading home a Stephen Hunt free-kick.

In the first match against the Italians, Robbie Keane’s late equaliser arrived after Caleb Folan flicked on a punted free from Shay Given and both of Ireland’s goals in the two 1-1 draws with Bulgaria were Richard Dunne headers from Hunt frees. 

Quite simply, by including Rory Delap in his side, either from the start or as a late substitute, Trapattoni could dramatically increase his side’s ability to impose their single greatest strength on opponents.

And I emphasise dramatically. In seven league appearances for Stoke this season, the former Southampton midfielder has catapulted a ridiculous 64 throws into the opposition’s penalty area.

What makes his continued omission all the more puzzling is that Delap seems to be exactly the type of midfielder that Trapattoni has favoured since he took charge of Ireland.

Delap is a hard-working, selfless player who reads the game well and provides excellent cover for his defence despite his ageing legs. His ability on the ball is limited compared to Glenn Whelan (Delap’s understudy at Stoke in recent matches) but not compared to Trapattoni favourites Keith Andrews and Paul Green.

Delap: Not likely to do this for Ireland

Of course, it has been argued that Delap is nothing more than a pair of arms. After all, in seven matches for Stoke this season he has attempted 72 passes during open play and taken 76 throws. But given that he has started six of his side’s seven league matches this season (playing all but 14 minutes of those matches) it’s an argument that doesn’t stand up.

A Premiership side fielding a player who is a passenger in open play just isn’t feasible. Especially so, given that since the acquisition of Jermaine Pennant, Delap has been employed as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation that features two orthodox wingers. If Delap wasn’t making a vital contribution in central midfield, Stoke would simply be overrun.

None of this is to argue that Delap should be a certain starter on merit, merely that he would, at the very least, be a better option to call on from the bench than the likes of Andy Keogh, Greg Cunningham and Shane Long (all subs in the last group match) should Ireland need a goal. 

Delap's versatility also makes him a logical choice for a place on the bench. He's played in pretty much every outfield position at some stage in his professional career so could cover for any number of injury-related eventualities.

Another argument for Delap’s inclusion is Slovakia’s apparent vulnerability when defending crosses. This was especially apparent against New Zealand at the World Cup when they conceded an equaliser to a Winston Reid header shortly after Shane Smeltz had missed a similar chance for the Kiwis.

Against Italy, Slovakia’s frailty in this regard was again obvious and directly led to the shot from Fabio Quagliarella that was cleared off the line as well as his dubiously disallowed goal. Finally, Simone Pepe’s superb injury-time chance to put the Italians through at Slovakia’s expense came from a Giorgio Chiellini long throw. 

Ireland’s relative success under Trapattoni, and indeed in bygone eras, has consistently shown Slovakia are far from the only international side susceptible to high balls. Having Rory Delap as an option would add a whole new dimension to Ireland’s attacking threat. There isn’t a defence in world football that would relish facing the kind of aerial bombardment that he brings to an attacking side.

Despite his best efforts at club level, playing regularly in one of the world’s top leagues, Delap is unlikely to fulfil his ambition of adding to his 11 Irish caps. While the media has never been shy to question Trapattoni’s selections, the Stoke midfielder has been completely forgotten.

Of all the players that have been ignored by Trapattoni, the exclusion of Rory Delap is perhaps the hardest to justify.

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