Serbia took a huge step towards qualifying for next year’s World Cup by beating the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on Tuesday following Aleksandar Kolarov’s second half strike. The win means Serbia went four points clear of Wales and five ahead of Ireland with only two games remaining. Here I take a look at the game, how in unfolded and focus on Serbia.
Serbia came into the game in a 5-2-2-1/5-4-1 defensive shape which became 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 in attack. Coach Slavoljub Muslin made some changes from the win over Moldova on Saturday by including veteran goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, right wing-back Antonio Rukavina, centre-back Jagos Vukovic and midfielder Luka Milivojevic in his starting eleven. This was directly decided because of the direct game of Ireland with crosses in abundance predicted. He was right.
Ahead of Stojkovic was three centre-backs with Branislav Ivanovic to the right, Nikola Maksimovic in the centre and Vukovic to the left. Rukavina was the right wing-back and Aleksandar Kolarov the left. Nemanja Matic was joined by Milivojevic in central midfield with Dusan Tadic and Filip Kostic playing as attacking midfielders ahead of them. Aleksandar Mitrovic was the central striker. Ireland set up in a fluid 4-3-1-2 where Robbie Brady and James McClean flanked David Meyler in midfield. Wes Hoolahan was the attacking midfielder behind Jonathan Walters and Shane Long.
Above is Serbia’s defensive shape with the back five highlighted in yellow, the central midfield double pivot in red, the attacking midfielders in blue and Mitrovic in black. Below is an image of Serbia’s structure in attack with the back three highlighted as well as the midfield box the formation automatically creates.
Ireland started the first half reasonably well and were very intensive in their pressing. They closed down quickly and forced Serbia to go long quite often. When they had the ball themselves they immediately searched for a long ball towards Walters or Long and then tried to bring Hoolahan or Brady into the game in higher areas. Serbia were well set up to match this type of attacking from Ireland though. Ivanovic, Maksimovic and Vukovic are all excellent in the air and were well up for the fight. Additionally, the combative double pivot of Matic and Milivojevic battled hard for any second balls that dropped anywhere close to them. Serbia weren’t going to be intimidated by some physicality.
Below is a clip of Serbia defending near their own box. Maksimovic clears the cross and then Matic helps Milivojevic in blocking the shot from distance. Basic stuff but they shift in unison and maintain a compact shape to deal with both the crosses and the second balls.
Ireland got the first chance when Long got in behind Ivanovic and shot from distance but Stojkovic saved well. As the half wore on, Serbia’s influence grew and Matic in particular started to dominate their attacking play from the base of midfield. His strength and technical ability was a combination Ireland struggled to deal with, and the movement of Tadic and Kostic behind Meyler created some interesting positions for Serbia. Kostic in particular exploited the space behind Ireland’s right back Cyrus Christie as he was forced to press Kolarov down the left in the absence of a winger ahead of him. The space he vacated was quickly identified by Kostic who made some good runs into that space. One of them created Serbia’s best chance in the first half when Tadic, Kostic and Mitrovic combined for this chance.
Given the direct nature of Ireland’s play, and the risk-minimizing from Serbia given the importance of the clash, there was hardly any consistent possession play from either side. On a few occasions though, we could see the structure and the passing Serbia used to create space for their attacking midfielders in particular. The structure always maintained maximum width with Rukavina and Kolarov stationed down either flank. Given Ireland’s narrow formation, side-switches from Serbia were very effective in stretching Ireland’s defensive shape. This in turn created space centrally for Tadic and Kostic to exploit. Below is a video showing some of Serbia’s better moments in possession, although neither led to a chance it helped minimize the constant crosses and long balls Ireland wanted. As is highlighted in the video, Serbia used their numerical advantage (3 defenders vs 2 striekrs) in the build-up phase well to progress the attack and the width stretched the home side.
The key component to Serbia’s play though were their counter-attacking. Mitrovic was superb in his link up play and was regularly releasing Tadic or Kostic with quick one-touch lay-offs to exploit space either behind or outside Ireland’s defence. Many of their goals in qualifying have been the direct result of successful counter-attacks and this approach once again proved tough to handle for their opponents.
The second half was only eight minutes old when Serbia took the lead. A well-worked move involving Tadic and Kostic set up the sledgehammer of Kolarov’s left foot to hammer home the lead. Below we see how Serbia exploit the space outside Ireland’s defence as Christie moves inside to cover Kostic but Walters fails to react in his covering of Kolarov.
Just ten minutes later though, Maksimovic was sent off following a clumsy challenge. Muslin reacted quickly by introducing fellow defender Stefan Mitrovic who replaced Kostic and slotted into the central centre-back position Maksimovic had previously occupied as Muslin changed the shape into 5-3-1 as Serbia looked to defend the lead. Nemanja Gudelj was soon introduced in place of Tadic as the side became even more solid defensively with Gudelj and Milivojevic either side of Matic in midfield. The shape with ten men can be seen below.
Ireland still couldn’t find a way through the Serbian defence even with the numerical advantage on the pitch, with the best chance falling to Daryl Murphy who shot straight at Stojkovic. The substitute defender Mitrovic was then injured and spent the last ten minutes barely walking around up front as Serbia basically played with nine men and Muslin made a last formation change. Serbia finished the game in a 4-1-3 formation behind the immobile Mitrovic up front. Matic was the defensive midfielder, highlighted in red below, and occasionally dropped into the defensive line when needed as Serbia closed down the game. Ireland couldn’t find chances and never came close to scoring. Big win for Serbia and qualification is close.
Serbia have every chance of qualifying now after this win. They probably need a win either in Austria or at home against Georgia in the last game to clinch first spot and automatic qualification. Given their ability to play possession football, counter-attacking at pace and defend low as a team, they are well-equipped to complete the job in the last two matches. If they make it to Russia they can give anyone a scare. They have some excellent footballers and they battle hard for each other and for their country. Given footballers such as the wonderful Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (not in squad) and the creative genius Adem Ljajic (on the bench) didn’t play against Ireland they have strength in depth too. It’s an exciting time to be Serbian, to say the least.