"Football is like a rose window," Giovanni Trapattoni once remarked. "You need lots of hard stones, and only a few will glitter." With this belief having fashioned the 69-year-old's managerial philosophy, it is not by accident that he has come to be known as one of the game's great pragmatists.
Yet Il Trap's image as the king of catenaccio has become something of a caricature over the years, and fans of the Republic of Ireland are finding that the Italian is just as keen on flair and creativity as he is on strength and solidity. The usual disciplined defensive framework is there, of course, with a flat back four supported by two deep-lying central midfielders who rarely venture into the opposition penalty box. Yet in an era dominated by safety-first strategies and the seemingly omnipresent 4-5-1, Trapattoni has surprised many observers by opting for a system that not only incorporates two strikers, but also finds room for a pair of old-fashioned wingers.
Captain and record goalscorer Robbie Keane remains a key figure, and despite his turbulent season at club level, the Tottenham Hotspur forward has been hailed by his coach as Republic of Ireland's answer to Roma talisman Francesco Totti. In truth, Keane's natural propensity to play off a main striker always marked him out as a natural for the No10 role in a fluid front four spearheaded by Kevin Doyle, but the skipper is not expected to shoulder the creative burden alone.
Central to Trapattoni's strategy are Celtic's Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff of Newcastle United, two small and skilful wide men in a very traditional mould. As Trapattoni told FIFA.com, the fact that both are renowned for their dribbling rather than their defensive instincts was never going to prevent them from being singled out for key roles.
Even before I came here, I was very much aware of the quality of
players like McGeady and Duff, and when I accepted this job it was
always my intention that they would be important to the team.
He said: "Even before I came here, I was very much aware of the quality of players like McGeady and Duff, and when I accepted this job it was always my intention that they would be important to the team. These players are vital to my system because they are an outlet in those wide areas when we go on the attack, and they have a big role in making the most of any good positions we create. But there must be order and balance and we need to be ready to be two different kinds of team: one when we have the ball and one when the opposition is in possession."
The words 'balance' and 'order' feature frequently in Trapattoni's oratory, and he clearly feels that fielding this adventurous quartet qualifies his side as an attacking team. "There is a word: 'offensive'," he explained. "It's not five or six forwards. Offensive is balanced. McGeady, Duff, Kevin, Robbie - it's enough, no?"
The evidence so far would suggest that Trapattoni is indeed getting the balance right. Republic of Ireland are, after all, unbeaten in three 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, four points above Bulgaria and just three behind leaders Italy, who have played a game more. So far, so good, according to coach himself.
"I have been happy," he said. "The team has played very well and achieved some very important results in our early matches. Now my hope is that the players come back to the squad with the same spirit, mentality and attitude that has been so important to us so far."
Doubtless aware that tenacity and togetherness have provided the foundation for previous Irish success, Trapattoni has attempted to establish a stable squad in which, controversially, there is currently no room for either Stephen Ireland or Andy Reid. Yet although the press continue to query this talented duo's omission, the Italian's approach has quickly won favour with his players, with McGeady admitting that he has been pleasantly surprised by his willingness to embrace attack.
I've really enjoyed working under him. He wants everybody to work hard on the defensive side of the game but
I wouldn't say that he was defensive-minded.
"I've really enjoyed working under him," the Celtic star said recently. "He wants everybody to work hard on the defensive side of the game but I wouldn't say that he was defensive-minded. He wants you to be progressive and encourages me to drift into little pockets of space. At Celtic I play out wide - and am told to stay out there - but with Ireland, Trapattoni wants me to come inside. It is not a playmaker role, but if I haven't seen much of the ball during the game he encourages me to come inside and try and pick up possession infield. He sees me doing more damage in the middle."
McGeady's creativity will once again be employed in this fluid role when Georgia arrive at Croke Park on Wednesday, for a match critical to both sides' hopes. The visitors, beaten 2-1 in the corresponding fixture back in September, need a win to revive their faint hopes, while Trapattoni believes the psychological importance of victory means the game is also a must-win for the hosts.
"It will be very important for morale to go level on ten points with Italy," he said. "We are aiming to win this game and it is all about qualifying for the World Cup. We must keep in mind that this Georgia team is not the Georgia team we came up against the last time. They have changed many of their team and their manager Hector Cuper now knows his players better. Georgia are strong opponents, but we believe in ourselves as a team and will be going for the win."