Three quick thoughts from Friday’s madcap, eight-goal, Markets Field thriller.
1. Defence and defensive transitions apparently optional for Kenny…
After Tuesday night’s Tallaght destruction, throughout which Bray Wanderers’ auxiliary full-backs were continually overloaded by Shamrock Rovers, one would have thought that manager Harry Kenny had learned his lesson.
Sure, Kenny changed the identities of his wide defenders here, with Keith Buckley and Kevin Lynch returned in place of benched pair John Sullivan and Karl Moore. But, the attack-oriented Seagulls boss did not alter the manner in which they were employed.
Tempted even higher than usual by the absence of any Limerick wingers to follow them, the attacking abandon of Bray’s full-backs left their centre-back colleagues fatally exposed.
In a rerun of March’s 1-0 Carlisle Grounds defeat to the Shannonsiders, Tim Clancy comprehensively lost the aerial tussle against Rodrigo Tosi; leading to the Brazilian’s 32nd-minute goal, and a further big headed chance just before half-time.
But it was Clancy’s partner, captain and left-sided centre-back Conor Kenna, who really had his hands full. With Lynch continually caught upfield, the 32-year-old found himself locked in a perpetual futile footrace with an on-fire Chiedozie Ogbene.
Ogbene skipped Kenna’s poor attempt at a covering challenge to convert Mark Salmon’s errant pass into the opener. And, with Lynch absent, and midfielder Darragh Noone vainly attempting to cover, Ogbene dribbled Noone, and Kenna, to double his side’s advantage.
Irritatingly for Seagulls fans, their side were not even caught on the break for that second concession, which would, at least, justify Lynch’s AWOL status.
All it took for Limerick to prevail upon Kenny’s appalling defensive structure was a delightful Bastien Hery pirouette — to evade Noone — and the Frenchman’s resultant pinpoint pass down the inside-right channel.
Tosi’s aforementioned goal, Limerick’s third on the night, also illustrated how slow Bray’s wide midfielders are to assume defensive positions.
Dean Clarke, replacing the injured Shaun Kelly in an unfamiliar wing-back role, prevailed upon Dylan Connolly’s absence to deliver the cross that sent Limerick ahead again — just seconds after arriving on the pitch.
31 goals conceded already, just one less than the divisional-low set by Finn Harps, underlines just how far Bray’s own-half efforts have fallen since the late-2016 resurgence that produced a final goals-against tally of 40.
2. …as is the defence of set-pieces
Enduring a nightmare outing in open play, Bray’s defensive cohort was also hapless in the defence of the relatively few set-pieces that Limerick inflicted upon them.
Peter Cherrie’s low diving save, to his right, prevented Tosi from converting the first of only three Limerick corner-kicks — delivered by Lee J. Lynch in the 16th minute — and the Scot was also forced to hold another on-target effort from Lynch’s instantaneous second.
The third, of course, produced Limerick’s eventual winner, when both Kenna and Ryan Brennan failed in successive attempts to clear, and Hery’s low 20-yard exocet duly made it 4-3 on the scoreboard.
That Kenny decided to leave two players up, in the defence of that corner, underlines exactly how his mindset is calibrated — attack, attack, attack.
Meanwhile, it was winger-by-trade Moore, a 64th-minute attack-minded straight swap for Lynch, who gave the ball away in the run-up. And, it was the same player who allowed Clarke to skip past him in the lead-up to Limerick’s imminent fifth goal too.
Limerick centre-back David O’Connor also hit the top of the crossbar, from a late first-half Lynch free-kick, further driving home how frequently Neil McDonald’s side were allowed to win aerial duels in the Bray penalty area.
Of course, Limerick have also covered themselves in whatever the opposite of glory is (shame?) when asked to defend set-pieces this season. Having fallen behind early on in Ballybofey, the prior Friday, thanks to a poorly-marked corner-kick, Limerick repeated the feat here.
A poorly-struck Lynch corner was met by absolutely no-one at the near-post, eventually resulting in an unmarked Aaron Greene nodding home Connolly’s second-phase cross.
3. McDonald’s back-three is an immediate disaster
While elements of McDonald’s new-look 3-5-2 worked outstandingly well — most notably the long-cried-out-for coupling of Tosi with a pacey partner — the Englishman’s three-man defence most certainly did not.
Faced with a formidable Bray attack, most renowned for its pacey and inventive wide threat, this decision was a recipe for disaster on paper. And, so it proved, in reality too, as the Seagulls gleefully exploited the space in behind Limerick’s wing-backs to quickly reel in a two-goal first-half deficit.
Neither Tony Whitehead, nor O’Connor, looked comfortable being dragged into wider areas to battle one-on-one with the likes of Connolly and Ryan Brennan. But, for Bray’s first goal, it was striker Greene who drifted left, into the gaping chasm available to him, to stand up the cross that Robbie Williams disastrously headed into Brennan’s path.
The aforementioned corner that led to Bray’s second was also handed to the visitors by Limerick’s uncertain back-three, as Connolly took advantage of a one-on-one with Whitehead to dance infield and set up Greene for a shot on target.
Greene then miscued a huge, late, first-half chance to level the scores at three-apiece, after a counter-attacking Connolly dribble saw the former Ipswich Town wideman dance easily past O’Connor on the right-flank.
And, that dysfunctional back three almost cost Limerick all three points in the 81st minute, when Williams’ pace-related fear saw the Englishman sit too deep relative to his team-mates. Connolly was duly played onside from Brennan’s resultant through-ball, but fluffed his lines in front of goal.
Further ahead, Shane Duggan’s absence meant that McDonald also took a risk with the configuration of his central midfield, fielding Paul O’Conor in a holding role behind two natural number 10s, Hery and Lynch.
O’Conor did spectacularly well to effectively man-mark 13-goal Gary McCabe out of the game for large parts of it, but it was noteworthy that the one occasion he was bypassed saw Limerick concede the McCabe penalty that led to parity at 3-3.
Noone dispossessed the former UCD midfielder, allowing McCabe to easily bisect Lynch and tempt Hery into an awful hanged-leg challenge on Greene from his resultant pass.
Limerick still need a natural number six to plug those central-midfield gaps, and the upcoming window represents the perfect opportunity for McDonald to source one — and drop the ill-fated back-three experiment for which he was extremely fortunate to escape punishment here.
You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112; and don’t forget to join him, and former Limerick FC manager (and Cork City assistant manager) Noel O’Connor, on Friday, June 16, for live coverage of the Shannonsiders’ visit to John Caulfield’s runaway leaders — bookmark Limerick Soccer Live now so you don’t miss out! And, if you do miss out, you can listen back to old shows here.