Three quick thoughts on Limerick FC’s first scoreless draw of 2017.
1. Kenny cameo proves the value of a genuine wide outlet
Although murmurings about Neil McDonald’s direct approach have surfaced in recent weeks, few Limerick supporters really mourn Martin Russell’s possession-oriented style-of-play.
Russell’s departure from the Limerick helm brought a welcome end to defenders playing their way into trouble. But it also heralded a damaging loss of attacking width, that started during Willie John Boland’s interim reign, and has persisted since.
Russell, like the venerable Sir Alex Ferguson, almost always fielded an out-and-out winger on the right-touchline to stretch the opposition. As such, Limerick had a ready-made out-ball available when possession retention was no longer possible.
Throughout the Shannonsiders’ almost-unbeaten 2016 season, Stephen Kenny was the man tasked with this role, and the Cork native was arguably Limerick’s most important attacking player on the road to First Division glory.
Yet, upon Russell’s departure, both he and recent-returnee Ian Turner were left firmly out in the cold. Boland preferred to field the workmanlike Chris Mulhall on the right-flank, to little effect.
Notwithstanding a botched attempt at bedding in a 3-5-2, McDonald’s reign has continued this width-eschewing trend, with a narrow 4-4-2 recently favoured.
This system reached its nadir in Galway a fortnight ago, when centre-backs-by-trade Joe Crowe and David O’Connor were asked to provide the width against a comfortable Tribesmen defensive cohort.
Although Kenny has been somewhat rehabilitated with a string of substitute appearances, McDonald’s clear preference is for both wide players to tuck in, feed off knock-downs, and prevent his central midfield duo from being overrun.
The Englishman will struggle to omit Kenny after the latest of those cameos, however. The former Cobh Ramblers winger’s 54th-minute introduction completely transformed his side’s impotent attacking play — which up to that point had almost solely consisted of fruitless long diagonals kicked vaguely in Chiedozie Ogbene’s direction.
Kenny’s vertical dribbling, and pinpoint crossing, caused havoc in a previously pipe-and-slippers-sporting Sligo rearguard. The 24-year-old created three glorious second-half chances, with the excellent Micheál Schlingermann flying to the rescue on two occasions. The crossbar was also called upon to repel a 68th-minute Kenny free-kick.
It is arguable that Kenny’s influence would have won the game for Limerick, had he appeared early enough to link up with his most obvious target. Limerick’s opening day thrashing of the Bit O’Red owed all to striker Rodrigo Tosi — and the Brazilian’s imperious ability to feed off Turner’s wide service.
Tosi has been starved of such service since Russell’s departure, and this is not the first time during McDonald’s tenure that his departure from the fray has coincided with a winger’s belated arrival.
2. Structurally-sound Sligo still desperately need a goalscorer
Sligo manager Ger Lyttle may have only registered one win in ten games since the Bit O’Red’s May 6 revenge-hiding of Limerick. But, one thing is for sure: the impressive defensive structure the Northern Irishman cobbled together in only his second game in charge is still very much in evidence.
Set up to counter-attack here, Rovers never looked likely to concede throughout this contest’s opening hour. With Ogbene the focal-point of Limerick’s diagonals, the under-fire Tobi Adebayo-Rowling would have been expected to crack by most Sligo fans.
But, as it happened, the full-back positioned himself well to nod away the threat, avoiding the kind of defensive header that offered the ball on a plate to Drogheda United’s Sean Russell last week.
Neither the ever-present Mick Leahy, nor fellow Limerick alum Seamus Sharkey, ever looked threatened against an ineffectual Limerick front-line; comprising Tosi and super-sub Garbhan Coughlan.
Coughlan, who deserved a start after his recent goalscoring exploits, capped a disappointing performance by continually failing to get goal-side of Sligo’s holding midfielder Gary Boylan — who was free to kick the ball directly out of play on countless occasions!
Boylan did screen his defence extremely well, however, allowing the likes of John Russell and Rhys McCabe to fish in behind Limerick’s criminally-loose central midfield.
Sligo’s midfielders got in between the lines several times, teeing up left-sided midfielder Daniel Kearns to win a one-on-one mismatch with fish-out-of-water Dean Clarke.
Kearns’ first-half dominance created two gilt-edged back-post chances for Raffaele Cretaro; one of which was so shanked, that surprised striker Benny Igiehon could not adjust to direct it in.
Igiehon, who recently top-scored for phoenix-club Scarborough Athletic, in the eight-tier of the English league pyramid, looks a great signing for Lyttle. Brilliant with back-to-goal, and uncontested in the air, the Swiss striker looked a cut above any other player on the Markets Field turf on Saturday evening.
But, without a poaching partner, or a pacey number-10 to run beyond him, ‘Iggy’ may not fancy his chances of matching his Scarborough tally. This is the one area that Sligo’s super-effective scouting-network now needs to turn its attention to, if the Bit O’Red are to become upwardly mobile.
In the wake of Kieran Sadlier’s departure, centre-back Leahy is now the club’s joint top goalscorer with four; that says it all.
3. Limerick fish-out-of-water flounder again, but McDonald needs time
If poor Dean Clarke had his hands full with Kearns during the first-half, Lyttle’s brave second-half tactical switch did not exactly help the winger-by-trade’s cause.
Reacting to Limerick’s Kenny-driven momentum-boost, the Sligo manager switched from 4-1-4-1 to 4-4-2, in the hope of further increasing his side’s already robust-looking counter-attacking prospects.
Cretaro, who started on the right, duly joined Igiehon up top, and started drifting wide onto Clarke’s blind-side to great effect.
Quite why referee Paul McLaughlin penalised the Tubercurry native for a foul on one such occasion is anyone’s guess. But the 35-year-old reacted to being robbed of a certain goal, by repeating the feat moments later; eventually forcing a brilliant diving save from Brendan Clarke.
Clarke’s outfield namesake was only one of several players used in an unnatural role by McDonald on Saturday evening, however.
Limerick’s aforementioned counter-attacking vulnerability owed everything to their perilously attack-minded central-midfield duo, comprising Lee J. Lynch and Shane Duggan. Time and time again, that pair were caught square, allowing Sligo to benefit between the lines from Limerick’s looseness.
Elsewhere, centre-back-by-trade David O’Connor again struggled when asked to operate in opposition territory, while Ogbene marked his return to the inside-left role he toiled in earlier this season with a completely ineffectual turn.
Criticism of McDonald’s decision-making must be tempered, however, with the admission that this is a squad of players not of his making. And efforts to change that are being understandably stymied by the need to free up space on the wage-bill.
Moreover, the Englishman deserves great credit for the players he did not pick on Saturday evening. Although Tony Whitehead again struggled to nip in ahead of a physical striker, he was offered far more covering support from loanee Joe Crowe, than that which was forthcoming from a sluggish-looking Robbie Williams a fortnight prior.
Williams was benched for this first time this season here, while there was no place in the 18 for right-back Shaun Kelly either.
This website’s treatise on the Galway game remarked upon the job of work McDonald faces, if the character of his squad is to match his lofty ambitions. If this team selection was the first step in that long-overdue rooting-out process, he should be backed to the hilt, regardless of what the usual agitators may or may not be saying.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112. Don’t forget to bookmark Limerick Soccer Live now, to avoid missing out on live audio analysis of Limerick FC’s 2017 season fixtures; home and away. And, if you do miss out, you can listen back to old shows here.