Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Only league leaders Dundalk are outscoring Kenny Shiels’ Derry City in 2018. And, on this evidence, it’s easy to see why. Hamstrung by an appalling Markets Field surface, Derry still leveraged their attractive passing game into several quality chances. But poor Limerick finishing spared a still wide-open Candystripes defensive unit, whose margin of victory was widened by Tommy Barrett’s disastrous late tactical tinkering.
In spite of a magnificent unbeaten run, that now stretches to 10 games in all competitions, Derry’s slipshod defensive structure remains the elephant in the room. Most evident throughout March’s 6-1 defeat to Shamrock Rovers, that curtailed Shiels’ brief experiment with a back three of his own, Derry’s chronic problem at the back of midfield remains unresolved.
Handed the holding midfield baton from the subsequent 5-0 win over Limerick on, Rory Hale has held onto the role throughout the Candystripes’ recent run. But the 21-year-old is not a natural defender, and his positional sense was found wanting in the last fortnight against both Bohemians and Dundalk. Both Dylan Watts of the former parish, and Robbie Benson of the latter, ran off Hale to beat veteran goalkeeper Ger Doherty.
Shamrock Rovers, too, found joy from midfield runners last Friday. Only profligate finishing spared Derry a first Brandywell reverse.
Hale, of course, is not a sole culprit in this regard. As a collective, Derry’s midfield are too slow to reorganise into a 4-5-1 defensive shape. Both Aaron McEneff and Nicky Low, to Hale’s right and left, must bear some responsibility. As should manager Shiels, who appears either unwilling or unable to sacrifice some of his side’s attacking vigor at the altar of defensive responsibility.
Which is why Limerick, arguably, should have been two goals to the good inside 15 minutes here. That most ill-advised combination — a high defensive line with no pressure on the ball — saw Conor Clifford twice assist a teammate in breaking Derry’s offside trap. Clear-cut chances for both Shane Duggan and Danny Morrissey resulted; both of which went abegging.
Karl O’Sullivan, 18, was Duggan’s first-minute provider, with a low right-wing cross. The teenager impressed here throughout, attacking the space behind Derry left-back Jack Doyle. It is to O’Sullivan’s great credit that he proved more than a match for one of the league’s form players; Derry are unbeaten since Doyle arrived on loan from Blackburn Rovers.
What a shame, therefore, that Limerick switched their attacking focus to Will Fitzgerald after half-time; particularly given the shocking standard of service afforded to the lightning-quick 18-year-old. Vain attempts to pop balls over the head of stand-in right-back Darren Cole — more reserved than Doyle — continually proved futile.
Limerick were behind by that point anyway, as their own chronic central midfield issues had cost them parity right before half-time. Hale was the instigator for Derry, invading the pocket behind the ball-watching Eoin Wearen — without his on-paper minder Duggan in tow. The Belfast native’s resultant through-pass was exceptional, as was the run Rory Patterson made from deep, leaving Clifford in his wake.
Patterson himself started the move, receiving the ball into feet ahead of centre-back Tony Whitehead — a persistent feature of March’s Brandywell-christening rout. At 33, Patterson is certainly in decline. But, despite missing two gilt-edged chances either side of his goal, the experienced attacking focal point he represents is vital to the Candystripes’ efforts.
Limerick could certainly do with a Patterson. Their own veteran target man, Mark O’Sullivan, sat out his fourth consecutive game here. Fit enough only for the bench thanks to a shoulder injury, the Cork native was once again understudied by Morrissey, whose obvious lack of match fitness remains an unaddressed concern.
Although wasteful in front of goal here, and against both Bray Wanderers and Shamrock Rovers (wonderful late equaliser aside), Morrissey deserves huge credit for the physical domination he imposed upon Eoin Toal on Monday evening.
Derry were second best in the aerial duel stakes throughout, with Morrissey particularly to the fore. Set-pieces, therefore, also looked problematic for the visitors. Little surprise, then, that Limerick — through Morrissey — would fashion their best chance from that avenue on 83.
After watching a teammate win the first header from a deep free-kick, the 24-year-old did brilliantly to win the second ball, hold off a defender, and play in substitute Mark O’Sullivan. The 35-year-old, whose own fitness issues also correlate to wasteful finishing, blazed over from eight yards. Derry went right up the other end and scored their second of the evening. On such fine margins games of football often turn.
That cliche, no doubt, will function as Barrett’s explanation for another disappointing result here. But O’Sullivan’s 71st-minute introduction, and the 3-4-1-2 shape that went with it, really did the damage.
Alan Murphy, 20, making just the second league start of his career, handled Derry winger Jamie McDonagh quite well in the first half. But McDonagh’s blistering pace, perfectly suited to a leading side playing on the break, proved a different prospect throughout the second stanza.
Still, the absence of Murphy — sacrificed for O’Sullivan on 71 — played even further into McDonagh’s hands. The winger set about gleefully rampaging into the space to Killian Brouder’s left, going close with two big chances prior to Derry’s second goal. Fitzgerald, the notional left-wing-back on paper, was continually caught upfield. As was O’Sullivan on the opposite flank.
Instructing wing-backs to form a back five in the defensive phase appears beyond coaches at this level. Recall Shane Keegan’s disastrous dalliance with the system at Galway United throughout 2017. Tommy Barrett’s experience has been no different. Nor, for that matter, was Kenny Shiels’.
Credit to Derry, though, who persisted to eventually punish Limerick’s shoddy shape on 84. McDonagh again instigated, availing of Fitzgerald’s ill-advised decision to press substitute right-back Conor McDermott. Left-sided centre-back Brouder was duly drawn out to the former Sligo Rovers winger, creating a chasm of space for McEneff to run into and deposit Nicky Low’s through-ball.
Neither Clifford, nor Duggan — back covering Barry Maguire’s bottom, incidentally — thought it important to pick up Low prior to the Scot’s killer pass. Limerick’s central midfield, once again, letting the side down.
Concentration, or a lack thereof, remains a perennial failing of this Limerick side after all, and there was still time for them to cough up their sixth penalty of 2018. Yet again, Barrett’s disorganised back three found itself ruinously exposed.
Kilian Cantwell, manning the right-sided berth, was caught out of position after one of several turnovers attributable to the erratic Clifford. Patterson ran into the space and squared, leaving Brouder with no option but to down the onrushing McEneff.
That spot-kick heralded McEneff’s second of the night, and eighth of the season. With three assists also in his locker, the 22-year-old is fast becoming one of the division’s standout performers.
Combined with the likes of Patterson, McDonagh, Ronan Hale, and Curtis — uncharacteristically ineffectual here — the cultured midfielder has been central to Derry’s impressive final-third combination play. It’s difficult, therefore, to see the goals drying up for Shiels any time soon.
But, with commitment to such a gung-ho, possession-based style comes significant risk; especially at this level. Playing short from the goalkeeper, for example, on a pitch like this is a fool’s errand.
Ger Doherty was fortunate that both centre-backs were in place, when an errant pass forced Rory Hale into a professional foul on Wearen. The aforementioned 6-1 defeat to a high-pressing Rovers side also owed much to Shiels’ short passing commitment coming acropper in a similar manner.
More pragmatism, therefore, is called for from the Derry manager at times. Certainly the current central midfield mix, that so regularly exposes Derry’s defence to the counterattack desperately needs to be addressed. Such an individually weak back-line, containing the 19-year-old Toal and a past-his-best Gavin Peers, cannot regularly withstand such scrutiny.
Especially against sides better than this struggling Limerick collection, whose manager’s late tactical switch killed their already slim chances of regaining parity. A 3-4-1-2 makes sense against Waterford’s diamond, or against last week’s surprisingly similar Shamrock Rovers system. But it didn’t make sense in defeat to Sligo’s 4-2-3-1, and it didn’t make any sense here either.
Safely accommodating two strikers without risking central midfield overload is understandable. But not if your wing-backs don’t know their positions in the defensive phase, gifting the likes of McDonagh the freedom of the flanks. Using a 4-4-2 instead would have preserved two layers of width, allowing Limerick’s only two genuinely dangerous players — O’Sullivan and Fitzgerald — to push higher up the pitch.
If 3-4-1-2 is to be used again in the future, it needs to resemble a 5-3-2 as soon as the ball is lost. Either that or risk making life as easy for the opposition as Derry found it here in the last 20. Your call, Mr. Barrett.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112