Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Not being all-in on Stephen Kenny can be seen as a kind of heresy around these parts. The new Republic of Ireland manager’s unashamed idealism and refreshing candour have won over almost the entire Irish football community, with the possible exception of a smattering of skeptical ex-pros, whose company I’m not particularly thrilled to keep. But this writer has long met many of Kenny’s public pronouncements with an uneasy mixture of bemusement and concern. And none had me scratching my head more vigourously than Kenny’s eye-opening comments about James McCarthy earlier in the week.
In typically emphatic style, Kenny declared that McCarthy would be the “best midfielder of the generation” were it not for the injuries that robbed the player of so much playing time in recent years. Kenny also insisted that McCarthy possesses an “exceptional range of passing”, a supposed skill set that, to this observer, never once materialised throughout the 29-year-old’s 11-season stint in the English top flight.
Nor, for that matter, has McCarthy ever regularly featured in the anchorman role in which both he and Kenny apparently see the player spending his Ireland future. At both Crystal Palace and Everton, McCarthy was almost always paired with a deeper-lying midfielder, with successive managers seeing the former Hamilton Academical youth as more of a willing runner and ball-winner than a disciplined defence screener. Inherent in this trend is a suspicion on his club managers’ part that the player is not as positionally aware as his defensive midfield peers, a suspicion that is backed up by a cursory glance at his international performances under Martin O’Neill.
Although McCarthy regularly received plaudits from Irish fans for his stints as an anchorman under O’Neill, we are talking here about a fanbase that has always valued tireless if ineffective running over more staid and unremarkable positional discipline. Hence why the retirement of Glenn Whelan, one of the more reliable players throughout Mick McCarthy’s second stint as Irish manager, has been celebrated far and wide, while his erstwhile partner Keith Andrews was roundly praised for his uncanny headless chicken impressions at Euro 2012.
McCarthy too found his turns at Euro 2016 overrated by the Irish support, despite the fact that four of the nation’s six concessions at the tournament could be at least partly attributed to the midfielder’s chronic lack of positional awareness. McCarthy is particularly troubled in that regard when the opposition gives him a direct opponent to mark, and that, once again, proved to be the case when Ireland and Bulgaria shared a point apiece from their 2020 Nations League opener.
Todor Nedelev is no Antoine Griezmann, whose half-time switch into the number-10 role so bamboozled McCarthy in Lyon four years ago. But the 27-year-old, who plys his trade for hometown club Botev Plovdiv (hardly heavy hitters in the world of Bulgarian football), managed to find space that McCarthy should have been covering nonetheless. With Conor Hourihane out of position to his left, desperately trying to recover the ball he lost cheaply, McCarthy failed to notice Nedelev occupying the pocket the Aston Villa midfielder had vacated until it was too late. Sure, both Shane Duffy and John Egan also deserve flak for failing to close the gap Nedelev then bisected. But through balls have to come from somewhere and McCarthy has demonstrated, time and time again, that he is not the man to snuff them out at source.
Nor was he particularly good on the ball against Bulgaria either, despite his manager’s glowing pre-match words to the contrary. Unsurprisingly for a player who has never been seen as a deep-lying playmaker during his extended stay in the Premier League, McCarthy did not come close to dictating the tempo of a game Ireland dominated: both Hourihane and Hendrick completed more first-half passes, with McCarthy also failing to break the top five for touches of the football. Many will undoubtedly point to the player’s injury history, and in particular his most recent knock, but this writer would counter with one simple retort: go and look at his stats over the last 11 seasons. McCarthy is not an elite-level playmaker or an elite-level screener; he never has been and that’s not going to change at this late stage of his career. That Kenny thinks otherwise should be incredibly worrying for fans of Irish football.
Some other thoughts:
- Kenny’s typically frank 2018 interview with Emmet Malone of the Irish Times, in which the then-Dundalk manager confidently declared that “there is only one style of play” also had this writer tugging at his collar with unease. And, although Ireland pressed well at restarts, ably preventing Bulgaria from passing through midfield, the high defensive line necessary to employ Kenny’s one-true-style looked extremely vulnerable throughout. Neither Shane Duffy nor John Egan is particularly quick and, therefore, expecting them to cover such lengthy channels, in the continual absence of two aggressively positioned full-backs, always looked likely to produce chances for Bulgaria: indeed, even the large gap between both centre-backs, integral to such an expansive style, proved impossible for Duffy to bridge in the lead-up to Bulgaria’s opener. Whether Duffy’s set-piece prowess, from which yet another late Irish equaliser materialised, will be enough to save his bacon, particularly in light of his recent club career trajectory, remains to be seen; the Celtic centre-back certainly couldn’t be more unsuited to Kenny’s, shall we say, preferred style of play.
- Speaking of Ireland’s rampaging full-backs, Matt Doherty certainly gave credence to a well-worn claim of Wolves fans — that the newly-minted Spurs man is far more suited to playing as a wing-back, whose physical attributes are highlighted, than as a full-back, whose technical and positional deficiencies are more frequently shown up. Although Callum O’Dowda faded markedly after half-time, the heretofore unremarkable winger’s intrepid dribbling from narrow inside-right positions was wasted by Doherty’s inability to position himself in a complementary fashion. Shades of Mick McCarthy’s Gibraltar visit, in which Doherty spent his time at right-wing standing on Seamus Coleman’s toes.
- For that matter, Ireland’s attack was too narrow in general, with Connolly also tucked in on the left and Kenny’s side all too often opting for the nigh-on impossible straight through-ball over the infinitely more likely cross. Ireland twice scored from crosses against Bulgaria during McCarthy’s last stint in charge (as the now-Sky Sports commentator frequently reminded us), but Kenny’s side continually wasted Hourihane’s clever leftward drifts and Enda Stevens’ timely overlapping forays by trying to thread the eye of a needle instead.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112