Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
No one does confirmation bias quite like football fans. In the aftermath of Ireland’s unfortunate Euro 2020 exit on Thursday night, two highly hyperbolic camps re-emerged to insist on what they had just seen: one camp loudly hailing a swashbuckling display of attacking, free-flowing, possession-based football, the clear beginning of a new Stephen Kenny-led dawn for Irish football; the other damning an ineffectual outcome from a no-name manager they never rated anyway. Predictably, however, neither polarised group got it quite right — even if the plethora of journalists and broadcasters ensconced in the former might convince you otherwise.
Unlike Ireland’s previous two Nations League outings against Bulgaria and Finland, after which Kenny’s ardent media following let him off the hook for a series of clear tactical errors, Thursday’s unfortunate defeat in Slovakia did indeed hold great promise for the future. But not necessarily for the reasons you may have been already led to think.
For Ireland’s playoff performance was not entirely the exemplar of Kenny’s footballing philosophy many believed it to be. In fact, for this writer, who has fretted about the 48-year-old’s dogmatic and idealistic utterances over the last couple of years, it was better than that: it was hard evidence that Kenny can be adaptable and flexible when necessary, evidence that Kenny can learn from experience and from his own mistakes.
Ireland’s formation on the night, which despite what you may have read elsewhere was a 4-2-3-1 from the first whistle, threw up the first of several signs that Kenny is willing to tweak when necessary. Last month, this writer argued that James McCarthy, who anchored a 4-3-3 against Bulgaria, has never possessed the skillset of either a natural number-six or a natural playmaker. Asking the Crystal Palace midfielder to mark an opposition number-10 (even one as unthreatening as Bulgaria’s Todor Nedelev) is folly, as is expecting him to dictate build-up play from deep.
Throughout over 10 years as a Premier League player, McCarthy has most often been used as a ball-winning number-eight, a limited runner who keeps it simple in possession. And Harry Arter, who deputised for McCarthy during the defeat to Finland, fits the same basic archetype. Which is why this website’s analysis of the Finland game called for Kenny to switch to two holding midfielders: to help plug the gaps either side of McCarthy/Arter that both the Bulgarians and the Finns so frequently exploited. Not only did Kenny make just such a change, he also employed McCarthy in his natural position, too. Conor Hourihane sat deeper to McCarthy’s left, with the Aston Villa midfielder representing a far more natural fit for the role of commencing attacks.
Kenny’s commitment to building from the back was, therefore, still very much on show, albeit with the caveat that, for the vast majority of the first 90 minutes, Ireland again struggled to craft chances in the attacking third. In their prior two outings, Kenny’s side only really created opportunities from pressing the opposition high. And here again, Ireland were largely toothless in open play until the substitutions. Slovakia’s clever ploy of chipping long balls towards the head of midfielder Juraj Kucka, bypassing Ireland’s press, contributed somewhat to Ireland’s mostly inert presence in front of goal. As did the FAI’s decision to rule Aaron Connolly out as a covid-19 close contact. But two pre-match decisions from Kenny, one advisable and one not, didn’t help matters either.
Firstly, the advisable: up until the latter stages of the first 90 minutes, Kenny’s full-backs were far more restrained in their positioning than they had been in the prior two games, performing mostly supporting roles in attack and rarely, if ever, overlapping. Indeed, Slovakia manager, Pavel Hapal, employed his full-backs in much the same cautious manner, reflecting the magnitude of the stakes and making for an extremely uneventful opening 60-70 minutes. By tailoring his tactics to the context at hand, Kenny again provides evidence that he is capable of adapting his preferred approach when necessary.
Secondly, the inadvisable: although few could quibble about Kenny’s chosen back seven or his selection of David McGoldrick up top, the trio chosen to play behind the Sheffield United striker was unquestionably a recipe for attacking dysfunction. James McClean has never possessed the guile to unlock international defences, even an injury-hit one in which three of its constituents had 19 caps between them. And Jeff Hendrick simply does not have the skillset of a natural number-10. Fielding both McClean and Callum Robinson on the sides of their strongest feet also contributed to isolating McGoldrick, who despite receiving rave reviews only became a factor in general play after the substitutions (through no fault of his own). The striker took only 12 first-half touches, while his opposite number, false-nine for the evening Ondrej Duda, enjoyed 47.
Indeed, for all Ireland’s commitment to keeping possession, Slovakia comprehensively won that battle in the first half and maintained their 58-42 share up to and including the 70th minute when substitute Alan Browne produced Ireland’s first shot on target of the evening. This again gives the lie to the narrative that Ireland’s performance was transformative or, at the very least, unprecedented by modern standards. Certainly, Ireland have no midfielder who even comes close to matching the talents of Marek Hamsik, who completed over 100 passes and created more chances than any other player.
Fortunately for Ireland, however, Kenny made one other slight but significant pre-game tweak that blunted Hamsik’s impact. Much had been rightly written about how often both Bulgaria and Finland threaded through balls in behind Ireland’s high defensive line, with both John Egan and Shane Duffy looking exceedingly uncomfortable on the turn. Here, in addition to restraining the forward momentum of his full-backs, Kenny further protected his one-paced centre-backs by significantly lowering the defensive line. This meant that even when Slovakia found space between the lines by bypassing Ireland’s press, the resultant through balls were often seen rolling harmlessly over the Irish goal line. Slovakia, in short, rarely got in behind.
One final note of positivity in Kenny’s favour: although his starting selection merited criticism, his substitutions rectified the error and led to three late clear-cut chances from which Ireland should have ended the contest. By replacing Hendrick’s predictable off-the-ball movement with Browne’s clever lateral drifts and late runs, Kenny offered McGoldrick a foil who complemented his drifts into midfield and, therefore, created space for him to shine between the lines. Let’s get real here: the performance of Browne, a proven Championship number-10, made a mockery of continued calls for Jack Byrne to start.
Meanwhile, the concurrent decision to switch to inverted wingers, with both Robbie Brady and Robinson getting closer to McGoldrick, also contributed to ending the striker’s not-so-splendid isolation. Removed from the inside-right pocket and newly-installed in the inside-left, Robinson suddenly began to link up with Hourihane’s positive forward passes too, as could be seen in the 80th-minute when a Slovakia defender just barely intercepted Robinson’s attempted through ball.
By bringing with it an almost-decisive key pass to Browne, Callum O’Dowda’s extra-time arrival also showed that if Kenny was insistent upon picking an out-and-out winger to begin with, McClean was not the man to plump for. Perhaps the latter was preferred with his industry and honesty of effort in mind which, given the other hallmarks of a cautious approach peppered throughout this Ireland performance — two holding midfielders, a deeper defensive line and more restrained full-backs — seems to ring true.
This, after all, was not the showcase of Kenny’s “one style of play” that his pushers want it to be. It was something better than that. It was evidence of the qualities that an international manager really needs: adaptability, flexibility and a willingness to go with whatever works based on the players available, the opposition at hand and the context of the day. There isn’t just “one style of play” and anyone claiming otherwise either doesn’t understand football or has spent too many formative years listening to Giles and Dunphy hark back to the halycon days when Ireland had tons of tiny, tidy midfielders who passed in neat triangles and went precisely nowhere.
Ireland, like all national teams, need a pragmatist in the hotseat, not a dreamer. And on Thursday night, Kenny went some way towards convincing this writer that he is willing, at least, to be a bit of both. Let’s just hope that, whatever happens next, both Kenny’s cheerleaders — and his critics — will endeavour to observe his handiwork with a little more objectivity going forward. Pigs have been known to fly, right?
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112