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Dublin: 6°C Monday 17 May 2021

The biggest challenge of the Stephen Kenny era is already obvious

Plus, more talking points from the Ireland manager’s first two games in charge.

Ireland's Shane Duffy dejected after the Finland game.
Ireland's Shane Duffy dejected after the Finland game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated at 17.05

1. The biggest challenge of the Stephen Kenny era is already obvious

A FREQUENT BONE of contention towards the end of the Martin O’Neill era was the fact that the manager did not have ‘a young Robbie Keane’ at his disposal.

The issue, he implied, was that the Irish squad was lacking a top-class natural goalscorer.

And you could argue he was, and continues to be, right. There is no one in the squad currently prolific at the highest level. James Collins, who scored 14 times in the Championship for Luton last season and who failed to make Stephen Kenny’s first squad, is probably the closest player to that description, with the caveat that the second tier of English football isn’t always ideal preparation for international football.

Yet surely the biggest issue for the Irish set-up is chance creation rather than goal conversion. It’s not as if there are countless examples of strikers missing several chances in recent big games. 

It’s nearly two years since O’Neill’s departure, which tellingly followed back-to-back goalless draws with Northern Ireland and Denmark.

Since then, Ireland have scored eight goals in 10 competitive games, including Kenny’s first two matches in charge.

Three of those goals were against footballing minnows Gibraltar, so not too much should be read into that fixture.

Now consider the other five: a Conor Hourihane free kick against Georgia, two Shane Duffy headers from set pieces, against Denmark (away) and Bulgaria, a Matt Doherty header from an Enda Stevens cross against Denmark (home) and David McGoldrick’s header from a deflected James McClean cross against Switzerland. So in short, during the two years since O’Neill left, Ireland have scored just twice in competitive games (excluding Gibraltar) from open play.

Yesterday against Finland, this recurring issue was once again apparent. 

Ireland managed just one effort on target in the dismal first half, a Harry Arter pot shot that didn’t unduly trouble the goalkeeper. Arter later admitted it took the home side around half an hour to get to grips with their opponents’ 3-5-2 formation.

The situation improved after the break in an attacking sense — Aaron Connolly, David McGoldrick, Shane Duffy and Callum Robinson all missed good chances to score.

There were similar issues against Bulgaria, with Ireland struggling to create chances and hitting the target on just three occasions over the 90 minutes.

And there is a school of thought that, contrary to O’Neill’s claims, Ireland’s biggest problem is not the attacking personnel selected but those building up the attacks behind them.

Certainly on the basis of Sunday’s team selection, you get the sense Stephen Kenny subscribes to this view, to an extent.

After all, the manager kept faith with all three attackers who started in Sofia. By contrast, all three midfielders were changed, with Harry Arter, Jayson Molumby and Robbie Brady coming in for James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick.

Finding the right balance in midfield, therefore, is surely the biggest challenge facing Kenny over the coming months.

There are players of great attacking potential coming through the ranks. Not just Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly, both of whom started yesterday, but Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and a couple of others who look capable of being long-term replacements for the ageing likes of Shane Long and David McGoldrick.

Yet in midfield, there are perhaps fewer obvious options. In the underage set-up, the likes of Joe Hodge, Will Smallbone, Gavin Kilkenny and Conor Coventry could develop into excellent footballers, but with the exception of Jayson Molumby — who was handed an international debut yesterday — Kenny has chosen to rely on the more experienced group of players that have often struggled to shine under previous regimes.

It should also be noted that integrating youngsters and getting the best out of older players that have been written off in some quarters are two hallmarks of Kenny’s highly successful managerial career to date, and it will be a key aspect of his Ireland tenure too.

2. Under Kenny, Ireland continue to try to play football ‘the right way’

According to the official Uefa website, against Bulgaria, Ireland had 59% possession and completed 549 passes compared to the opposition’s 295.

These numbers were slightly down for the Finland game at the Aviva, where Ireland had 52% possession and completed 507 passes compared with the visitors’ 437.

So how does that compare, for instance, to the last two competitive games of the Mick McCarthy era?

In the 1-1 draw against Denmark, Ireland actually had 57% possession though completed just 410 passes in contrast to their rivals’ 371, but there’s the caveat that a draw suited the Danes, who were consequently happy to sit back and let the Boys in Green have the ball to a degree.

In the 2-0 loss to Switzerland, meanwhile, Ireland had 40% possession and completed just 255 passes compared to the Swiss side’s 369.

Making such comparisons is, of course, a flawed process. McCarthy would argue that the Danes and the Swiss are better than Bulgaria and Finland, while the games had more at stake, and Kenny could rightly point out that his players are operating under challenging circumstances, given that they are still in pre-season and emerging from the various complications caused by a global pandemic.

Yet there is undoubtedly a sense that this Irish team are trying to play in a more expansive fashion than their predecessors, even though it may take some time for everything to click as planned.

As Harry Arter pointed out in his post-match interview with Sky Sports: “It’s tough for the manager, he’s had the best part of four days. Two days before our first game and I think for our side, you can see we’re trying to change the style of football and long-term, it’s the way forward.”

3. Promotion in the Nations League already an uphill task

stephen-kenny-looks-on Stephen Kenny watches on during yesterday's game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Nations League is far from the be all and end all, and the underwhelming start to the Stephen Kenny era will be swiftly forgotten if Ireland manage to secure qualification for the upcoming Euros set for the summer of 2021.

Yet these results can also not be dismissed as entirely insignificant.

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Ireland, as it stands, look like they could be in danger of relegation to League C. They currently sit joint-bottom of their Nations League group with Bulgaria on one point. Finland and Wales are ahead of them on three and six points respectively, albeit it’s still very early days.

There is plenty to be gained from a good Nations League qualifying campaign. It’s a potential alternative route into the play-offs for World Cup qualifying, should Ireland’s attempts at the more straightforward old-fashioned route go awry.

Bad results also impact Fifa ranking points, putting Ireland in a weaker seeding position for the draws in future qualifiers for the World Cup and Euros.

Kenny will hope the underwhelming start proves deceptive, as it was for Jack Charlton and the first reign of Mick McCarthy — they were generally agreed to be the two best periods in Irish football’s history, yet it was far from obvious judging by the problematic first couple of matches they each had in charge.

Nonetheless, Kenny still appears to have a difficult task in front of him, which has both been emphasised and exacerbated by an anti-climactic opening.

4. Should FAI employees be working as TV pundits for Ireland games?

One of the intriguing subplots of the Stephen Kenny era has been the varying reactions it has provoked in the media.

On the one hand, there is a huge amount of goodwill among many football journalists who believe Kenny is the best man for the job and are willing to afford him more leeway than perhaps previous managers enjoyed, owing to his excellent track record in Irish football, the deeper significance of what his appointment means for the League of Ireland, and the visionary long-term approach he has adopted in contrast with his predecessors’ more pragmatic philosophy.

On the other hand, there is also a coterie of individuals who appear deeply sceptical of the new regime.

Speaking on Off the Ball recently, Jason McAteer suggested Kenny’s League of Ireland background could work against him when it comes to dealing with players.

Ian Harte issued a highly critical tweet of the team’s performance against Bulgaria.

And former assistant Roy Keane, in an interview with The Sunday Independent last June, infamously described Keith Andrews — a member of Kenny’s coaching staff — in very unfavourable terms: “If I can make one point about the new Irish staff. I’ve heard a lot of bullshitters over the last 10 years and Keith Andrews is up there with the best of them,” the former Manchester United player quipped in comments that weren’t expanded upon.

Then there is also the interesting tendency of late for FAI staff to cover Ireland games as part of their TV media duties. Niall Quinn, the current though soon to be departed Interim Deputy CEO of the association, has been working as a pundit for Virgin Media in recent days, suggesting last night that Jack Byrne should be given a run in the team among other criticisms of the Finland performance.

John O’Shea, also employed by the FAI as an assistant coach to Jim Crawford in the U21 set-up, was doing commentary for Sky Sports on the game.

Meanwhile, Mick McCarthy — technically no longer employed by the FAI but reportedly still due a £700,000 bonus if Kenny guides Ireland to the Euros — was on commentary for Sky during the Bulgaria game.

Of course, there is nothing contractually preventing these individuals from engaging in this media work, but it still feels somewhat inappropriate.

It also a no-win situation whichever way you look at it. If the FAI employee/associate doing media work offers an honest opinion — as all pundits are supposedly obliged to do — then he risks undermining a fellow staff member in Kenny. If the FAI employee simply reverts to bland statements that aren’t going to offend one, then the integrity of the journalism is non-existent.

It’s nothing new in football of course — players of Premier League clubs frequently agree to do punditry for games involving their teams when they are injured/unavailable for selection. Yet just because others do it does not necessarily make it right, particularly when the person involved is influential behind the scenes.

5. Molumby the latest to benefit from Kenny’s willingness to give youth a chance

Speaking last February, then-Ireland manager Mick McCarthy was asked about his team selection for what everyone thought was an ‘upcoming’ Euros play-off against Slovakia.

“I’m not saying there’s no chance for anybody else, but our best performance came against Denmark [in Dublin], and that team had players that were tried and tested, players that had been around the squad,” he said.

“I’m convinced, in fact I know, it’s not the game for debutants to come in. It’s always exciting and it’s a new story, it’s great for you guys if there’s one in, but if they come in and it doesn’t go well for them… I don’t know too many debutants who have come in in a play-off game.”

Of course, owing to the pandemic, that fixture won’t be played until next month while Kenny has since succeeded McCarthy as Ireland boss.

And whereas McCarthy was clearly reluctant to blood youngsters for the Euros play-off, you get the sense that Kenny has no such reservations.

Given they have been handed a chance in the past two Nations League games, it is entirely conceivable that Adam Idah, Jayson Molumby or another inexperienced player could feature in Bratislava.

While not just McCarthy, but Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni adhered to a philosophy whereby experienced heads were largely preferred and conservatism was the instinctive approach, it is far from the case with Kenny.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the new manager will be any more successful with this strategy and there is a decent chance that Ireland will suffer in the short term at least.

Yet the last decade of Irish football has not exactly been filled with brilliant performances and memorable nights, and part of the problem stems from previous coaches’ pragmatism and their reluctance to encourage individuals to play and think about the game in an adventurous fashion — old habits that won’t be easy to reverse.

There’s a well-known quote that is often (wrongly) attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

After years of underwhelming performances, Ireland are finally trying something significantly different under Stephen Kenny and while the results have hardly been spectacular so far, it is refreshing to see the national team belatedly adopt this greater sense of ambition. In the very worst-case scenario, to reference another well-known quote, they will fail better. 

Originally published at 06.15

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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