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Tactics board: Ireland hunted Portugal cleverly - and then used the ball confidently

Shane Keegan breaks down more encouraging signs of progress in Ireland’s performances under Stephen Kenny.

Updated Nov 13th 2021, 12:32 PM

THERE’S A TERM, psychological safety, which has slowly crept into sports vocabulary in recent years.

The concept behind of the term is that players should feel comfortable enough to ‘try things’ and ‘express themselves’ when on the ball rather than being frozen by the fear of the repercussions they would suffer from management and teammates for any mistakes that they might make.

The idea may seem a bit fluffy for some, and I’m sure there are plenty who would argue that it has no place in the win-at-all-costs world of professional football.

But here’s the thing.

The psychological safety of the team environment that currently exists around this Irish setup is the number one reason why the players are currently performing so well.

No longer do they seem petrified of showing for the ball, passing the ball, or trying anything other than the mundane when on the ball, and what we as supporters are now watching is so much more entertaining for it.

Crucially it now also looks as though this style of football is capable of producing results.

Ireland get themselves into the game with brave pressing approach

Stephen Kenny’s side sprung a surprise from the off as it quickly became evident that they had no intention of dropping off and defending on the edge of their own box as most had expected.

This image below, just two minutes in, shows the proactive approach to winning the ball that the team were determined to take.

As Pepe steps forward with the ball, my expectation would have been for Chiedozie Ogbene to come deep onto Matheus Nunes as Jeff Hendrick got around Cristiano Ronaldo, allowing Shane Duffy to drop off. This would keep Ireland nice and compact but allow Portugal to keeping knocking the ball around the back.

Pic 1

What happened was very different. Ogbene stayed high, preventing the easy pass, and Hendrick pushed onto Nunes. This left Ronaldo as the obvious target for Pepe but as he played it into him, Duffy sprung forward, won the ball and diverted it towards Callum Robinson, while also managing to leave Ronaldo in a heap on the ground.

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It wasn’t quite Roy Keane against Holland but it was a nice early marker all the same.

This is one of the big upsides of Kenny’s back five. It allows the centre back to aggressively step in on an attacker while others, John Egan and Seamus Coleman in this case, narrow in on the space left behind.

Ireland continued with this aggressive approach from their centre backs as the half wore on.

Here we can see Egan, almost 20 yards inside the opposition half, forcing Goncalo Guedes to play backwards as Robinson gets ready to pounce.

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Robinson, always a willing runner, presses Pepe first, sending him back to the keeper, then continues his press and forces Rui Patricio to kick long.

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Josh Cullen picks up the pieces and plays to Jamie McGrath and Ireland are back in possession again.

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Even more impressive was Ireland’s approach from Portugal’s goal kicks.

Below we can see that Ireland committed no less than seven players to the press as Patricio plays the ball to Pepe.

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With no short passing options, and about to come under pressure from McGrath, he is forced to play the ball long.

The challenge with making such an aggressive press is that it leaves you with a 3v3 at the back but this was another part of the game that Ireland seemed to have planned for really well.

Here we can see Duffy, a player who will always be confident in an aerial battle, leap above Ronaldo to win the header. The key though is the positioning of the players around him.

Pic 7

Egan and Coleman have again taken up excellent narrow positions and would have been favourites to win the ball had Ronaldo managed to flick it on.

In front of that, Matt Doherty, Hendrick and Enda Stevens have all quickly retreated from their pressing positions to ensure that they will be first to get on any ball that’s headed back out, just as Hendrick manages to do.

Here we see the same set-up, this time forcing Pepe into attempting a risky diagonal ball.

Pic 8

Doherty reads it and heads down to set Ogbene on the attack.

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This final example shows just how well set up Ireland were to deal with the rare occasion where Ronaldo did get the better of Duffy in the air.

Again we see the brave starting positions.


But this time Ronaldo does win the flick on and for a moment, Ireland look to be in trouble with a dangerous 2v2 as Egan and Coleman, who is just out of shot, face up against Guedes and Andre Silva.

Pic 11

But watch how quickly the cavalry arrives.

First, Cullen gets back around to make a challenge. When the ball breaks loose, Hendrick follows up with a second tackle.

To Guedes’ credit, he manages to retain possession but look at the picture Portugal are now faced with having been 2v2 just seconds earlier.

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Things were no different from general play either.

Here, Ogbene, Robinson, McGrath and Cullen force Pepe to go long, allowing Duffy to head back to the retreating Cullen.

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Soon after, four players descend on Diogo Dalot. Cullen intercepts his rushed pass and sets Doherty away.

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Ireland finished this game with a highly impressive 48% possession. Part of the reason for this, which we will come to, was down to how well they used the ball.

But equally important was the manner in which they continually went about winning it back.

All of the above examples resulted in Ireland establishing control of the ball and that takes a massive amount of work on the training ground.

Confidence on the ball is at the heart of Irish improvement

Getting the ball back is one thing but using it intelligently when you have it is a whole different question. This was a challenge the Irish players seemed only too keen to embrace.

The first glimpse of Ireland’s newly ingrained confidence in themselves came early on when Stevens, having received the ball back from a short throw, played a pinpoint cross field ball to set Doherty away on the opposite flank.

I couldn’t help but think Martin O’Neill or Giovanni Trapattoni would have seen enough by that stage to warrant substituting him.

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But it wasn’t until the second half that Ireland really found their groove.

Below we see a ball played back to Gavin Bazunu who is closed down by Rafael Leao.

In times past, we would fully expect all the Irish players to turn their backs on the keeper at this stage, safe in the knowledge that the ball would be lumped into the opposition’s half of the field.

But this side has a different MO.

Duffy can be seen encouraging Bazunu to try and clip ball out to Doherty and the young keeper duly obliges.

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Ireland quickly create a 4v2 situation as they attempt to play out and after a couple of passes, Doherty finds himself back on the ball, but this time with the space to get his head up and play forward to Robinson who was fouled just before he could release Adam Idah on a promising attack.

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One of the major advantages of trying to keep possession in your own third of the field is that it inevitably draws opposition players forward.

Here we can see seven Portuguese players squeezing up to try to stop Ireland from playing out. But Doherty is quick to recognise this and delivers the ball beyond the pressure to an area where Idah has the space and time to take it down and get it under control.

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Ogbene is quick to provide support and some excellent combination play between him and Idah sets the young Rotherham attacker away before he is hacked down.

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Stephen Kenny’s side came very close to getting the reward that their adventurous spirit deserved in the 75th minute of the game.

Again, the passage of play started with Ireland working a throw short in their own third of the field rather than looking to fire it down the line in the hope of a flick-on.

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This invited Portugal to step on to them and they looked as though they may be boxed in until Coleman executed a Cruyff turn to get himself out of trouble.

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From here, Ireland exploded forward superbly. Coleman found Hendrick who set back to Cullen. As with the previous example, he recognised the opportunity to beat the press by playing longer to Idah.

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Again the young attacker made the ball stick as support runs came from all directions. Take note of the unusual running line that Stevens decides to take as Idah opts to go right to Doherty.

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Doherty combined down the right with Ogbene and when he delivered into the box, it was Stevens who spurned a great opportunity.

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Given the standard of the opposition, the starting point of the attack and the quality of the build-up play, this would have been right up there as one of the best team goals Ireland had ever scored if Stevens had been able to convert.

Cullen is key

Josh Cullen finished this game with more passes played than any other player on the field, an impressive feat given the calibre of player lining out for the opposition.

Shortly after the Stevens chance, there was a passage of play that highlighted brilliantly just what it is that he does so well.

It starts with Bazunu rolling the ball out to Egan. As he does so, we can see Cullen employing one of the most under rated attributes in football – scanning.

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His constant evaluation of his surroundings, by repeatedly looking over his shoulders to assess where all players are at any given moment, gives him a head start on every decision he has to make.

Over the next 57 seconds, Cullen can be clearly seen to scan on 22 occasions. If you’ve got a young footballer in your house, then this clip is worth digging out and playing for them as it will do more to help them to improve than 10 training sessions.

During this period Ireland make 16 passes, the best of which is a perfect ‘around the bend’ ball that Cullen plays first time to Idah.

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The attack finishes when Duffy, on one of his now regular forays into the final third, gets blown for a free when attempting to latch onto Robinson’s pass inside, just as Cullen drops out of picture for the first time.

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Tactically astute. Technically proficient.

It may ultimately have resulted in a 0-0 draw but if this wasn’t undeniable proof of the positive direction Stephen Kenny is taking Irish football in, then I don’t know what you’re looking for.

What are you looking for, Liam?


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