Ireland need to prove a point in Dublin reunion with Armenia

Stephen Kenny’s side host Armenia in their final Nations League game tonight.

PARALLAX. I NEVER EXACTLY understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him.

So one went a sliver of one of Leopold Bloom’s interior monologues in Ulysses, wondering about the meaning of a phenomenon whereby the position of a fixed point can look different depending on the angle from which it’s viewed. 

Were he around today, Bloom could have asked Nathan Collins to explain it. 

nathan-collins Nathan Collins. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“There are two ways of looking at it”, said Collins of Ireland’s Nations League campaign.

“You can look at results and think we could have done a lot better but then you can look at performances and say maybe one game we haven’t been at it but in most games we’ve been involved, we’ve nearly been the better team, we’ve had chances and we’ve defended well. It’s whatever way you want to look at it but, from my perspective, as a team you can see every game that we’re getting better.” 

The low points total is why people are looking at this team in different ways. And that’s why so much of the talk is an argument: a string of positive results always cracks down on a multiplicity of viewpoints. Without them, any parallax views descend to a polarised debate and the bare fact is Stephen Kenny’s Ireland have not been getting enough of them. Three wins in 20 competitive games is an abysmal record, even allowing for the mitigation of the bleak, Covid winter of 2020. He has undoubtedly done a fine job in blooding new players and evolving the style of play, but he and his players have left him open to now-ambient scepticism by winning too few games. 

Kenny is generally considered and interesting in press conferences, though there is usually one question he declines to answer: ‘Stephen, would you call this a must-win game?’ He has always been loathe to walk himself into that easy headline and heap any pressure on a particular game but even though the question wasn’t asked at yesterday’s press conference, the answer slipped quietly out toward the end of one of his answers. 

“[Armenia] are a good counter attacking team. They break quickly, so we want a strong performance to get the victory we need.”

It is a victory they need. On a basic point, Ireland need to win or draw to avoid relegation to League C, which would be a damning crescendo when the prelude was talk about topping the group.

Ireland may seem inconsistent but they have been curiously consistent in a few ways. One is the fact that all of their competitive defeats have been by a single goal, and another is that all of their competitive wins have been by three goals. 

Another is the struggle to break down deep-lying teams happy to allow Ireland to be the protagonist. Ireland toiled to a defeat at home to Luxembourg and a draw against Azerbaijan, before managing to lose to Armenia in the opening game of this campaign. 

Per Uefa stats, Ireland have had the majority of possession in nine of Kenny’s 20 competitive games in charge so far and won just one of them. 

The switch to a back three has made Ireland more stable and a dangerous counter-attacking threat, but they too often have struggled when space for that counter-attacking threat isn’t there. Kenny himself raised the prospect of a serious overhaul for this game before instantly doubting it. “Are we going to play with a back four in this match? Maybe not.”

Any changes are likely to be minimal. “We will have one or two changes I would say, but not radical”, said Kenny. “I think the team played well on Saturday.” 

June’s game in Yerevan was prefaced by confusion as to whether Josh Cullen was suspended, but though he did play in that game, he is suspended tonight. Cullen is a loss and there is no like-for-like replacement, with Jeff Hendrick or Conor Hourihane the closest alternative. Another option is to introduce a forward player in his stead, and revert to the 3-4-2-1 that Ireland played prior to the win against Scotland in June. The latter system, Kenny says, is not necessarily more attack-minded. 

“There is a misconception that 3-5-2 gives you greater protection, and 3-4-2-1 is more attacking. Neither are more attacking or defensive.” 

Having pinpointed Armenia’s counter-attacking threat, Kenny may choose to retain his extra body in midfield. If so, Jeff Hendrick’s passing may earn him the nod with either Knight or Molumby dropping deeper. The back three and goalkeeper will likely remain the same, and Kenny insists he has no doubts about Matt Doherty’s fitness to continue at right wing-back. James McClean hardly deserves to be dislodged from left wing-back, but Kenny may prefer Robbie Brady’s craft in that role. 

There may be some changes up front, but Callum Robinson has done little this year to build on his impressive goal return from 2021 and though Chiedozie Ogbene is a firm favourite of Kenny’s, this type of game – with space behind the Armenia defence likely to be limited – may not be an ideal fit. Scott Hogan provides some penalty area threat, but Kenny may stick with the status quo pairing of Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott. 

Callum O’Dowda hasn’t played for Ireland in almost two years but is back in the squad and might offer some added creative guile if Kenny does revert to 3-4-2-1. 

Ireland’s 1-0 result in defeat in Yerevan has been made worse by Armenia’s results since: four defeats, 14 goals conceded, one goal scored. Head coach Joaquin Caparros is under a pressure that greatly heightened when they lost 5-0 at home to Ukraine’s second-string on Saturday. One Armenian news outlet reported after the game that journalists boycotted his post-game press conference, demanding his resignation. 

Kenny has been taking some stinging criticism in the media of late, though not quite on that level. He refused to discuss Damien Delaney’s recent salvo, in which he questioned for how much longer Ireland could say “we’re going somewhere”, and claimed they are in “quicksand” instead. 

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michael-obafemi-dejected Michael Obafemi reacts during the 1-0 loss to Armenia in June. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kenny has never given the impression he is impervious to criticism: a question about the importance of Ireland’s tempo in tonight’s game was met by a response that struck this reporter as a heavily-veiled response to Gary Breen’s column in yesterday’s Irish Independent, claiming Ireland didn’t react to Scotland’s increased second-half tempo. 

“What is your definition of tempo?”, replied Kenny. “It’s such a word that is used, is it not? What does it mean? Does it just mean to get it forward quicker? In my book it doesn’t but we need to move the ball quicker than we did in the away game, for sure. Our passing needs to be crisper and we need to penetrate in a more progressive way than we did in Armenia.”

The players’ conditioning should make that more straightforward. Some players clunked with ring-rust in Yerevan five weeks after the end of their club seasons, whereas the vast majority of tonight’s teams are playing regular club football. They will also surely not be complacent, something James McClean hinted at when discussing the defeat ahead of the final game of that four-game June window. 

“We probably came in expecting to win both games and we haven’t and it’s probably given lads a little bit of a reality check”, he said. “We have to earn every win and show up and perform.” 

Kenny echoed this by repeating the fact Ireland have to “earn the right to win.” 

Do that, and he and his players will have earned the right to let the result do the loud shouting that their evolution and progress cannot. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Gavin Bazunu; Nathan Collins, John Egan, Dara O’Shea; Matt Doherty; Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight, Jeff Hendrick; Robbie Brady; Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi 

On TV: RTE Two; KO 7.45pm 

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Gavin Cooney

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