Jeff Hendrick looks dejected after the final whistle in Yerevan on Saturday. Hrach Khachatryan/INPHO

The biggest failing of the Kenny era once again apparent in demoralising Armenia loss

Ireland have now drawn a blank in 11 of their 23 matches under the manager.

IT WASN’T quite as bad as the drab dropped points at home to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, but Saturday was undoubtedly another low point for Stephen Kenny’s Ireland.

Before yesterday, the Irish side had lost just once in the 12 matches since the Luxembourg debacle — an unfortunate last-gasp away defeat to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal.

And if you believe the Fifa rankings, 92nd-ranked Armenia are at least marginally better than both Luxembourg (94) and Azerbaijan (129), even if they were coming into yesterday’s game off the back of a humiliating 9-0 defeat by Norway.

Yet 47th-ranked Ireland should be expected to beat all three and the defeat is all the more frustrating in the context of the Boys in Green’s previous eight-game unbeaten run amid widespread suggestions that the team had turned a corner after the disastrous (albeit heavily Covid-impacted) start to the Kenny era,

Yet in reality, failings that have recurred throughout the manager’s stint were evident on Saturday afternoon.

As they were in the Luxembourg and Azerbaijan games, Ireland were clearly the superior team.

They dominated possession with 68% during the 90 minutes and had the better chances over the course of the game.

Yet two shots on target from 13 attempts is somewhat telling.

Moreover, Ireland have now failed to score in 11 of their 23 matches under Kenny — just under half of their fixtures.

It is admittedly a persistent problem that Kenny inherited rather than created — the Martin O’Neill era ended with a four-game scoreless run.

In eight competitive matches under Mick McCarthy, Ireland scored more than one goal on just one occasion — a 2-0 win over minnows Gibraltar.

Towards the end of his reign, O’Neill, in more than one interview, lamented the fact that Ireland did not have a “young Robbie Keane” to rely upon for goals.

And while it would clearly help to have such a figure available, it is far too simplistic to pin all Ireland’s problems on one position.

Not scoring enough is a team issue rather than an individual one. 

Man City have highlighted as much, winning two successive Premier League titles and scoring more top-flight goals than any other team this season while not having a consistent goalscorer up front — their most prolific players over the past two campaigns have been Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne.

Yet whether it’s midfield or up front, arguably the biggest issue is that Ireland often lack a real goal threat in games.

This flaw is particularly problematic against sides intent on sitting back, as Armenia routinely did yesterday.

And it’s often why Kenny’s men look better against ostensibly stronger teams such as Belgium and Portugal — these opponents attack with more regularity and thus there is greater space in behind to exploit.

There were, it must be said, signs that Ireland had resolved this issue towards the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign amid doubts around Kenny’s future as manager.

Notwithstanding the scoreless draw with Portugal, there were also respective 3-0 wins against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, as well as a 4-0 victory over Qatar.

Yet increasingly, these fixtures are starting to look like anomalies rather than a reversion to Ireland’s truer self.

In addition, one man who had an important role in all three of those wins was Callum Robinson, as he hit six of the 10 goals.

Unfortunately, however, the 27-year-old’s form since then has been patchy at best.

He has been in and out of the West Brom team, starting 26 out of 46 games in the Championship this season.

And since the goal versus Luxembourg, he has found the net just five times in 31 games for club and country.

Similarly, although he has invariably been deployed as a wing-back, Chiedozie Ogbene has been rather goal-shy too — the 25-year-old scored just three times in 45 games in League One this season.

enda-stevens-dejected-at-halftime Ireland’s Enda Stevens shows his disappointment. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

These concerns were perhaps one reason why Stephen Kenny in Yerevan handed Troy Parrott a first start since the Azerbaijan draw last September.

The Tottenham youngster had an encouraging end to his loan spell at MK Dons, scoring six goals in his final 12 matches, while he also prevented Ireland from succumbing to another bad result last March when he scored a spectacular late winner in the friendly with Lithuania.

So if the team were going to score on Saturday, Parrott was probably the best bet, but as with a number of others, he had an off day and looked isolated out on the left wing at times.

When it comes to finding the net, elsewhere in the team, it is usually more hope than expectation. If you are to add up the appearances of six players that started yesterday: Seamus Coleman, Enda Stevens, Nathan Collins, Jeff Hendrick, Josh Cullen and John Egan, it amounts to just over 200 caps and a paltry overall tally of four goals. It’s not necessarily a criticism, as the primary task expected of the aforementioned individuals is not to score, but the fact that such a scenario feels so improbable undoubtedly adds to the considerable pressure on the four other outfield starters.

Shane Duffy is slightly more reliable in this regard, with seven goals from 53 caps, but it was always hoped that the Stephen Kenny era could bring about a more expansive route to goal than the headers from set-pieces that the Derry native tends to be renowned for.

The solution to this recurring issue is far from straightforward. Will Keane and Michael Obafemi have been in prolific form for their clubs of late and could offer a viable alternative, but whether they can make the step up to international level on a consistent basis remains to be seen.

But perhaps more so than a striker, Ireland have long lacked a creative attacking midfielder to take players on and add a spark of invention in the final third — Connor Ronan, Jamie McGrath and Jack Byrne all fit this type, but none of the trio’s form has been strong enough to justify regular selection at international level. It is also why many people feel Jack Grealish was a bigger loss to the Irish setup than Declan Rice, as the Man City star is exactly the type of individual Ireland sorely lack at present.

So the issue is likely to remain a long-term one for Kenny unless they can unearth someone of real quality or the current attackers develop their game promptly and significantly.

Yet a quick-fix solution seems unlikely. As much as anything, it is an issue with the team’s confidence and mentality.

Ogbene admitted as much post-match, telling reports: “We need to change our mentality, to win-at-all-costs.”

The style of football has improved immeasurably under Kenny, but winning ugly against the lower-ranked nations — a trademark of the Giovanni Trapattoni era in particular — has become far less commonplace in recent years.

In saying all that, Ireland producing a markedly improved display and beating Ukraine on Wednesday is far from inconceivable.

It is a completely different type of game. Oleksandr Petrakov’s men will likely be coming into the fixture on the back of a hangover regardless of whether they win or lose Sunday’s World Cup playoff qualifier with Wales.

Ireland could easily score two or more, as they have already done against sides of the calibre of Belgium and Serbia, because their opponents will surely not be content to play in an Armenia-esque low block and instead adopt a more adventurous approach.

Yet even positive outcomes in upcoming games against the Ukrainians and the Scots should not distract from the fact that Ireland need to seriously consider and perhaps rethink how they approach matches against the so-called weaker international sides in future. 

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