O'Shea with his staff. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O'Shea and Ireland out to impress against Belgium and make the most of a wasted window

O’Shea is in interim charge and has been ruled out of getting the job permanently.

BELGIUM WERE LAST in town two years ago, to mark the centenary of the FAI. 

It feels as if the Association have spent most of their second century finding a successor to Stephen Kenny, to the point that the second deadline for the appointment has now been missed. 

We are told they have their candidate but they cannot be announced until April, which means John O’Shea and his surprisingly extensive backroom staff will take charge of this evening’s friendly game at the Aviva Stadium. 

O’Shea has built an impressive team around him, with the highly-rated Paddy McCarthy of Crystal Palace installed as number two, and Glenn Whelan as number three. O’Shea also agreed to the FAI’s suggestion that Brian Kerr be involved as an advisor, though he is expected to be in the stands rather than on the touchline for today’s game. 

The FAI have pre-emptively ruled O’Shea out of the job on a full-time basis, so tickets for today’s game have naturally proved to be a tricky sell: the crowd for today’s game not expected to cross far beyond the 40,000 threshold. Given tickets are bundled with the Swiss game, next Tuesday’s crowd is likely to be much lower again. 

It has been an exasperatingly liminal week. 

With O’Shea ruled out of being the next man, the games can’t be sifted through for evidence as to the future style and formation of the team. 

None of this is O’Shea’s fault, but that of the FAI’s, whose search process has dragged on to historic lengths. These two games are half of Ireland’s preparatory games for England and the rest of the Nations League in September, so to not have the head coach installed for them is a waste of precious time. 

The week  did bring a bit of closure in the sense that Lee Carsley finally ruled himself out of the role, but the FAI’s mystery ‘early April’ candidate remains under wraps. We get the sense that the media’s collective head-scratching on this is a matter of great satisfaction to senior figures at the FAI. 

Nonetheless, their entirely reasonable “no leaks=success” equation on all of this does set up the possibility of a national disappointment when it comes to the unveiling of their candidate, having allowed the long-dead Carsley candidacy to remain a matter of widespread speculation and public intrigue. 

We can only hope they remember to actually announce the manager when the time comes, given the FAI appeared to disseminate the news of their new sponsor this week on a need-to-know basis. 

The extension – let alone expansion – of an existing sponsorship deal is a big deal in the commercial world, given its obvious expressions of satisfaction and confidence. Sky have proved great partners for the women’s national team, and the extension of their support to the men’s team is a fine achievement by the FAI’s commercial team. But the FAI didn’t even send a press release about it: a PR company did so on behalf of Sky, but it wasn’t sent to many of the country’s soccer reporters. 

The FAI’s social media activity was restricted to sharing a video published by Sky, while CEO Jonathan Hill stood at the back of the room for a press conference, holding an exquisite silence. John O’Shea and Seamus Coleman sat a Sky-festooned top table but there was no actual mention of Sky, and reporters were heard asking afterwards whether the press conference was the routine stuff of international week or a special event to announce the new sponsor. 

At least we know that a win this evening will be celebrated.

Belgium are fourth in the world but are without the last few of their golden generation today, with all of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Thibaut Courtois injured.

louvain-la-neuve-belgium-14th-mar-2024-belgiums-head-coach-domenico-tedesco-pictured-during-a-press-conference-of-belgian-national-soccer-team-red-devils-to-announce-the-selection-for-the-upcomin Domenico Tedesco. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Jan Vertonghen, now 36, is still around, but otherwise it’s a refreshed squad now coached by former Leipzig boss Domenico Tedesco. Topping their Euro 2024 qualifying group has earned Tedesco a new contract, and scoring 22 goals across eight games suggests he has tackled their goalscoring issue. (He inherited a side that managed one goal in three games at the World Cup.) 

Tedesco may decide to tinker with his line-up today, with the greater challenge of England in store next Tuesday. Lois Openda of Leipzig will probably lead the line in place of the injured Lukaku: he is dizzyingly fast but maddeningly erratic. 

The Belgian boss favours a 4-2-3-1 that can look like a 4-2-2-2 with Jeremy Doku of Manchester City and either Johan Bakayoko of PSV or Dodi Lukebakio likeliest to play out wide. Leandro Trossard is a versatile attacker often picked in support of the number nine.  

Tedesco likes to pack his midfield with physicality, with the likes of Orel Mangala and Amadou Onana often preferred to the more technical Youri Tielemans. This will be Ireland’s biggest problem, as the midfield is the weakest part of the Irish squad and it is also entirely lacking in physicality. 

O’Shea has inherited some genuine attacking options, which he has further stocked by calling up Sammie Szmodics, currently top scorer in the Championship. His favoured position is as a number 10, and it’s easy to imagine him dovetailing with Evan Ferguson, as Mikey Johnston and Chiedozie Ogbene – both of whom are in great form – provide pace and penetration out wide. 

The trade-off here is it might leave the midfield hopelessly exposed. Pick any midfield two from Josh Cullen, Jason Knight and Will Smallbone and it will be comparatively lightweight. A compromise is to play all three, but that would have to come at the expense of one of the attackers. Perhaps a centre-back could be retooled as a robust defensive midfielder -  this was a role O’Shea himself performed for Manchester United. 

“A centre back could easily be a midfielder”, said O’Shea when the possibility was put to him. “Ireland have a good history of that.”

Seamus Coleman is happily fit and deserves to start: he offers an experienced leadership that was sorely missed during his spell on the sidelines last year. Given O’Shea has just four centre-backs in his squad, it’s probable he will play a back four, so one of Nathan Collins, Andrew Omobamidele, and Dara O’Shea will have to miss out. 

Stocks at left-back have worn thin, with Robbie Brady the most likely to start in the hope Ireland can improve their record at set pieces. The other big selection conundrum is in goal, but it would be harsh not to reward Caoimhín Kelleher’s form and regular playing time. 

Regardless of how the team sets up, its MO must be to bring the best out of Evan Ferguson. Ireland foundered against Greece in the last campaign because they couldn’t get him into the game, to the point Ferguson took just one touch from open play in the Greek box in each of those games. 

“The key thing is getting him in the box where he’s most dangerous”, said O’Shea of Ferguson. “Getting supply to him and getting him to relax and enjoy his football.  If you get him closer to goal, in between the posts in the box shall we say, he’s going to be big danger to Belgium.” 

O’Shea, though, will face the conundrum his predecessor faced: how to do that with a team that looks unable to build a foothold in midfield? 

Some things change, but some things stay the same. 

Republic of Ireland (possible XI): Kelleher; Coleman, Collins, O’Shea, Brady; Cullen, Smallbone, Knight; Ogbene, Ferguson, Szmodics 

Belgium: Casteels; Castagne, Faes, Vertonghen, Theate; Onana, Mangala; Lukebakio, Trossard, Doku; Openda 

KO: 5pm; Live on Virgin Media Two 

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