Ireland’s Lily Agg reacts after missing a chance. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'We’re trying to be a more high-pressing attacking team... We don't want to just sit in'

Lily Agg and Eileen Gleeson discuss the Irish side’s attempt to evolve.

QUALIFYING DIRECTLY from the group for Euro 2025 was always going to be a tall order for this Irish team.

Of the four semi-finalists at the last Euros, three are now in Ireland’s qualifying group with only the top two spots guaranteeing a place in Switzerland next summer.

England, France and Sweden are among the top six sides in the world according to Fifa, so 25th-ranked Ireland were inevitably facing an uphill battle from the outset.

Given that the Irish team’s last meeting with Sweden — a World Cup qualifier in 2022 — ended in a 1-1 draw, some people might perceive Friday night’s 3-0 loss as evidence of regression.

Yet others would argue the situation is more complicated.

In the post-Vera Pauw era, the team has aimed to transform their style.

Last August, when Pauw’s future was up in the air, Louise Quinn signalled as much.

“Something that maybe in general what Irish teams at times lack is going forward, scoring a lot of goals and dominating some of these games,” she told RTÉ.

“We have Katie McCabe, Denise O’Sullivan, Kyra Carusa is really coming into her own. We have brilliant attacking players.

“I feel like on some side of the thing we are always going to have defence sorted so I think we really have to push on and figure out how we create more goals, apart from set pieces.”

And there is no doubt Eileen Gleeson has overseen a period where Ireland have become a more potent attacking force.

While they had the luxury of playing patently inferior opposition during their recent Nations League campaign, Ireland were much more impressive going forward than they had been for much of the Pauw era. In six games, they scored 20 goals and conceded just two.

However, that trend has not continued since Gleeson was appointed permanent boss.

The better standard of opposition is undoubtedly a key factor, with Ireland winless in their last five matches, failing to score a single goal within that period.

Moreover, a significant portion of the France and England matches could easily been mistaken for matches in the more defence-oriented Pauw era, without a favourable outcome.

Gleeson almost admitted as much during the week when she said her side had been “passive” for too long in these crucial fixtures.

“As a team, we want to be assertive and aggressive,” she said.

“It is that balancing act: are you going to go full tilt and chase from the start, are you going to stay in the game as long?”

The team adopted a more adventurous approach in a must-win encounter versus Sweden.

Compared to the England game, where they were stuck in their half for the majority of the first period and found themselves 2-0 down within 18 minutes, against the Swedes, Ireland failed to capitalise on at least three good chances in a 45-minute spell where they invariably matched their rivals.

But once Johanna Rytting Kaneryd opened the scoring, the hosts’ confidence gradually diminished and their rivals eventually ran out easy winners.

Ireland’s team selection emphasised their intent. Starting with Amber Barrett and Kyra Carusa, along with Lily Agg in the number 10 role, was an unusually attacking move against opponents of this calibre.

“We saw [a similar attack-minded approach] all through the Nations League campaign,” Gleeson said afterwards. “Then with England and France, we had a deeper block with the intent to stay in the game longer and then [move] out a little bit more in the later stages.

“We wanted to be more assertive, two strikers gives us a bit of a better outlet when we’re in possession and it gives us two on a press as well. It helps us higher up the pitch all around.”

Afterwards, Irish players in the mixed zone praised aspects of the performance while lamenting the outcome and the failure to take those first-half chances.

Lily Agg came desperately close to scoring, as her finish from Barrett’s pass went inches wide.

The Birmingham City player felt the nearby Swedish defender was pivotal in keeping the ball out of the net.

“The girl toed it, did she not? I kicked her and I thought the ball went out. I’d have to see it back. I don’t know how it looked.”

In the past for Ireland, Agg has had to play in a more defensive, disciplined midfield role. In their game at the Aviva, the 30-year-old enjoyed the greater freedom afforded to her trying to support the strikers.

“It was quite a transitional game so it’s hard to be up and back if it is transitional but it was nice to be up there. I think it’s more my natural position, I play a more advanced role with Birmingham and finished with goals this season so hopefully I can play in that position a bit more.

“We’re trying to be a more high-pressing attacking team. The problem comes with transitions when we are not used to all stepping as a team and you can see some of us are going to step, sort of react, and the rest of us are dropping and not in sync. That causes us problems. We all need to get on the same page in a transition moment. Are we stepping or are we dropping and delaying? We will look at that on the training field and hopefully put it right for Tuesday [when they face Sweden again].

“They are world-class. They sucked us in [for the opening goal], a few of us go, the rest drop and then they are out the other side. We’ll have to watch it back. In those moments we have to be a lot better.”

In many ways, it is the worst possible time for Ireland to be trying to evolve as they had the misfortune to be drawn with three of the best sides in the world in qualifying.

Conversely, with the hopes of automatic progression from the group effectively over, it can perhaps take some of the pressure off and be conducive to a more consistent and fluent attacking approach for the remaining three fixtures.

“We could have been 3-1 up [in the first half],” added Agg. “We had three opportunities. I think that’s the positive — we’re looking to attack more and are getting opportunities. We don’t just want to sit behind the ball and soak it up, we do want to take those chances when we can. You can see we’re shifting how we play and trying to get up the pitch higher. But it’s not going to happen overnight. We had three good chances today and hopefully, we’ll get more on Tuesday.

“I think it’s difficult with different personnel coming into the team. We’re coming in and trialling new players, in and out. And it’s hard to build that cohesion. In moments when we are on different pages, we’re going long whether we’re going in the pocket, that takes time and I think each camp, we’re going to watch back, we’ll have feedback, we will improve and hopefully at some point, we will all start to be on the same page.”

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