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Stephen Kenny at Irish training.
Stephen Kenny at Irish training.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

4 questions for Stephen Kenny ahead of long-awaited Slovakia play-off

What should Kenny do with his selection and approach? And will Ireland’s poor away record be a problem?
Oct 6th 2020, 7:00 AM 8,666 2

SO, FINALLY TO the twice-postponed play-off secured by Martin O’Neill for Mick McCarthy to be overseen by Stephen Kenny. Hey, it’s 2020. 

Here are a few issues for Kenny to mull over ahead of Thursday’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final with away to Slovakia…

1. Should he change his system? 

Okay, this fraught and tangled year is teaching us there are no quick fixes and easy solutions to our problems, but at the same time….maybe there are? 

In that spirit: Would a 3-5-2 approach not solve most of Ireland’s selection issues? It would allow Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens return to the wing-back roles at which they’ve excelled in the Premier League; John Egan plays it all the time at Sheffield United and Shane Duffy is no stranger to it from his time at Brighton; it would have allowed captain Seamus Coleman into the defence, had he been fit; and it would allow Aaron Connolly play centrally alongside David McGoldrick in a formation both play at club level. 

Kenny must have considered it already, and must be tempted by it again in Slovakia. While he says he isn’t wedded to any particular system and has repeated he is open to many different approaches he said in April he has rarely played a back three in his career, while changing now would effectively undo whatever was achieved in the drab Nations League games with Bulgaria and Finland. 

The rub: does Kenny stick with a new system his players are beginning to grow familiar with together, or does he throw it out in favour of a formation many of his players know intimately but separately? 

Kenny used those games as preparation for the Slovakia tie, so he is more than likely to stick with the 4-3-3 we saw last month. 

2. What does he do with his team selection? 

Assuming he does stick with 4-3-3, the back five now picks itself: Randolph, Doherty, Duffy, Egan, and Stevens. The midfield trio is more interesting, and Kenny openly said he used the Nations League games to assess al of his midfield options. With Harry Arter a doubt, James McCarthy is likely to anchor the midfield, and Jeff Hendrick will almost certainly retain his place. 

Kenny likes a left-footer on the other side of midfield, so that suits either Conor Hourihane or Robbie Brady. Jack Byrne isn’t predominantly left-footed and that he didn’t make the first squad would hint he is down the pecking order for this game, but he showed against AC Milan he can compete against a better level of opponent than Ireland will face on Thursday while his set-piece delivery is as good as anyone’s in the squad. 

That’s a significant skillset. Given Shane Duffy is the only player in the squad with more than a single competitive goal since November 2016, set pieces remain our best hope of scoring a goal. 

jack-byrne Jack Byrne. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Up front, Aaron Connolly will surely keep his place and although Kenny admitted at the weekend he sees him playing centrally in the long-term, he said he has to maximise the quality in the team and playing him off the left seems to be an acceptable compromise. 

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Adam Idah likely won’t start again on Thursday, with David McGoldrick fit to return. McGoldrick’s hold-up play and ability to drop off is superb, but he doesn’t offer Ireland pace in behind, so Connolly may have to pick up that slack. 

Kenny has been impressed by Callum Robinson’s form in the Premier League but he looks more likely to replace McGoldrick during the game than start, while Callum O’Dowda is deemed fit despite having not played since the Finland game and may well hang onto his place on the right. 

It’s difficult to make a case for the inclusion of James McClean or Shane Long based on their club form, with neither a regular for their sides at the moment. 

3. How to overcome Ireland’s poor away form?

Kenny said it would be an “extraordinary achievement” to qualify for the Euros, as Ireland would effectively have to win back-to-back away games against Slovakia and then either Bosnia or Northern Ireland. None of those are particularly fearsome opponents, but then again, Ireland haven’t been striking fear into neutral hearts for some time either. 

Since Euro 2016, Ireland have won all of four competitive away games, and two of those were against Moldova and Gibraltar. The other two were more impressive, against Austria and Wales, both under Martin O’Neill. 

Kenny said on Sunday his players couldn’t be held back by this, but said there must be a reason for such a poor record. He then hinted unsubtly at said reason by saying, “We have got to be positive in our approach, and not reactive.” 

He says Ireland are “unlikely to be cautious” in their approach to Thursday’s game, and that they will seek to dominate the ball may be their way to overcome this problem. 

4. Are Slovakia more vulnerable than could have been expected? 

Slovakia came within a point of Wales and automatic qualification for the Euros in qualifying and Kenny has sung their praises in public, defining them as a possession-based team. 

But they have their own problems. Newcastle ‘keeper Martin Dubravka is out injured, with Marek Rodák, now on the bench at Fulham, likely to deputise. While Marek Hamsik is available having missed the September  double-header due to quarantine rules, Slovakia are currently amid frantic talks to extricate another midfielder from Hamsik’s old club, Napoli. 

italy-ssc-napoli-ss-lazio Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Stanislav Lobotka is an important player in the Slovak midfield – he plays in the six role and drops deep to start many of their attacks – but is currently self-isolating in Italy, under the instruction of local government. Napoli didn’t show for Sunday’s Serie A game with Juventus after two positive Covid-19 tests in their ranks, and even though Lobotka has continually tested negative for the virus so far, the local government continue to insist the squad quarantine. 

It would be a significant blow to Slovakia if he wasn’t available, and would suit Kenny’s aspiration that Ireland control possession. 

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Gavin Cooney

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