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Analysis: Is Ireland's Robbie Brady better utilised at left-back or midfield?

The Norwich player has been regularly used in both positions this season.

Robbie Brady has developed into one of Ireland's most important players.
Robbie Brady has developed into one of Ireland's most important players.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

DURING THE EURO 2016 qualification campaign, Martin O’Neill — despite his reputation as a conservative coach — made the occasional surprise selection decision.

Daryl Murphy starting against Scotland at the Aviva last June was one example. Aside from the final 27 minutes against Gibraltar, effectively a no-lose situation, up until that point, Murphy hadn’t played any competitive action for Ireland since coming on as a last-minute substitute in a 0-0 draw against Germany in 2007 during the Steve Staunton era. Moreover, he has still yet to score in 16 appearances and over 600 minutes of play for Ireland.

Nevertheless, picking Murphy during the qualifying campaign seemed to work. The Ipswich striker, despite his lack of goals, has held the ball up well for Ireland in recent matches and worked tirelessly in the lone frontman role.

Another example of O’Neill’s largely unheralded audacity was the selection of Robbie Brady at left-back. He picked the Norwich man in the position for the first time in a big match at international level against Poland at home — a game Ireland badly needed a result in.

A mistake from Brady early on led to Poland’s opening goal. O’Neill could easily have lost faith and hauled the young player off there and then. Yet the manager remained steadfast in his loyalty to the inexperienced star, who arguably has become one of Ireland’s most important players since then.

O’Neill had tried out Brady at left-back twice before the Poland game. In the relatively relaxed circumstances of the final 20 minutes of a 7-0 win over Gibraltar and in a 4-1 friendly victory against USA — a game in which he scored a superb brace, including a stunning free-kick.

Consequently, Brady’s swift elevation into an integral player for the Irish team gives hope to other fringe members of the squad hoping to make an impression before the Euros this summer.

But there remains one uncertain issue about the former Hull player. He is one of the best technical players in the squad and is an expert at dead-ball deliveries, so most people will agree that he deserves a place in the starting XI this summer. But the question is where?

After the Poland match, Brady also played against Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar at the full-back. In contrast with those games that Ireland badly needed to win, Brady was then chosen on the left side of midfield in the home match against Germany — an encounter where a greater degree of caution was required.

Source: Мир Футбола/YouTube

He then reverted to left-back in Poland to accommodate Glenn Whelan’s return from suspension, but was put on the left wing for the first leg of the play-off against Bosnia, scoring the vital opening goal in the tie arguably as a result.

However, the Bosnians continually and successfully exploited Ireland’s defensively weak left side in their initial play-off encounter, as explored here, so it was no huge surprise to see Brady return to left-back for the second leg, as well as the match against Switzerland the other night.

Judging from O’Neill’s aforementioned decisions, he seems to pick Brady at left-back for the games he thinks Ireland need to win, whereas the 64-year-old coach is less willing to trust him there in the more difficult fixtures — namely, Germany at home and Bosnia away.

So what can we expect at the Euros? If O’Neill is consistent with his past track record, which is by no means guaranteed, as evidenced by his occasional penchant for an unpredictable name in the starting XI during qualification, Brady may well play the must-win Sweden game at left-back.

If Ireland get the three points in their opening encounter, O’Neill will likely be tempted to implement a more cautious, defensive-minded approach against Belgium and Italy. But if they fail to beat the Swedes, Ireland will almost certainly need to pick up three points somewhere else, meaning we will probably see more of Brady at left-back.

But how much of a risk is playing Robbie Brady in defence? As we saw away against Bosnia, refraining from picking Brady in the full-back slot is no guarantee of greater defensive solidity, with teams realising it is an area of weakness for the Boys in Green and targeting it regardless.

But there is evidence to suggest that Brady is weak at the back. It hasn’t always been obvious for Ireland, of course.

In fact, defence has probably been the most impressive aspect of O’Neill’s Ireland team. Over 10 games in the group stages of qualification, they conceded only seven goals, and also managed to let in just one goal over two games against a Bosnia team with some impressive attackers at their disposal.

Nonetheless, over the course of a season with Norwich, Brady’s flaws at full-back have been more conspicuous.

AFC Bournemouth v Norwich City - Barclays Premier League - Vitality Stadium Robbie Brady has impressed going forward for Norwich, but his defensive displays have been less accomplished. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The Canaries have conceded 54 goals in the league so far this season — only the bottom three Premier League sides have a marginally worse record. They also produced probably their best defensive performance of the season — the recent 0-0 draw with Man City — when Brady was out injured.

In addition, as also seems to be the case with Martin O’Neill, club boss Alex Neil seems unsure where Brady is best utilised. He has played 11 of his 29 starts for Norwich this season on the wing, and the rest at full-back.

The 5-4 defeat by Liverpool was one match where Brady’s lack of natural defensive instincts were highlighted.

Source: ElMaestroGaucho/YouTube

Check out the first goal, where Brady is caught badly out of position and plays goalscorer Roberto Firmino onside as a result.

offside

Norwich centre-back Sebastian Bassong is probably equally culpable for taking the gamble to step up to try to play offside, but it highlights the communication problems in defence of which the Irishman was clearly a big part in that instance.

Similarly, for the all-important last-minute winning goal from Adam Lallana, Brady is also at fault. He has not one but two chances to clear the ball, but instead, he unwittingly puts it back into the danger zone on both occasions.

clearance

Brady’s natural tendency is to play the ball to feet, which in a sense, is refreshing to see from an Irish player. However, this habit is not always a welcome one in defensive situations.

While Brady’s performances going forward have been largely excellent for Ireland, he looks vulnerable at the back on occasion. The game against Poland was a prime example. For the Poles’ opening goal, he was culpable, as his blind pass to Marc Wilson put Ireland in big trouble.

blind

Of course, Brady has also brought many attributes to Ireland’s game. He has created goals with his set pieces and adds some much-needed composure in possession. He was directly responsible for the corner that led to the first goal the other night against Switzerland, for instance.

Source: Super Highlights/YouTube

And Brady could potentially iron out the flaws in his defensive game with more experience in the left-back role. After all, Seamus Coleman was not always so assured defensively either, but the Everton man has improved substantially in that regard in recent years.

One question that needs to be asked, though, is why his managers seem so reluctant to put Brady on the left-wing. Alex Neil and Martin O’Neill weren’t the first managers to ask the St Kevin’s Boys youth product to play as a makeshift defender. Steve Bruce selected him in Hull’s backline on occasion, while even Alex Ferguson picked him there in pre-season tours during the Irishman’s early days at Man United.

Perhaps the problem is that Brady is a David Beckham-style winger (though of course, he is not quite in the Man United legend’s class). For all his technical excellence, he lacks the lightning pace to beat opponents on a regular basis. Consequently, a running machine with superior athletic prowess in the style of James McClean is often preferred to Brady in attack.

Yet arguably Ireland’s best performance of the qualifying campaign (at home against Germany) saw Brady chosen in midfield, with the 24-year-old’s passing ability giving Ireland some vital fluidity and composure in the final third.

Of course, the other problem with picking Brady in midfield is that it would result in another regular choice being dropped — likely one of Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy or Wes Hoolahan.

Whether or not you agree that Brady is better utilised in midfield or defence, one point is surely certain — the Norwich star needs to settle in one position or the other. With practice comes perfection and Brady’s development will likely be hampered if he continues to be used as a utility player.

The Dubliner will probably never master the art of defending if he is constanty being switched back and forth from left-back to midfield and vice versa.

Moreover, Stephen Ward’s improvement for Burnley this season means Irish left-back options do not appear quite as limited as before. Meanwhile, Marc Wilson and Matt Doherty are other potential alternatives to Brady in defence.

So given his shakiness at full-back for Norwich this season, perhaps Brady is better off further forward for Ireland.

Poorer teams have failed to capitalise on the Norwich player’s defensive inadequacies at international level, but this issue is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the likes of Italy and Belgium, and any slip-ups in the future will surely be punished by the better sides.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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