Dublin: 3°C Monday 29 November 2021

Tactics Board: is this really Ireland we're watching?

Shane Keegan looks back at how Ireland’s two impressive victories this week were achieved in a very different manner and explains why that’s such a positive for Ireland going forward.

Ireland boss Stephen Kenny on the sideline last weekend.
Ireland boss Stephen Kenny on the sideline last weekend.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Two wins. Two very different styles of play.

Stephen Kenny’s side recorded two equally comprehensive victories over the course of four days early this week, but the manner in which they were achieved could not have been more different.

As I commented on in the breakdown of the Azerbaijan performance, Ireland managed only 37% possession during their 3-0 win last Saturday evening. This was an incredibly low number given both the manager’s reputation for wanting to keep hold of the ball and their opponent’s lowly rank of 117th in the world.

But when you win a game as comfortably as Ireland did that night nobody gets too concerned about possession stats. After all, this was exactly the sort of template that they would need to copy when they come up against Portugal in their next competitive game.
But what about the equally, if not more, important game against Luxembourg that will draw a conclusion to Ireland’s qualifying campaign?

Kenny and his side will need to finish with a positive result in that game to carry the current mood of optimism into next year’s Nations Cup campaign. Surely the game plan couldn’t revolve around trying to win with just 37% possession again.

If Qatar was a dress rehearsal for how we intend try and play in that game, then we got our answer.

Encouraging stats

Let’s start with some of the numbers from the Qatar game.

  • 57% possession
  • 613 passes
  • 92% pass accuracy


Yes, it all has to be placed in the context of the performance coming against a Qatar side that looked poor and seemed very passive. But they are ranked 74 places higher in the FIFA rankings than the side we played four days previous so Ireland may have made them look a lot worse than they are.

Fluidity allows Ireland to dominate the ball

The most interesting and encouraging aspect of this Irish performance was the consistent and fluid interchanging of positions.

Given that our last three permanent managers – McCarthy, O’Neill, Trapattoni – built their careers on having a strict structure, where players stuck rigidly to their positions, this is something that is entirely new.

This passage of play below was the first half’s best example of the kind of player movements that we were seeing on a regular basis.

It starts with Jeff Hendrick stepping in to intercept an Azerbaijan attack. At the point where he picks up the ball, we can see that Jamie McGrath, who is nominally playing as one of the two attackers behind the centre forward, has dropped right back in to create a midfield three.

Pic 1 (1)

McGrath did this on a consistent basis all night, helping Ireland to establish firm possession and play out from the back. But we will also see he also repeatedly popped up in the centre forward position when Callum Robinson pulled into other areas.

The intelligence of his movement is a credit to the young Meath man, but it is also one of a number of clear indications of what the coaching staff are teaching these players on the training ground.

Ireland work the ball across to Shane Duffy who has found himself on the right of the back three as Omobamidele has moved inside him. Duffy’s ball forward to Ogbene is a pass we would expect him to make, but his decision to follow that up by making a run up the centre of the pitch himself certainly is not.

Pic 2 (1)

Ogbene is fouled and Ireland decide to take a quick short free kick. Three passes later and Duffy is still standing upfront beside centre forward Callum Robinson, before he reluctantly retreats.

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If this movement were a one-off from the Derry man, then we would probably write it off as a rush of blood to head. But it wasn’t a one-off and it would happen again later in the game.

As we can see in the image above McGrath is back in a tight midfield unit again but as the play progresses all three players expand out into vastly different positions, with Hendrick taking the ball wide on the right while McGrath has moved into the centre forward position vacated by Robinson.

Ogbene is floating around in a dangerous inside right position and Doherty is so high and wide that he is out of the picture.

Pic 4 (1)

The ball makes its way across to Duffy, back in his central role, and as he opens out to play left we see another unusual movement. Rather than holding the width as you would expect, Enda Stevens comes infield into a central position. This is a trigger for Robinson to move wide into the space that has been vacated.

Pic 5 (1)

Stevens then plays the ball to Robinson and follows up with an overlapping run down the outside of him. This buys the in-form attacker the room he needs to drive inside and deliver a pinpoint cross to the head of Ogbene, now in the centre forward position, but his effort comes back off the crossbar.

Pic 6 (1)

Pic 7 (1)

This may seem like an over-analysis of a single passage of play, but it perfectly highlights the ease with which the players moved throughout the field in relation to each other’s positioning.

But making this kind of movement happen is anything but easy. It requires so much work on the training ground and relies on complete buy-in and trust from the players on the pitch.

An 18-pass move, with continues positional switches, that so very nearly resulted in a goal is not the sort of thing we are used to seeing from this Irish team.
Things would get even better.

Dissecting ‘that’ goal

In the 57th minute of the game Callum Robinson is fouled and Ireland have a free just inside their own half of the field. They proceeded to retain the ball for the next 74 seconds, going from right to left or visa-versa, six times before eventually attempting to play a progressive pass.

Omobamidele, knowing that the opposition front two have been sucked across to the left by the constant switching of play, takes his opportunity to step in with the ball. Qatar’s number six Hatem, who had been closely tracking Hendrick, now has to come off him and go and meet the advancing player.

Spotting this, the Norwich centre half quickly plays the ball passed him into Hendrick’s path and Ireland, have shown a lot of patience, were now into the attacking half of the field and on the front foot.

Pic 8 (1)

Two passes later and we were seeing another example of the side’s positional flexibility. Robinson again drops deep to pick up a ball in space while McGrath joins Hendrick and Hourihane to make that central trio.

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This could have left Ireland short of options higher up but as we can see, left wing back Ends Stevens pops up in another unorthodox position to help to maintain an attacking threat.

Pic 9 (1)

Ireland come back across the field through Hourihane who plays it back out right to Omobamidele who has now come forward to take up an extremely advanced position.

Pic 10 (1)

A couple of attempts to progress down the right-hand side get circulated back around and the ball ends up back with Shane Duffy who then beats the approaching player and strides forward with the ball before playing it sideways to Omobamidele.

Yet again, Duffy takes the unusual but encouraged decision to continue forward on his run without the ball.

Pic 11 (1)

Pic 12 (1)

As Hendrick picks up the ball, Qatar’s centre back Al Rawi is understandably agitated by the unexpected presence of a big man just off his right shoulder. This proves just enough of a distraction to allow Callum Robinson to dart across him and onto Hendrick’s through ball before finishing nicely into the bottom left-hand corner.

Pic 13 (1)

Pic 14 (1)

One hundred and twenty-four seconds of possession. Thirty-eight consecutive passes. The left wing back and the centre half both appearing up front at different stages.

Are we sure this was Ireland we were watching?


It may still be too early to definitively say that Stephen Kenny’s Ireland have turned a corner but what we did see this week was a superbly coached side who new how to get the job done with two very different game plans.

This is extremely encouraging and a sign that the manager and his coaching staff are learning, adapting and improving from game to game.

Will Ireland now fancy their chances of being able to get a positive result against Portugal despite most likely having very little of the ball? Will they also be confident that they can go and dominate possession against Luxembourg and open them up with clever patterns of movement.

Given this week’s performances, the answer will now most likely be a resounding yes on both fronts.


Listen to Shane Keegan’s archive of conversations about leadership with Ireland’s top coaches by becoming a member of The42.

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