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Dublin: 8°C Thursday 22 October 2020
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Ignore the culture wars - Kenny is making progress but improvements are needed

Ireland have shown plenty of encouraging signs over the last week, but the bare stats show there is still as serious problem in front of goal.

Shane Duffy after defeat to Finland.
Shane Duffy after defeat to Finland.
Image: Tomi Hänninen/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY’S TAKING over as Ireland manager always felt like it had the stirrings of a culture war.

Here was a guy who didn’t bother watching Ireland winning under Jack Charlton as he didn’t like the style of football; a guy who made his name in a widely scorned domestic league and who talked dreamily about the fact Irish players could be better than they have ever trusted to be.

He seemed a direct repudiation of the principles along which the Irish national team have been running since the Charlton years: the style didn’t matter as long as we might be winning, the national league was to be largely ignored, and there was to be a reverence for overpaid managers and intangibles like “spirit” to compensate for the fact that our lads weren’t really all that good. 

Kenny didn’t curb his ambition when he got the top job, talking of how he want to break Ireland’s association with “the British style…we want to be successful in changing the way Irish football is viewed worldwide.” 

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Some will see this as Irish football finally looking outward to Europe and the world; others will sniff at is as Ireland trying to take her place among the notions of the Earth. 

If this is a culture war, then it’s being fought online like all the others.

While an Irish manager has never worked in these circumstances before, it’s worth pointing out he has never been supported like this, either.

stephen-kenny Kenny, at an empty Aviva Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Football is supposed to be a collective experience, but, grimly, a Covid world means fans’ only collective experience of the Kenny regime so far has been on social media, where opinions go to become validated and entrenched. 

This creates a problem for the media too.

The Irish press pack have largely been covering Kenny’s away games from their own homes, and haven’t been able to benefit from the chorus of supporters at the Aviva stadium so the weathervanes are currently online. 

How much credence should we give to the people who believe Kenny is out of his depth, citing failure in supposedly only serious job outside of Ireland? 

And, conversely, how seriously should we take the people calling for a squad filled with League of Ireland players and nobody over the age of 22? 

These are examples from zealots and exaggerated sceptics, but diluted versions of these views seep into the media and, occasionally, tilt the narrative around games to become a kind of referendum on the manager. 

Those entrenched on the Vote No side will have found last night’s defeat to be a textbook validation for their own views, as long spells of Irish passing which yielded nothing other than a cheap Finland goal and another defeat. 

Amid it all, we can lose sight of the context in which Kenny is working.

The first and most obvious is the utterly berserk reality of football in a time of Covid, which has cost him eight players across three games, all but one of them the morning of each game. Injuries, suspension and Covid-related drama have cost Kenny even the outline of a settled team, and the fewest number of game-to-game selection changes has has made so far is three.

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Then there is the singularly grey context of being Ireland manager. Kenny is taking over a side in the slough of a years-long run of bad results and worse football. 

Ireland have scored just once under Kenny in five games, but they weren’t exactly free-wheeling scorers prior to that. Since Euro 2016, Ireland have scored 22 goals in 24 competitive games. Take out the games against Moldova and Gibraltar, and that drops to 15 goals in 20 games. 

That is quite a large sample size of Things Not Working, along with the impalpable fact that Ireland’s dreary style became a means difficult to justify without the end of a piss-up at a major tournament.

The broad consensus at the end of Martin O’Neill’s tenure was that Ireland needed to do something different; those laments about Robbie Keane’s age and the Clough anecdotes had worn stick-thin. 

Mick McCarthy did not have the time, brief, or willingness to do anything fundamentally different, but across five games, Kenny’s Ireland are already doing something exactly that, and are passing the ball far more than ever before.

In the four Nations League games to date, Ireland have completed 1943 passes, which is almost 700 more than they did in the four games in the same competition under Martin O’Neill two years ago. Ireland’s pass completion rate is at 88%, which is second only to Spain at 90%.

Kenny is only insisting on this style as it believes it is the best way to win games; it’s a different kind of pragmatism than the one we’re used to. 

But while previous managers have lamented the lack of a natural goalscorer, Kenny is working on an approach that will create chances for a side lacking a frontman who can create them himself.

Zero goals from open play in five games isn’t exactly a testament to it working, but it has yielded a series of good chances in the games so far, with Conor Hourihane and Shane Long responsible for the most glaring misses so far.

The criticism is that Ireland have not been creating enough of them. A pretty interesting recent analysis of Arsenal by the American writer Ryan O’Hanlon pointed out that the – perhaps obvious – correlation between shooting statistics and success: the sides that shot the most often won the most often. 

sean-maguire-dejected-after-a-missed-chance Sean Maguire reacts to a missed chance. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

While the passing stats have improved radically under Kenny, the shooting stats have not. In Mick McCarthy’s final five games, Ireland averaged 2.8 shots on target per game. 

Kenny’s side have averaged 3.4 over these first five games, with the benefit of an extra half-hour in Slovakia.

Solving that conundrum is a challenge, though encouragingly he seems to have fixed a flaw from September’s games by tweaking his system.

Ireland were too easy to play through in the games with Bulgaria and Finland in September, but bar a couple of helter-skelter moments in the first half in Bratislava, his switch to a 4-2-3-1 has made Ireland a lot more defensively sound without sacrificing much in attack. 

The results need to improve, of course, but these last three games have shown enough to suggest they will as a consequence of Ireland’s better performances. 

To argue things are not improving would be wrong, so perhaps this war will now be fought as to whether they are improving quickly enough. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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