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Tactics Board: Cullen the catalyst as Ireland show more progress under Kenny

The Boys in Green eventually got their just rewards against Luxembourg to end the World Cup qualification campaign on a positive note, writes Shane Keegan.

Updated Nov 16th 2021, 2:32 PM

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IT MAY NOT have been as fluid a performance as last week’s draw with Portugal at the Aviva Stadium, but all’s well that ends well.

Ireland huffed and puffed for over an hour but impressively remained steadfast in their attempts to get their passing game going.

And when it finally clicked, they got their rewards.

Cullen the catalyst yet again

republic-of-ireland-manager-stephen-kenny-and-josh-cullen-at-full-time-after-the-fifa-world-cup-qualifying-match-at-the-stade-de-luxembourg-luxembourg-city-picture-date-sunday-november-14-2021 Stephen Kenny and Josh Cullen at full-time. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Despite never really getting into a proper flow in the first half, Ireland still managed to maintain 54% possession during that period. This was primarily down to yet another exquisite performance form Josh Cullen.

The Anderlecht player was on the ball far more than any other player on field, always making himself an option for his team-mates, and completed 35 of 36 attempted passes.

In the 24th minute of the game we got a prime example of what he offers this side. Ireland started with a free-kick deep in their own half and embarked on a 34-pass period of possession which saw Cullen on the ball on seven separate occasions during the phase of play.

The passage finishes with John Egan slightly overhitting his pass to Adam Idah to bring an end to the sustained attack.

The vast array of passing options that Cullen offers and executes from various positions across the field during the build-up gives a great snapshot of what he is always about.

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Knight in shining armour

Rarely has there been such an undisputable catalyst behind a team’s triumph as Jason Knight’s introduction into this game.

Having earned the free-kick that brought the first goal, he then went on to play major roles in second and third also. His run and cut-back to set up Chiedozie Ogbene’s finish was impressive. But the genesis of the goal needs to be traced back much further to show the full Kenny DNA.

A common theme with his Irish sides is their unwillingness to allow opposition keepers any time on the ball.

We see this again below as Ogbene spots the pass back to Ralph Schon and rushes in to ensure he doesn’t have time to take a touch and settle.

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Instead, he is forced to kick long straight away to an area where Shane Duffy is only too happy to win one of his customary aerial duels.

Cullen, as ever, is there to pick up the pieces, jinks away from three challenges, and sets back to Seamus Coleman to secure possession for Ireland.

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When Coleman finds Matt Doherty out wide, the temptation is there to make an attacking run straight away but wary of being closed down by Gerson Rodrigues he instead shows patience by checking back inside and switching the play back across to Duffy.

As he does so, Cullen drifts across to that side of the field, drawing Rodrigues and Olivier Thill with him. Three passes later and Duffy is returning the ball to Doherty, who now has much more time and space to lift his head and pick his pass into Robinson, who is just out of shot.

Jeff Hendrick’s movement is great here. Instead of just standing and watching, he drifts in behind Rodrigues to make himself an option for Callum Robinson to set back to.

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Ogbene immediately offers to go in behind but it’s also worth noting the run of Knight at this point.

You could make an argument that by the time Hendrick releases the ball, he chooses the wrong option, as Knight has got himself into a superb position and is telling him where he wants it.

Vahid Selimovic is obviously worried about the pace of Ogbene but why he’s so deep in comparison to the rest of his backline makes no sense.

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Hendrick’s pass is slightly overhit and causes a brief turnover in possession but Ireland win it back straight away thanks to the combined efforts of Ogbene and Knight.

Time and again, Ogbene manages to box opposition players into a corner and make life difficult for them, as he does here.

Knight, as Ogbene had done earlier in the move, positions himself to rush in on the keeper had the ball been set back to him.

Between the two players, they manage to force a poor clearance from Selimovic and Ireland are back on the front foot with Hendrick.

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Knight again is not shy in telling him exactly where he wants it, and Hendrick duly obliges by sliding a perfectly weighted pass through the gap with the outside of his boot.

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Ogbene, never sleeping, is on the go again and is in the perfect position to capitalise on Knight’s clever cut-back to wrap up a fantastic team move.

Such was Ireland’s commitment to attack at this point that wing-back James McClean was standing just yards away and would have had an even easier finish had Ogbene chose to square it.

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The third goal, though stylistically very different, was equally impressive. When Alan Browne intercepts a poor pass, there are only two Irish players, Robinson and Knight, ahead of him, while Luxembourg have five bodies goal-side.

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But the lung-busting runs made by James McClean and Knight open up the whole pitch. McClean starts on the edge of his own 18-yard box but is quickly up over the halfway line and receiving Browne’s offload out wide.

Meanwhile, the run that Knight makes is so intelligent and shows just how clever a footballer he is.

Instead of taking the shortest route to goal by running straight up the middle of the field, he drives out wide right where he has recognised the space and the opportunity to go unnoticed, before appealing to McClean to find him.

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McClean does exactly that with a pinpoint cross to the back post area where again Knight shows his cleverness. Instead to trying to squeeze the shot passed the onrushing Schon, he leaps high to cushion it back towards Robinson, who is left with the easiest of finishes.

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There were just 13 seconds between Browne picking up the ball and Robinson tapping home.

Conclusion

This tweet by Andrew Cunneen, Data Integration Editor at Stats Perform, goes some way to highlighting just how much of a fundamental shift there has been in our playing style under Kenny.

This feat is more impressive when you consider the drop off over the last ten years in the standard that Irish players have been playing their club football.

Kenny shipped a lot of criticism over the last year and, at times, some of it was justified. But Ireland simply could not have reached the place they are now at without first enduring those hardships.

As some elements of the performance showed again on Sunday night, the team are still learning and far from perfect, but I cannot comprehend how anybody could credibly claim at this point that the manager does not deserve a new contract.

Bring on 2022.

- Originally published at 12.07

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