'We have made a huge step... We do not just whack the ball away under pressure'

Vera Pauw hailed Ireland’s improvement after they finished third in the Pinatar Cup.

Ireland manager Vera Pauw speaks to the team after the game.
Ireland manager Vera Pauw speaks to the team after the game.
Image: Martin Seras Lima/INPHO

VERA PAUW hailed Ireland’s improved displays after their third-place finish at the Pinatar Cup earlier this week.

The Dutchwoman believes the team have made considerable progress in the two and a half years since her appointment.

She oversaw the team’s disappointing failure to qualify for the 2022 Euros, but there has been evidence of a turnaround since.

They ended a seven-game losing run with an impressive 3-2 victory over Australia last September and have achieved further notable results since, with the most significant being the 2-1 World Cup qualification win away to Finland back in October.

Competing in the Pinatar Cup in recent days has yielded more positives.

After an encouraging opening 2-1 win over Poland, Ireland fielded an entirely different starting XI and missed out on a place in the final as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Russia three days later.

However, it was always the intention to try out different players, with preparation and experimentation prioritised over results ahead of April’s vital qualifier away to Sweden.

Nevertheless, finishing on a high, beating Wales 1-0 in the third-place play-off, is a nice morale boost ahead of more important games.

It is also further evidence of the team’s growing confidence in recent months.

“I think you have seen that there are new players coming in who play at an equal level as the ones that we are used to seeing on the pitch. And I think that is a huge step forward,” Pauw told reporters after the Wales win.

The Irish boss cites the increase in female footballers playing with boys at youth level, in addition to the greater prevalence of home-based sessions for underage players as reasons for the improving squad depth of late.

“Some players grow faster than other players, but you really see when they come in that they have already, let’s say, a huge backpack of tools with them, and now they are at a level coming into this level to grow further.”

Speaking more generally on the team, she added: “What I said to the players is we have made a huge step in being able to dominate a game. It’s now, can we do that for longer periods in the game? So we have made a huge step in that we do not just whack the ball away under pressure — sometimes we still do — but we can also show that we have the capacity of not giving the ball away and building up from there. We can play out from high pressure. So that is the next step in our development.” 

The Pinatar Cup has afforded Pauw the chance to give game time to some of the squad’s younger and less experienced members. 

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16-year-old Shelbourne youngster Abbie Larkin made her senior debut in the Russia game, while 17-year-old Wexford Youths player Ellen Molloy also started that encounter.

Leanne Kiernan, at 22, has been around the squad for much longer but is someone who has not been afforded many starts under Pauw of late. Yet the Liverpool attacker did her cause no harm with an eye-catching display in the Russia game in particular.

“The key thing for very young players is can they cope with the physical pressure of the opponent,” the Irish boss explained.” That is what we will constantly monitor. They’re very good technically, on the ball Ellen is extremely good, but defensively she needs to learn a lot because she’s playing in midfield. The defensive [role] of an attacking midfielder in the game is huge, so a young player will need to grow into that.

“Abbie is a player playing up front and that is an easier tactical task because you have more freedom there.

“Leanne is a power force and it is a matter what do we choose. Do we choose somebody who will try to break the defensive line, or do we choose more of a linking player?”

Pressed on whether she was tempted to change what she saw as her best XI for Sweden on the basis of the last few days, Pauw responded: “I cannot say that. We’ve just stepped off the pitch of our third game. But everybody can see how well Jessica Ziu is doing at the moment. She really brings another level of feeling and because she’s grown up between boys, you can see that she’s never in panic and she’s doing really well. If she will start against Sweden, we need to see because that depends on how it develops between now and then and based on what she shows, if she’s ready for it.

“Being young is not something against you, not at all. When you’re good enough, you’re old enough. But in those games, there’s a lot of tactical insight also, a lot of experience asked. So we need to see whether we go for her or whether we go for, for example, Aine O’Gorman, who’s got huge experience. But then there are other aspects that Jessica has better, so [getting] the balance will make us decide the final lineup. They’re very close to one another.”

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