Casual second-half collapse prompts questions about killer instinct in Stephen Kenny era
Late on Tuesday evening, Dara O’Shea confirmed that Stephen Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews were unhappy when they came into the dressing-room after the victory over Armenia.
It was good to hear.
Far too much time in the Kenny era has been devoted to the breakdown of his press conference statements, but that’s a product of moderate results. Nobody is analysing this stuff in great detail when teams are winning. Martin O’Neill’s grapples with RTÉ only became a thing when the train was starting to slide off the tracks.
Kenny can be very interesting in the right setting, yet he’s said things in the immediate aftermath of games that have posed him problems.
Remember, the statement about winning Ireland’s Nations League group came in the aftermath of a friendly win over Qatar last October which was two months before the actual draw took place.
If he’d known Ukraine and Scotland were opponents in waiting, he might have approached that differently.
Then again, there was perhaps a bit of game-playing going on at that juncture, with Kenny in campaigning mood with his contract situation up in the air. Now that he’s got the security of that contract, there’s a niggling fear that he remains in that mode when criticisms are raised.
Tuesday night’s second-half collapse was bad, and Kenny did describe the period as madness, but he provided ammunition for sceptics by speaking of a “convincing victory” and “exceptional” periods of play in a game where Armenia allowed Ireland to have the ball for long periods.
In saying that, those misjudged statements did cloud over some answers that offered a little more insight into a post-mortem which will presumably be imparted to the players for future reference.
Interestingly, Nathan Collins appeared to be in the firing line for his approach to the second half, with Kenny elaborating on a reference to overlapping centre-backs. Collins was certainly to the fore in this regard.
“It’s a fine line between a centre-half running, dribbling and scoring against Ukraine beating five or six players and then criticising him for doing it again, but I just think the context of the game when you’re winning 2-0 is different. You know that kind of way?” said Kenny.
“All our centre-backs, and not just the centre-backs, even our wing-backs, we were just a bit too eager. We were too advanced on the pitch collectively for a team winning 2-0. But listen, that is not to say we won’t continue to attack because we will.
“That’s what we’re committed to, we’re committed to playing the way we want to play.”
The fear around Tuesday is that the issues raised by Kenny in the aftermath weren’t addressed if it was obvious from the sideline. Conor Hourihane’s mistake for the Armenian equaliser doesn’t need to be picked apart in detail; it’s plain to see what a nightmare moment it was for the Corkman.
What’s perhaps more relevant is his role in the first. It was a left-footed cross into the area from the Derby player that was collected before the Armenian goalkeeper could take his time before throwing the ball into the centre of the park, an unusual tactic which succeeded in taking all three Irish midfielders out of the game with casual recovery runs from Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick punished, although Matt Doherty and Collins didn’t cover themselves in glory either.
It’s illuminating to watch the five minutes before that. Kenny spoke last year of how Ireland had worked on a tactic where Hourihane would ping in what was described as a Kevin De Bruyne style, whipped, first-time cross. A goal in Andorra was created from this strategy, yet a significant difference is that Josh Cullen was present as Hourihane’s partner.
Without him, there was nobody switched on enough to cover as Hourihane took those positions on Tuesday and this was with an extra midfielder on the pitch compared to last June. Hourihane had replaced Jayson Molumby in the sitting role but there was no dovetailing when he roamed forward.
In the 67th minute, Hourihane fired in a cross that was nearly met by Matt Doherty at the far post but was cleared out of touch. A minute later Collins went on a marauding run forward that concluded with a back-heel that was cut off by an Armenian. He was smiling on the way back to his station. Ireland were so comfortable, it was casual. Once Armenia succeeded in collecting Hourihane’s next delivery and keeping it in play, they exposed Ireland’s attitude.
Ironically enough, at an earlier point in the second half, Kenny was visible on the sideline warning Hendrick about dropping off too much with the Irish press fragmented.
Kenny was asked about his instructions in the 20 minute window between Michael Obafemi’s goal and the comeback. “Yeah, you know, (that) we didn’t need to chase it.
“Just calm down and relax and keep possession and control the game more,” he added.
Did you see it becoming a risk he was asked?
“Yeah, we passed them instructions and so forth, We did.”
Evidently, it didn’t get through.
The obsessive focus on management in every aspect of Ireland analysis means that he cops the majority of the flak and the sideline have to accept responsibility for what unfolded. But the game-management on the pitch was poor too.
Ireland were well drilled in executing a game-plan in Scotland, and struggled in the second half when they simply ran out of energy. On this occasion, they switched off, believing the work was done. It’s that lack of a killer instinct which is alarming.
Perhaps there was a determination to run up a number on the Armenians given what unfolded in Yerevan. But while Kenny has always encouraged freedom of expression, this was an occasion where it manifested itself as a loss in discipline.
Talk of learning lessons is familiar; the curriculum for Kenny’s Ireland is varied at this stage.
They’ve sampled firing blanks for 90 minutes against moderate opponents, and the pain of giving up leads away from home in matches with stronger teams that eventually found a way past a spirited effort. And a year ago this month, there was the other major stroke of luck of the Kenny era, a late equaliser against a Serbia team that scored an own goal after missing chance after chance.
Aviva fans were jubilant on that occasion whereas the haunted looks at full-time post-Armenia were telling. For all the public talk of convincing victory the hope is that, internally, it is viewed as a concerning one.