The development of Idah, Connolly and Parrott is key to strengthening attacking options
The sight of Ireland supporters banging on the windows of a press conference hall on Sunday evening to declare their backing for Stephen Kenny provided a surreal ending to a strange World Cup campaign.
Weariness of debates around his future is countered by the fact that the hardcore supporters seem determined to have their voice heard. The closed-door vacuum allowed people to speculate on how they might be feeling, often with little evidence to back it up.
Ireland’s aborted mission to Qatar may have started in silence in March,
but through an autumn where stadiums have opened up again, it is clear that the majority of the match-going public are fully behind the manager, a position that some observers find baffling when they look at the league table.
This reflects a buy-in to the bigger picture, and Kenny’s persuasive argument that this qualifying campaign was a stepping stone towards building a “brilliant” team for the future.
At this juncture, it feels inevitable that he will be kept on for the 2024 European Championships campaign, with the nub of the debate now revolving around when the FAI will make that call.
Make no mistake about it, the pressure will be stifling when that comes around because Ireland shouldn’t be letting 24-team Euros tournaments pass them by. It’s unlikely that away fans will be chanting his name if that tilt ends in disappointment.
Where does Kenny go from here? There are two friendly matches in March, likely in Dublin against decent opposition, before four UEFA Nations League encounters in June and another pair in September.
Those games are important in the context of providing security for the Euros campaign with strong results enough to effectively guarantee a play-off before that race starts.
Ultimately, though, the mission for Ireland has to be getting themselves into a position where they can be genuine top-two contenders for the group that runs across 2023. Indeed, the importance of those UEFA Nations League games is not just the play-off comfort blanket, it’s the ability to positively influence seeding position for the draw.
There’s no sense that the Irish camp feel they have cracked the code off the back of meaningful wins away to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg. Within the group, the message on Sunday was that there was still a lot of improvement needed. And the Luxembourg performance did illustrate that.
Ireland have grown into their new system across the year but the most controlling performance was in the home friendly against Qatar.
They did eventually assert dominance over both Azerbaijan and Luxembourg with strong second-half showings that reflected clever in-game management.
However, superior teams would have punished some deficiencies earlier in those fixtures although the more conservative approach at home to Portugal reflected that Ireland will sensibly moderate their approach from game to game. This sounds pretty straightforward but, in previous campaigns, Irish sides have actually toiled in matches against teams such as Georgia by having a one-dimensional approach.
Under Kenny, the group is developing a personality that creates confidence that should leave them better placed to deal with those type of tests. But that extra ambition will leave them vulnerable to a sucker punch.
Ireland have now reverted to a system that could be described as 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2 demanding on the personnel use and the contrast between in and out of possession. For example, Jason Knight’s impact sub role on Sunday was to be a left-sided attacker when Ireland had the ball and then revert back to a number 10 – with Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene becoming a front two – when Luxembourg had it.
In truth, it’s the selection and balance of the front three that has been a recurring issue for management, in some cases because of inconsistency of the players and in other cases because of the wrong starting sides being picked. A consequence of Ireland’s settled team is that other sides will know how to tailor their plans accordingly.
Teams will be wary of Ogbene’s pace, but they will also know that Ireland can be tested with a quick turnover of possession when bodies are committed. Underdog opponents are more likely then to absorb pressure and try and hit Ireland on the counter.
What would help Kenny is if Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly all made progress in their respective club careers as their skill-sets are varied. Inevitably, teams will view Robinson as the danger man so the emergence of Parrott as a viable Plan B would be welcomed. At his best, Connolly can travel with the ball and trouble defenders but the less polished Ogbene is delivering a superior service. But it’s life decisions at club level that will determine the trajectory of these individuals.
There are other factors that are beyond Kenny’s control with the passage of time. He has found a way of accommodating Séamus Coleman and Matt Doherty in the same side but his skipper will be 34 when the Euro qualifiers kick off and his willingness to put his body on the line has come at a cost.
Ireland are very well stocked defensively, so managing the use of Coleman will be a challenge going forward. The development of Andrew Omobamidele, Nathan Collins and the returning Dara O’Shea shouldn’t be halted by the solid Coleman-Shane Duffy-John Egan axis that shone this month.
Jeff Hendrick, Duffy and Doherty will all turn 30 before the next set of games, with Egan hitting the landmark later in 2022. That 1992 generation are in the prime of their careers in many respects, but the dearth of options born in the following years – Will Keane (1993), Callum O’Dowda and Alan Browne (both 1995) – highlights how the age balance of a panel can change quickly.
Kenny has drawn the best from his older guard, while remaining mindful of the importance of gradually preparing for the changing of it. Light has emerged from a year that began in darkness, but there’s still a fair distance to travel before Ireland can fully emerge from the tunnel.