The Mick McCarthy era is in full swing after the Ireland boss named his first provisional squad for the upcoming games against Gibraltar and Georgia.
We examine some systems McCarthy could deploy as his return game away to Gibraltar quickly approaches.
We have selected squads based on the players picked in Thursday’s provisional squad, however, some of these players may drop out due to injuries or fitness issues, for example, James McCarthy is unlikely to travel but is included in many of the below teams.
These hypothetical teams are not necessarily a representation of the best XI available but rather try to get across the systems that could be used.
In his later days at Ipswich, McCarthy used the 3-5-2 which was also seen during his early days as Ireland boss. Matt Doherty, a right wing-back has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season while Enda Stevens who plays on the opposite side has been working wonders in the Championship.
Seamus Coleman is also an ideal candidate for right wing-back with many calls to play him in a similar role to Kyle Walker with England as a right centre-back which would suit his solidity.
Cyrus Christie, James McClean and Robbie Brady are also capable of playing in the wing-back positions. At centre-half, Shane Duffy seems an automatic pick with John Egan and Derrick Williams in particular, two players with experience of playing in a back three. The selection of Doherty and Stevens would be in this system to create although Robbie Brady may be the man to feature on the left.
In midfield, a holder in the form of James McCarthy or the returning Glenn Whelan would allow for two more box-to-box midfielders to occupy the area in front of the defence with Cork men Alan Browne and Conor Hourihane the likely candidates to complete the midfield.
Top flight operators Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick could also slot in nicely ahead of the sitter. However, Hendrick seems to be reinvented as a right winger at Burnley in the last few weeks with Browne the more likely candidate.
Connecting the midfield and attack could be McCarthy favourite David McGoldrick. The 31 year old is thriving in the same system, playing a slightly deeper role at Sheffield United.
The former Ipswich man could be the key to getting the best out of Shane Long who has looked isolated for Ireland in the last few years. However, McCarthy could go for in-form Sean Maguire instead or the bulky target man James Collins.
A 3-4-3 could be another option just like Matt Doherty’s Wolves, however, this could leave Ireland’s available midfielders exposed given the space it leaves in the middle of the park.
If McCarthy wants to replicate his style of 2002, 4-2-3-1 could be the most beneficial system.
In the back four, there will be a mystery around who plays at right-back. McCarthy has revealed a reluctance to choose both Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty although the latter can play at left-back or on the right-wing.
At left-back, Enda Stevens looks the favourite although natural winger Robbie Brady has played some of his best football for Ireland from the left-back slot and has similar attributes to Ian Harte, a key man in McCarthy’s last squad. Coleman and Brady would provide an extra attacking outlet from deep in addition to the experience they offer.
A two man sitting midfield could come in the form of James McCarthy and Harry Arter, two Premier League players who can break up the play and hold possession.
Glenn Whelan looks more likely to take the role from McCarthy who is struggling for fitness. By playing a sitting two, Ireland would be able to play an attacking three ahead of them to allow them to play higher up the pitch.
This attacking three is likely to come in any combination of the aforementioned Matt Doherty, Alan Browne, David McGoldrick, James McClean or Callum O’Dowda. With the holding two doing the dirty work, the attacking three can provide the creative outlet for the lone striker. Maguire could be the man for the job given Long’s struggles as the lone man.
The 4-2-3-1 could fit in Ireland’s experienced campaigners like Coleman, Brady and Whelan along with some in-form players like O’Dowda, Browne, Doherty and McGoldrick. The team could finally be allowed to play with a bit more attacking fluidity given the two layers in midfield which can be easily reverted back to a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 of thicker banks if backs are against the wall.
It is an adjustable system with attacking outlets from back to front and can also be adjusted into the above 3-5-2.
A formation mentioned by McCarthy several times when pressed about what he could deploy. A flatter 4-3-3, the one sitting midfielder can allow for a more attack-minded midfield with Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne two central men with goals in them who could slot in ahead.
It would also encourage Ireland’s talented fullbacks to get forward with the protection of the holding midfielder. The wide men may be expected to carry out more defensive burdens by sitting that bit deeper than a 4-3-3 with Aiden McGeady and James McClean well suited to the system, however, it is hard to see past Matt Doherty and Callum O’Dowda out wide.
Despite his lack of goals, Shane Long may be favoured given his top flight and international experience but the ex-Reading man has struggled up top on his own.
Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire lack the physicality at international level to lead the line on their own in such an isolated system with Aiden O’Brien, Ronan Curtis and David McGoldrick served better wider and or deeper.
James Collins could be the man to play up top in this system with his bulky 6’2 frame with Michael Obafemi and technically gifted Callum Robinson options on their own when they return from injury. If Patrick Bamford does declare, he would be the ideal man to fill the position.
Although the 4-1-4-1 may allow Ireland to hold the ball for longer periods than they are used to, it may not solve the goals problem. An attacking midfield two of Hourihane and Browne or the more robust Arter and Hendrick could allow the midfield to get in the box more but may not provide enough of a link with the lone striker which was a telling problem under Martin O’Neill in several of his formations.
Under Marin O’Neill, some of Ireland’s best nights came with a 4-4-2 diamond formation. This is another formation that was popular with McCarthy during his Ipswich tenure and at times during his stint with Wolves. In fact, it was the 4-3-1-2 formation that saw Ipswich reach the play offs under McCarthy in 2015.
However, McCarthy played a wider diamond compared to O’Neill’s tight and compact diamond that usually saw a midfield four of James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan. Although Hoolahan has now retired, the other three are still knocking around and both Hendrick and Brady are playing in a wide position for Burnley with Hendrick adjusting well to his new role.
This would offer the perfect balance between a holding midfielder in McCarthy and two players equally adept out wide or more in-field in Hendrick and Brady, drifting from central midfield to the wing.
With no Hoolahan, McCarthy may go for Alan Browne or Alan Judge who he has name-checked several times. Judge has played in this system with Brentford in the past and seems like the closest thing to Wes Hoolahan around the present squad.
The midfield four offers the balance between a robust and creative outlet with overlapping fullbacks providing the primary layer of width. The problem is, it may not accommodate Coleman and Doherty as nicely.
Although Doherty can play on the left, having him cut in may not get the best out of the Wolves man. It would also seem less likely that Callum O’Dowda, James McClean or Aiden McGeady would feature in this system, although McGeady has played as a number 10 this season at times for Sunderland.
Again, we see an opportunity for McCarthy to play with his preferred front two. David McGoldrick has played up front in this system for McCarthy while at Ipswich as have Shane Long and James McClean under O’Neill.
This could see McCarthy turn to one of his tried and tested systems although it could mean sacrificing some of his more talented squad members. The midfield four can be given a shape to pass the ball tightly in attack and hunt the man in possession as a pack in defence, making it an extremely effective system, especially for a physical team like Ireland.
4-4-2 (As close to 2002 as possible)
Although McCarthy has stated the 4-4-2 is a non-runner, we have selected a line-up as close as possible to the system and personnel seen in the latter stages of his last regime.
At right back, just like Steve Finnan, is attack-minded Seamus Coleman who is equally comfortable on either end of the pitch. On the opposite flank is Robbie Brady who, like Ian Harte, is Ireland’s penalty and free-kick taker.
Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh provide the similar leadership and stability as Gary Breen although it is hard to find another centre-half like Steve Staunton who was adept from set pieces.
McCarthy solved the problem of having two talented right-backs in Finnan and Gary Kelly by playing the latter as a winger and the same tactic could be used with Matt Doherty, although Seamus Coleman could also occupy the right-wing.
Kevin Kilbane was a direct winger in his day just like James McClean with Alan Browne possessing the balance between bulldog and creator just like Mark Kinsella in 2002. Conor Hourihane is a long range specialist, like World Cup hero Matt Holland, the former Ipswich man captained nearly every club he was at like Hourihane and was also slightly built like the Cork man.
Up top, Callum O’Dowda, a winger by trade plays in the Damien Duff role, alternating from the centre to either wing. O’Dowda is arguably Ireland’s best dribbler at present and can make dents in opposition defences just like the legendary Duff did in his free creative role.
Ahead of O’Dowda is Sean Maguire. The Preston man is an instinctive forward, full of pace and positional awareness. There will never be another Robbie Keane but Maguire is the closest thing in the current squad in terms of movement to Ireland’s new assistant coach.