James McClean has been the talisman of this World Cup qualifying campaign. Three goals and some heroic performances have inspired his teammates and put his country into a favourable position at the mid-point at the qualifiers.
Top scorer for Ireland in this campaign, his defensive qualities have often been forgotten with a number of crunching tackles an ever improving feature of his game with Gareth Bale the recipient of one. Although a winger by trade, some of McClean’s best attributes are defensive with his undoubted physicality serving Ireland tremendously well.
His game can sometimes resemble that of a defender rather than an attacker and on the off chance, could make a fantastic left-back. At this stage many fans will be flabbergasted by the idea of Ireland’s top scorer in this campaign taking up a defensive role but please hear us out……
A decade ago, a 30-year-old Kevin Kilbane was converted to left back in a dead rubber against Wales. Kilbane had played on either wing and in central midfield for his country and this seemed a strange move. However, Kilbane adjusted to what is still a problem position for Ireland and went on to become Ireland’s first choice at left back for the guts of three years.
Kilbane was far from a world class left back and did have moments to forget but it was an area Ireland lacked in and overall he did admirably well. Current left back Robbie Brady is a winger by trade but with less defensive capabilities than McClean. A similar role for the Derryman could serve Ireland well and although unlikely to ever develop into reality, could be considered for the following reasons.
Experience in defence
Although many will not be aware, McClean has actually already played left back for Ireland, albeit for one half of football. At the start of the O’Neill era, Ireland had a similar timetable coming towards the end of the season. The Boys in Green played two games in the United States against Portugal and Costa Rica. In the second game, Marc Wilson started at left back only to be taken off with an injury just before half time. McClean stepped in for the defender and saw out the game in the left back slot barely putting a foot wrong.
In the past two seasons, McClean has at times also been used as a left wing back by Tony Pulis at West Brom. Pulis sometimes deploys three at the back and McClean has often slotted in to the slightly deeper role playing full matches in a position that requires both attacking and defensive positional awareness. McClean’s team mate Chris Brunt is an example of a player who made the adjustment from the wing to full back and too has played in that role. However McClean has rarely played on the left of a flat back four for his club unlike the Northern Irishman. Ireland already deployed Robbie Brady at left back despite him being a winger by trade and McClean could be capable of a similar switch.
As mentioned, McClean has an abundance of skill defensively. He is among a rarity of footballers that can make a tackle with such physicality and intensity in a perfectly legal manor. This is not to say that McClean has not misjudged tackles in the past but this ability is sometimes lacking in Premier League and indeed international full backs, where the emphasis is now veering towards their attacking capabilities. McClean has both attacking and defensive skill to strike the perfect balance.
McClean makes tackles on all parts of the pitch for Ireland but has a sublime tendency to close the space for wingers and full backs out wide. His high pressured game and intelligence of when to commit to the tackle is something that Ireland’s two left back options Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady can often struggle with. His tackles against Arkadiusz Milik of Poland and Gareth Bale in March shook two key players for their country and inspired his teammates. His defensive responsibilities and capabilities for his country are already important aspects for the team as a whole.
Allowing Robbie Brady to play further up the field
Suggesting Ireland’s top scorer in this campaign should drop into a deeper position seems ludicrous but let’s play devils advocate: Ireland have had five shots on target in their last three games at home and are crying out for creativity and graft. Robbie Brady is arguably Ireland most technically gifted player and stationing him on the left of Wes Hoolahan will undoubtably increase Ireland’s productivity. McClean is one of the first names on the team sheet but can sometimes lack quality in the final third. This is not a criticism but more an observation of McClean’s game and his form in this campaign should not make him immune to this fact.
When pitted against each other, Brady is the more creative and technically gifted than McClean and this is what Ireland need on the wings. McClean has a fantastic delivery but Brady’s overall skill and decision making in attacking positions is simply stronger. As an over-lapping full back, McClean would still provide those killer crosses and ability to beat players that is required by the modern day full back. Brady and Seamus Coleman also shown that O’Neill is open to his fullbacks taking up goal scoring positions which would suit McClean. However there is nothing to say Brady could not play on the right with McClean remaining on the left, again just food for thought and not a criticism of of McClean.
Added options to a problem position
Left back has been a long standing issue for many years now and the more options available in the area to Ireland the better. Stephen Ward has improved immensely under Sean Dyche and played the most Premier League games out of any Irish player this season. His delivery has improved as well as his defensive positioning. Robbie Brady has impressed for Ireland at left back but has played on the wing for Burnley, a position that would maximise his Ireland career. Injured Greg Cunningham was fantastic for Preston the last two seasons but O’Neill is reluctant to pick him, Derrick Williams was also a rare bright spark in a poor Blackburn team but is unlikely to gain selection from League 1 next season.
Both Ward and Brady have missed games in this campaign through either injury or suspension and it is important to have a back up option at least. McClean is one of the first names on O’Neills team sheet and rightly so and having him as a versatile option at left back could give Ireland greater assurances in a position stretched of its resources. Should O’Neill ever deploy three at the back, McClean would represent the perfect option at left wing back. O’Neill has used this system with teams in the past and McClean’s attacking and defensive balance would serve it well. McClean may never be required to step in at left back anytime soon but with Ward turning 32 in August, the more options available for Ireland the better.
Ireland take on Mexico in a few days with no natural left back in the squad. Andy Boyle is likely to fill the void left by Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady but McClean standing in with Callum O’Dowda infront could be a useful experience if anything.
Making the Derryman a left back could seem a crazy idea but the reality is that he has all the attributes to become or at least stand in a successful left back. His momentum in this campaign will keep him on the wing but down the line, McClean could be an option in the more defensive position.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena