Stephen Kenny’s long awaited arrival as Ireland’s new manager came a little earlier than expected in unusual circumstances on Saturday.
The Dubliner has taken the reins and will already be thinking about how his team will shape up now that Mick McCarthy has made way.
Lets explore how Ireland could look under the former Dundalk boss.
Kenny will want to improve the productivity of his side given the fact it is Ireland’s key struggle over the last decade. Ireland have only conceded 18 goals in the last three group qualifying campaigns which is one of the best defensive records in Europe. Therefore, Kenny’s priority will be maintaining that and adding to chance creation and goals.
Ireland’s productivity out wide and in the final third has been a cause for concern. James McClean only has three assists in 73 internationals, Robbie Brady has five assists in 46 caps with Jeff Hendrick having five assists in 54.
These three players have been expected to produce goals and assists and have struggled to do so, partly down to the systems they have been deployed in. McClean has found the net 10 times for Ireland and Brady eight, meaning that, although their abilities to produce goals fail to flatter, their goal scoring abilities need to be considered by Kenny.
Last season, Conor Hourihane reached double figures in assists domestically with Alan Browne contributing 16 assists for Preston in the last year and Matt Doherty helping his Wolves team mates find the net 15 times in all competitions in the last year.
The selection of players in the final third will be key.
Who Fits The Philosophy?
At Dundalk, Kenny alternated between a 4-5-1 and a 4-2-3-1. His teams tend to play with the ball on the ground, transitioning from the back with a very patient but possession-based build-up. He has usually gone for a sole striker who can offer productivity on the ball in addition to hold up play. Kenny’s brand is certainly a lot easier on the eye than Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy’s but the effectiveness of this will come down to the players available to him that fit the philosophy.
Kenny values box-to-box midfielders and this has been seen with the Irish U21s with Jayson Molumby and Conor Coventry thriving.
He has been known to deploy a sitter with the likes of Stephen O’Donnell key to his success with Dundalk. Molumby, Hendrick, Browne, Hourihane, Josh Cullen and Jason Knight fit that philosophy perfectly as does Harry Arter although the Fulham man has fallen off the radar recently. James McCarthy can also operate as a box-to-box midfielder but could serve Ireland better as a holder, especially as Glenn Whelan’s international career looks set to end.
However, the use of a ‘number 10’ has also been a feature of Kenny’s teams with Richie Towell and Connor Ronan central to his Dundalk and Ireland U21 sides respectively. Ireland are light on 10’s, although Jack Byrne and Ronan himself could slot in well. Brady or David McGoldrick could play the slightly deeper role although Brady has struggled as a number 10 in the past.
Out wide, Kenny has gone for pacy, technically gifted wide men like Daryl Horgan, Michael Duffy and Zack Elbouzedi. McClean and Hendrick, who plays as a winger for Burnley, may be considered too direct or static to fit into Kenny’s wide plans, opening the door for quicker options who can take on players like Callum Robinson or even Aaron Connolly.
Kenny likes small but robust runners on his wings making Horgan and Duffy outside options with Brady the perfect fit for his system. Johnny Hayes would be another to fit the job description given his powerful running and accurate delivery but at 33 is unlikely to leapfrog McClean, Brady or Robinson in the squad. Doherty could be an outside bet to come onto the right wing but again, might be considered a little direct as a winger.
Three At The Back Not Essential
Dane Massey and Sean Gannon were key to his Dundalk sides, getting up and down the pitch offering an extra layer of attack, enabling the wide men to cut in forming a conventional front three ensuring that the lone striker is not isolated, a major issue for Ireland over the last few years when playing one up top.
Kenny is blessed to have two of the Premier League’s best wingbacks this season in Doherty and Enda Stevens, not to mention Seamus Coleman who can operate as both a right back and wingback
Many will be crying out for Kenny to play a 5-3-2 but given the fact he achieved a wingback system playing a traditional four at the back with a solid sitter means he may not need to adapt this formation, especially given McCarthy’s role at Crystal Palace in which he drops in between the centre halves to allow Joel Ward and Patrick Van Aanholt to bomb forward.
Ireland have three quality Premier League centre halves in Shane Duffy, John Egan and Ciaran Clark and interestingly, all have played in a three-man defence this season. There has been a romanticised idea that Seamus Coleman can fulfil a ‘Kyle Walker’ role for Ireland. Interestingly, the Everton skipper was deployed there by Carlo Ancelotti early in his reign but the idea wasn’t entertained again.
This is not to say that Coleman cannot play there but if Ireland do play three at the back, Duffy, Egan and Clark, who have experience in the system, would be better fits, especially given the fact that a left-footed Clark will offer natural balance to the line.
Kenny could adapt three at the back with his philosophy as it can allow for a midfield three of a sitter and two hard working box-to-box players as well as allowing for the fullbacks to bomb forward with added protection. This system could accommodate all of Ireland’s best players and supplement the players in the box with a front two.
However, Kenny can still achieve this with his 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 should he select McCarthy at the base and enable Doherty and Stevens to get further up, creating an in-game three at the back.
What U21s Make The Step-Up?
Ireland are blessed at underage level with a potential golden generation of players coming through. Part of the rationale behind Kenny’s initial brief was that he could get to know the players in the system. However, Kenny will need to be cautious and realistic and weigh-up which of the talents he helped to nurture are able for the step up.
One player who looks a certainty to step up is the fantastic Jayson Molumby. The perfect Kenny player, offering defensive skills and technical ability, Molumby’s performances at Millwall would suggest he is good to go.
The same could be said for Dara O’Shea who was putting in some stand out performances for West Brom as well as the U21s. Connor Ronan’s Slovakian adventure and current loan at Blackpool have also shown that he can mix it with a senior side, as has Jason Knight who was playing alongside Wayne Rooney every week before the season was halted.
However, the major calls will be for the likes of Adam Idah and Troy Parrott. Idah scored a hat-trick for Norwich in the FA Cup, leading McCarthy to suggest a full call-up but stated that Parrott would have to wait longer owing to his lack of game time at Spurs.
The reality is, neither have gotten much game time. Yet, there is more noise made for them compared to the likes of Michael Obafemi, and Will Smallbone of Southampton who have put together a number of Premier League starts. Lee O’Connor took to international football like a duck to water could also come into consistent contention. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there will be some U21 graduates in Kenny’s first squad.