As Stephen Kenny continues his patient wait for his first game as Ireland manager, he will undoubtedly be mulling over how his side will set up.
Kenny’s Dundalk and Ireland under-21 sides have been easier on the eye than the senior national team over the last few years, mainly owing to the Dubliner’s positive philosophy, encouragement of a high tempo and willingness to keep the ball on the deck.
There have been alterations between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-5-1 and it seems likely this will be deployed when Kenny takes up the reigns despite a clamour of calls to play a 5-3-2.
What throws a slight spanner in the works is Ireland’s lack of wide depth and their sudden plethora of strikers. Having gone from a threadbare attack after Robbie Keane’s retirement, 11 strikers featured in Ireland’s squads over the past 18 months with a further nine named in under-21 squads by Kenny and eight named in the last under-19 squad.
In Ireland’s last game against Denmark, James McClean and Robbie Brady were the only recognised wingers in the squad, although Jeff Hendrick and Callum Robinson can also play there.
Given the talent of some of Ireland’s available strikers, and the lack of productivity of wide men (James McClean has three assists in 73 caps, Robbie Brady has five assists in 46 caps), Kenny could find it a productive exercise to start fielding ‘wide forwards’.
In a time where the likes of Sadio Mane, Marcus Rashford and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are showing the value of a striker being deployed wide with a license to cut inside, Kenny may use these examples as a template for his frontline in an effective role that is not quite a winger but not quite a striker.
Although Ireland don’t have any players of this calibre, they do have players capable of fulfilling the role. Callum Robinson, for example, thrived at Preston and now with West Brom playing wide left and cutting in, looking more productive there than when up front with Sheffield United or as a right-winger with Ireland.
Séan Maguire, currently at Preston, has also looked fantastic in the same position even if his goals have dried up. The Kilkenny native’s four goals and five assists this season still signals productivity.
At under-21 level, Kenny has used Aaron Connolly, Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrot wide left despite all being primarily center-forwards. All have offered an alternative and unpredictable threat as well as filling the void left by the lack of wingers.
Their ability to run at pace and cut inside has been a key feature for the under-21s with Connolly in particular showing his danger in doing this with his goals against Spurs this season. All three are realistic options to feature heavily for Kenny when his first games roll around.
An out and out winger on the opposite flank would complement a wide forward well as their deliveries into the box would be hitting two attackers as opposed to one, something Ireland have really struggled with in recent times and that’s part of the reason why the assist stats for McClean and Brady are so low.
Brady, in particular, has a potent in-swinging cross when cutting in from the right, and with him aiming for a center-forward like David McGoldrick or Shane Long, with an extra layer of attack through an inside forward like Callum Robinson or Aaron Connolly, Ireland would pose much more of an attacking threat from crosses in addition to the wide forward cutting in.
Creativity and productivity have been Ireland’s underlining concerns in the past few years. With one of the best defensive records in Europe over the three qualifying campaigns (only 18 goals conceded) and players capable of playing it on the ground despite not often being instructed to do so, Kenny’s attack will be something he will be paying close attention to.
The use of wide forwards can help to accommodate some of Ireland’s best talent, utilise the amount of available strikers and add a much-needed potency in the final third which has been missing for many years.