Michael Obafemi may be a senior Irish international and a Premier League goalscorer with Southampton, but Thursday could see him win his first-ever cap for Stephen Kenny’s U21 side.
Obafemi, who is still just 19 years of age, has been on the fringes of the first-team squad at St Mary’s over the past season and a half. He made his senior Irish debut coming on as a second-half substitute against Denmark in November 2018.
The striker was called into the Irish Under-21 squad for the first time last month. But injury prevented him from featuring in the doubleheader against Armenia and Sweden. Thursday’s Tallaght Stadium sell-out against Italy could be the perfect opportunity for his first game at this level.
Obafemi has struggled with injury over the past 18 months, but has still managed to feature quite frequently for Southampton’s first team and represents another promising attacking player in an Under-21 squad that is already rich in firepower.
The Southampton man trained for the first time under Kenny on Tuesday and the former Dundalk boss explained that he was looking forward to working with Obafemi, and is very pleased to have him in the talented group.
“We’re delighted to have Michael. Obviously, we’ve not had him before. He’s just been unfortunate with injury. He played part of Sunday’s game, so he only really had one training session with the group.
“Even though he only played less than 20 minutes on Sunday, the protocol around his injuries is that he needs the next day off. He’s on a strict protocol with his programme because of hamstring injuries.
“Yesterday was his first time training with the group. We’ll see what we’re about and for us to see him in the positions. He’s been moved around a bit at Southampton as well. Obviously, he’s someone we’re learning about and delighted he’s in the group.”
Thursday’s game with Italy will represent the toughest test of the Kenny era so far and the Boys in Green will have to take on the Azzurri without one of their key men in Aaron Connolly following the Brighton man’s promotion to the senior squad.
Kenny could see Obafemi as the perfect replacement for Connolly given the fact that the pair both operate either through the middle or wide of a front three.
The 19-year-old’s versatility is certainly an asset to the Under-21 side and, despite Kenny outlining that he feels Obafemi sees himself as a number nine, he wouldn’t be drawn on where he feels his best position is.
“I think he might view himself as a centre forward, a number nine as he said himself. The tendency is, with players who are five-foot-six as he is, he’s obviously brilliant in a front two. The tendency can be sometimes that smaller players are not utilised as a lone striker, whether that’s right or wrong.
“There’s no reason why they can’t if you’re playing in a certain way. But I think that’s the tendency to get shifted out wide in modern systems, which can vary between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Southampton did play a sort of 4-2-2-2 and he played in the two for a while, which probably stood to him. He’s still probably learning about playing out wide. I saw him play against Portsmouth.”
Obafemi unquestionably has a bright future in the game, if he can stay fit, and Kenny will be hoping that he can help fire Ireland to their first-ever European Under-21 Championships.