Ireland are a different side under McCarthy.
The most annoying aspect about the comments made by Denmark players about the Republic of Ireland team over the last while, from an Irish perspective, was that they were largely true.
In the previous four games between the sides, the Danes reckoned that Ireland had been aggressive, limited and one-dimensional. Which they were. It may have stung to hear such comments, which bordered on disrespect, almost disdain, but it was difficult to dispute their validity.
However, one comment by a Denmark player was just plain wrong. Mathias Jorgensen claimed that he expected nothing different from Ireland now that Mick McCarthy, and not Martin O’Neill, was the coach. “You can change the manager, but cannot change the players,” the Huddersfield Town defender said. “It doesn’t make the style any different.”
Friday’s 1-1 draw in Copenhagen proved Jorgensen’s comments to be completely incorrect. The players were the same from the late O’Neill era, the game ended as a draw for the fourth meeting in succession and the pattern of the match was relatively similar, with Denmark having more possession and efforts on goal.
However, the manner of Ireland’s performance could not have been more different from the dross served up under the previous manager against the same opponents.
The most striking aspect of the Irish display was that the team had been effectively coached and there was a clear gameplan. Rather than retreating and putting as many players behind the ball as possible, they pressed Denmark, especially in the opening half.
From the first whistle of the Euro 2020 qualifier, Ireland forced the Danish defenders to play the ball back to Kasper Schmeichel.
The Leicester City goalkeeper wanted to pass it short to his teammates, but Ireland made him kick the ball long time and time again. McCarthy’s side worked hard, but they were also executing a clear gameplan.
In the image below, David McGoldrick is putting pressure on Schmeichel, Robbie Brady is nearby to cut out a short pass, Conor Hourihane is ready to pounce on a ball into the deep-lying midfielder, Jeff Hendrick is close to Thomas Delaney and Seamus Coleman is pushing up and covering on the right side of midfield.
James McClean could have been closer to Christian Eriksen, but otherwise, Ireland have every pass covered. Schmeichel has no choice but to kick it down the field, where Ireland’s central defenders were likely to win the aerial challenges.
This may not seem like much, as hard work and basic organisation is the least one would expect of a national team in an important game. Yet, contrast it with Ireland’s approach against the same opponents in the same stadium in 2017.
In the first leg of the World Cup play-off, Danish central defender Simon Kjaer had all the time in the world to pick passes. His ball over the top would have resulted in a goal if it were not for two excellent saves by Darren Randolph.
O’Neill started Daryl Murphy, who was 34 at the time, up front. Murphy is an honest player and decent goalscorer, but, at that stage of his career, he was a largely immobile centre-forward. There was no way he would have been able to press the Danish defence, and Ireland were lucky not to concede.
However, it wouldn’t have mattered who started up front in that Ireland team, as there was no evidence of a tactical plan or idea of play. When the team pressed, they did so sporadically with one player breaking from their position and hoping others would follow. This proved redundant, as even hard work needs to be worked on in training.
By contrast, McCarthy’s players operated as a cohesive unit when out of possession. There were trigger points to press the ball – an Irish player would sprint to close down the opponent and be followed by a teammate. The clip below was particularly impressive. The Danes aren’t given a second to pick a telling pass and end up booting it out of play.
This was typical of the opening half, particularly the first 20-minutes.
Ireland put Denmark under pressure and refused to allow them time or space on the ball. Their plan was evidently to build from the back, but Schmeichel was forced to go direct.
The Danes were uncomfortable and had yet to play their way into the game.
This resulted in Christian Eriksen dropping deep to get on the ball.
The image below is proof that McCarthy’s plan, and the hard work of the Irish players, had frustrated Denmark and their most gifted player.
With a bit more care in possession, Ireland could have turned their pressure into goalscoring opportunities.
In the clip below, McCarthy’s team did some great work to win the ball but then lost possession cheaply in a good position.
In the second half, Ireland’s pressing wasn’t as effective and Denmark began finding space between the lines.
However, this was perhaps to be expected. Ireland were away from home to the team ranked 10th in the world at the end of a long season. Most of the team had not played a competitive game in almost a month. There was no way they would have been able to press Denmark for the entire 90 minutes, and there is no doubt they got some slices of luck before Shane Duffy’s brilliant header levelled the score.
However, there were some very encouraging signs. Ireland now have a clear gameplan, a manager capable of implementing it and players willing to follow his instructions. There is some method to their approach after the dour confusion that enveloped the end of O’Neill’s reign.
Of course, there are some things McCarthy cannot change, such as the technical quality of the players at his disposal. And the team needs to improve in midfield – a fully fit James McCarthy could make a big impact in the qualifiers later this year.
But McCarthy has done a good job so far affecting change in the areas where change is possible – such as how the team plays out of possession and from dead ball situations. If they can wed that to a more proactive approach in possession, and if some players can regain match sharpness, Ireland should be quietly confident of reaching Euro 2020.
Jorgensen was wrong, a manager can change a team’s approach and McCarthy is proving that.