McClean’s days as a starter for Ireland should be over.
It won’t be remembered by many, but there was a moment in the first half of the Republic of Ireland’s sluggish 2-0 win over Gibraltar that could have resulted in a goal for the away side. Gibraltar went on a rare counterattack and had a man spare as they broke on Darren Randolph’s goal.
However, a stray pass at a key moment in the move saw Ireland recover the ball around 10-yards from the penalty area and normal service resumed. The move happened because, yet again, James McClean had lost the ball. Around 30-seconds later, when Ireland won possession back, he surrendered the ball again.
This was typical of his performance in a game when he stood out for all the wrong reasons.
If Gibraltar had scored, it would not have been McClean’s fault alone, of course. But there were few positives from his performance and better opposition would have punished Ireland losing possession in such unnecessary fashion. The moment below arguably encapsulates why the Stoke City winger should no longer be considered a guaranteed starter for the national team.
Surrounded by three players, McClean lost the ball due to a heavy touch. In truth, he was in a poor position to collect possession and should have looked to run off the ball rather than receive it.
He then failed to retain possession when Ireland won the ball back, allowing it to run away from him and back to Gibraltar.
It may seem unfair to single out one Irish player for criticism for poor play in a single moment in the game, especially when the whole team struggled. However, it was typical of McClean’s display on the night. Looking at the situation objectively, there is very little to warrant his status as a certain starter in Mick McCarthy’s team.
Against Gibraltar, the 30-year-old was loose in possession, frequently out of position and failed time and time again to link up effectively with his teammates, particularly Enda Stevens at left-back. It could even be argued that McClean failed to win his personal duel with the Gibraltar right-back.
He was also collecting the ball in positions unsuited to his skillset.
Rather than play a quick pass to Conor Hourihane in the clip below, and make a run to stretch play, he dropped his head, took four touches to get the ball under control and eventually played a backwards pass to Shane Duffy.
McClean’s positioning was questionable and contrasted sharply with the areas taken up by Callum Robinson, Ireland’s right-winger on the night who comfortably outperformed his significantly more experienced teammate.
The Derryman often drifted inside and condensed play when Ireland needed to stretch their opponents, who were entrenched with 10-men behind the ball.
Robinson, meanwhile, made the pitch bigger by staying wide at the start of moves before running inside at the right times.
Yes, he set-up Brady’s goal at the death, but for the other 89 minutes of the match, McClean’s deliveries were lacklustre.
In the clip below, he missed every player in the penalty area.
And he just didn’t appear to be on the same wavelength as his teammates.
He also struggled to get beyond the Gibraltar defence.
Beyond the game last night, there is little to suggest McClean warrants his status as one of the first names on the teamsheet. Of course, no-one can accuse him of lacking passion or enthusiasm for the cause, and he is certainly a fan favourite. But this is about picking the best player for the position and the time has probably come to give someone else a try.
Firstly, Ireland have some relative strength in depth in his position. The idea that there is no one good enough to replace McClean should not be tolerated. Robinson was one of the few to impress on Monday night, and showed greater understanding with Seamus Coleman than McClean did with Stevens, a player he has started alongside for the last four Ireland games.
Callum O’Dowda is talented and has shown flashes of class. Brady can play on either flank and will surely be an important player for the national team again when he regains match sharpness. Daryl Horgan has had a good season with Hibernian but wasn’t even included in the Ireland squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers this month. Michael Duffy of Dundalk is another who could make the squad.
While it would be interesting to see how Matt Doherty does again on the right side of midfield – with Brady or O’Dowda on the opposite flank. McCarthy said Doherty and Coleman failed to link-up against Gibraltar in March and that’s why the Wolves star has been on the bench since. If failing to link up with a teammate is a droppable offence, then McClean probably won’t be on the pitch when Ireland play Switzerland on September 5.
There is also little from McClean’s club career over the last two seasons that warrants such a lofty status in the Irish side. For Stoke City last season, he scored three goals and registered seven assists in 45 games for the Championship side, picking up 11 yellow cards along the way. The season before for West Bromwich Albion, he got one goal and zero assists in 43 appearances, collecting nine yellow cards. Unfortunately, the winger is more likely to pick up a caution than make an impact in the final third.
McClean still has a part to play for the national team, even if he should no longer be a guaranteed starter. He has all the qualities required to be an impact substitute. His record of 10 goals in 67 appearances for Ireland is impressive and he has shown in the past that he can lift the Irish team at key moments.
However, the hard work begins in the autumn for Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualification campaign. Ball retention, team cohesion and quality in the final third will crucial if they are to reach the tournament. McClean’s performances for the national team over the past while, and particularly on Monday night, suggest other options may be more suited to the task.