Ireland complete their 2017/18 season this weekend with a friendly international against the United States at the Aviva.
It has been a season of satisfying highs and disappointing lows, from the euphoria of Cardiff to the sheer horror of the Danish massacre, followed by months of managerial uncertainty before Martin O’Neill finally signed a new contract to lead the side through to the Euro 2020 campaign.
Ahead of the clash with USA this weekend, there are a few big questions to be asked – particularly in light of the drab 2-0 defeat to France in Paris earlier this week.
Can Ireland attack at some stage? Please?
Fear of the opposition and ultra-conservatism in any match is one thing, but to do that in a friendly is ridiculous. By half time at the Stade de France, Ireland had taken one shot on goal (off-target) and had just 17% of possession. At that point, the question had to be asked: what was the point of any of this? What was the point of going to Paris just to stand around and let France have the ball for the majority of the match?
Had Ireland lost 5 or 6-0 in that match (they wouldn’t have, France weren’t exactly going at full throttle either) then it wouldn’t have mattered, but to go out there and play as though getting a 0-0 draw in a friendly (and that can’t be stressed enough) against a half-interested French side would have been some sort of major achievement is just the wrong attitude to have.
Coupled with the 1-0 defeat to Turkey in March (the match against Celtic doesn’t count because it was barely more than a training session), Ireland have had just one shot on target in 2018. There is nothing to be lost in actually wanting the ball and attempting to play – especially when there are no points to play for – so one would hope for the tiniest bit of bravery and invention be shown against USA.
Three or four at the back?
O’Neill reverted from the three-man central defence against Turkey to a more familiar four-man backline against France, which raises an intriguing question as to how the Boys in Green will line out against the United States.
That, more than likely, will depend on where Declan Rice is selected. The West Ham teenager has performed well so far in his two appearances – in two different positions – so it will likely depend on whether the manager sees Rice in central defence with Shane Duffy and John O’Shea/Kevin Long or if he will be utilised in midfield again like he was in Paris.
Playing with a three could also give O’Neill a chance to have another look at how Seamus Coleman and James McClean operate in wing-back roles ahead of the Nations League later this year.
Will more fringe players get the chance to impress?
The absence of so many Ireland regulars meant that some new players were always going to get a run-out at some point, but left-back Derrick Williams was the only new cap given a start against France. The Blackburn defender’s turned in an impressive performance – doubly impressive given the opposition and horrendous weather conditions – and his display should lead to more new players blooded on Saturday.
The likes of Matt Doherty, Enda Stevens, Alan Judge, Shaun Williams and Greg Cunningham will all feel as though they have something to offer from the start on Saturday. With the squad still in transition, O’Neil might do well to explore a few more of his options.
Can Graham Burke and Shane Supple break the League of Ireland barrier?
One of Graham Burke’s first touches of the ball on Monday night was a fine pass to Alan Judge that, were it a bit higher up the pitch, could have sent his fellow substitute away on goal. If nothing else, it showed that the Shamrock Rovers man was not afraid to divert from the script when he saw fit.
We’ll never know if Burke would have been brought on, or even if he would have been retained in the squad, if the Aston Villa contingent weren’t otherwise engaged and there weren’t as many injuries to the regulars, but a League of Ireland player has played for the national side for the first time in over a decade and that is noteworthy regardless of context. Was it tokenism? Perhaps, but let’s not get bogged down with cynicism either. There is precious little to really get excited about with this Ireland side right now so we should take the positives where we can get them.
However, Burke’s (and Supple’s, with the goalkeeping situation a free-for-all behind Darren Randolph right now) main priority should be staying in the Ireland squad for the Nations League now that the foot is in the door. If O’Neill is serious about the Ireland squad being a meritocracy, and throwing the two lads into squad wasn’t just appeasement to quieten the League of Ireland enthusiasts, then good performances against the US – where one (if not both) will surely get a run-out, have to be rewarded in the autumn.
Is this Ireland team building towards anything?
One of the most striking aspects of the way in which this Ireland sides plays is that there is rarely any change in style or performance. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule (Italy at Euro 2016 springs to mind) but, more often than not, the only difference between one Ireland performance and the last could actually just be the result. There is no learning curve from the last match to the next, just bouncing between matches treating every one as a separate, individual event.
For example, was there really that much of a difference between the team performances in the 1-0 win against Wales to the 1-1 draw in Georgia from the last campaign. Hindsight will say that the performance was better because the result was better, but was it? Was there really a standout showing
It’s troubling, because it suggests that there has been little in the way of substantial growth in this team in the four-and-a-half years of this regime. It seems to be a case of it being fine when it works and a nightmare when it doesn’t – but the lack of a structured game plan tailored to the opposition is a worry.