Ireland sealed a victory over the United States on Saturday night courtesy of a last-gasp winner by substitute Alan Judge.
The Boys in Green had to come from behind to grind out the win against a largely inexperienced American side, with Judge’s last-gasp strike coming after Graham Burke’s equaliser just before the hour mark.
Overall, it was a performance and result that left much to discuss and analyse – with a number of questions arising in the aftermath.
Did the victory match the performance?
Perhaps, but just about. Overall, Ireland looked the more threatening of the two (though Tim Weah and Bobby Wood caused plenty of problems for the hosts), and while USA manager Bob Sarachan’s assertion that a draw would have been a bit fairer, there was no massive quibble with the result.
That said, the first half should have sent alarm bells ringing on the Irish bench. They looked more threatening than against France, granted, but the lack of cohesion in the team was telling. It was as if some players were trying to overcompensate for France – and, indeed, for Denmark – but there was no end product. James McClean had plenty of crosses but no one to meet them, Callum O’Dowda looked very dangerous but had no one to find with a killer pass, and Graham Burke found space but had no one to supply him.
The first two problems should have been solved by the last – and vice versa – but the fact that they weren’t is indicative of the problems Ireland were making for themselves.
The second half was a big improvement, when Ireland finally got a sense of where they were going and developed some semblance of a game plan.
Is a three-man defence a viable formation going forward?
Martin O’Neill flirted with the idea of a three-man central defence against Turkey in March, and it’s a system that he brought back on Saturday night. But is it the right option for this team in the Nations League?
Looking at the players available to the manager and the performance levels (moreso in the second half) then it’s probably the best option for this team. Ireland are not a side with an abundance of wing options, but have that bit more to offer in the centre of midfield and defence.
In addition, what was noticeable on Saturday was that, while there was a bit of crossed wires between midfield and attack, Burke and Walters were not as isolated as Irish strikers have been in the past. If they can get that element clicking then it could prove very fruitful.
Has Graham Burke forced his way into Martin O’Neill’s plans?
O’Neill was oddly non-committal regarding Burke’s future involvement in the national side, almost seeming to suggest that he had to move back to England in order to be considered for the competitive games, but it’s hard to see what more the Shamrock Rovers forward has to do to be taken seriously.
In two matches, one as a sub and one from the start, Burke didn’t look out of place at this level. O’Neill likes to stress the huge jump in class between club and international level but, for the most part, that’s an exaggeration. The circumstances of the goal may have been fortuitous but Burke has already done what neither Sean Maguire nor Scott Hogan have achieved yet, what David McGoldrick has yet to do in four years as an Ireland international and what Shane Long has done once in nearly two years.
Strikers are there to score goals. Burke has achieved that, with a performance to match. He deserves his place in the squad.
Who else among the fringe crop left an impression?
The ecstasy and relief on the face of Alan Judge was there for the world to see last night. The Brentford man has been through hell in the last couple of years, but he will now surely feel that this is the start of a bright new chapter in his career. That said, and while O’Neill likes and rates the midfielder, competition for places in that position is fierce.
Darragh Lenihan, meanwhile, impressed in defence upon replacing John O’Shea towards the end of the first half, and was unlucky not to find himself on the scoresheet on two separate occasions in the second period.
Ultimately some of the new players will have to wait for a serious chance to make an impression, as O’Neill, it could be argued, didn’t really experiment enough. Derrick Williams impressed against France but James McClean started against the USA where perhaps Enda Stevens might have felt he deserved a shot, while on right side, Matt Doherty, arguably the best wing-back in the Championship last season, was largely ignored with tried-and-tested Seamus Coleman played in the majority of both of this week’s friendlies.
Friendlies should be the ideal time to blood new players and try out new systems – and while O’Neill did the latter, the former could have been improved upon.
How will this Ireland fare in competitive matches?
It’s hard to say, because there is always a nagging sense that O’Neill’s Ireland will always revert to type under the slightest bit of pressure. They seemed much freer in the second half against USA but that will likely be a world away from Cardiff and Copenhagen later this year.
Despite the second half improvement, the first half display can’t just be ignored. Ireland were frighteningly disjointed at that stage, to the point where they were in danger of having a match dictated to them by a side with an average age of 23 and missing their star man Christian Pulisic. It got better after the restart, granted, but Denmark and Wales won’t be quite as accommodating.
One would hope that the positives that emanated from this match can be utlised, that the players can be trusted that bit more and the play can run through the midfield to a greater degree.
History suggests that Ireland will revert to crushing conservative type in the Nations League – but hopefully, Saturday night’s victory will have given the manager something to ponder.