The Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualification comes down to one game against familiar opponents.
On November 18, Ireland host Denmark in Dublin. If they win, they will qualify for the tournament next summer. If not, the play-off route through the Nations League may still be open.
However, after a goalless draw with Georgia, and a 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, when the side were completely outplayed, their performances will have to greatly improve to stand any chance of reaching Euro 2020.
Here are five talking points from a pretty lousy international break for the Ireland team:
McCarthy Got It Wrong
From his original squad selection – which didn’t include Aaron Connolly – to his decision to start James Collins against Georgia because he was better suited than Connolly to defend corners, up to his selection choices and tactics against Switzerland, Mick McCarthy got the key decisions wrong. Against Georgia, his decision to start Collins ahead of Connolly was exposed as a miscalculation from the moment the Brighton forward came on the pitch. He had two of Ireland’s three shots on target in the match.
McCarthy’s original formation against Switzerland, 3-5-2, was an attempt to mirror the Swiss set-up and seemed a smart move. The intention was admirable, but the execution botched. James McClean played as a wing-back, Enda Stevens was a left-sided central defender and Matt Doherty was on the bench. The Ireland manager had two of the best wing-backs in the Premier League in his squad – Doherty and Stevens – and chose to play neither in their best position, with Doherty omitted completely. He then ripped up the plan and went to 4-3-3 after half an hour.
He said before the match that Connolly was not capable of playing centre-forward on his own. Yet, the forward ended up playing in that position in the second half before he was substituted for Scott Hogan – a player in such poor form he admitted he was genuinely surprised to be included in the Ireland squad.
Conor Hourihane was one of Ireland’s main attacking weapons with his deliveries from dead-balls. He was so important to McCarthy that he started at left-back in the friendly last month against Bulgaria to get some minutes after losing his start spot with Aston Villa. Hourihane then regained his starting spot at club level and came into the international break in excellent form. However, McCarthy dropped him for the Swiss match.
Ultimately, his approach to both games was flawed from the beginning and this was reflected in his selection choices and tactical approach. Ireland were unlikely to ever beat Switzerland in Geneva, but drawing with Georgia was not a positive result, despite McCarthy claiming it was. The draw, which was partly a result of the team’s negative tactics, seemed to sap the Irish player’s confidence ahead of the match against the top seeds.
McClean Shouldn’t Start Against Denmark
He’s a fan favourite, and he played well during the 2018 World Cup qualification games under Martin O’Neill, but the evidence of the last two games, and, in truth, for the majority of this campaign, suggests that the Stoke City winger should no-longer be a starter in the Ireland team. If McCarthy is basing his decisions on form, he probably shouldn’t even be in the squad.
McClean was dreadful against Georgia on Saturday. Of course, no Ireland player did well in the game, but nothing went right for McClean. He failed to link up his teammates and could not beat his direct opponent. At times, it felt his presence on the pitch scuppered any chance of anything happening the final third.
He lost the ball 25 times, a staggering figure that shouldn’t be acceptable at any level of football, never mind international football.
McClean carried that form into the defeat to Switzerland, losing the ball 16 times.
He kicked the ball out of play under no pressure at all when Ireland had a free-kick in their own half. From the resulting passage of play, Switzerland opened the scoring.
McClean improved in the second half, but not to the extent where one could justify his inclusion for future games. The most startling thing about his displays for Ireland is that this seems to be his base level of performance. It’s not as though his form is fluctuating. He has been consistently playing to this level over the last 18-months, at least, for Ireland.
It doesn’t matter if he loves the country or if he works hard, McClean is just not good enough. That doesn’t take away from his dedication to the cause or his commitment – it’s not a judgement on his character. But his days as a starter for Ireland should be over. If he’s still in the squad, which again, he shouldn’t be if Robbie Brady is fit, he should only ever be used as an impact substitute.
Collins Isn’t Good Enough To Make An Impact
James Collins’ is an effective centre-forward at a certain level. He excelled in League One with Luton Town last season, helping them earn promotion to the Championship, where he has scored five goals in 10 games this season. However, in his two appearances for Ireland over the last five days, he has proven ineffective. Collins is a blunt object and doesn’t appear to have the attributes to make a difference at international level.
Against Georgia, he spent the game barging into opposition defenders and defending Ireland’s six-yard box at corners. He was substituted at half-time against Switzerland, an act of mercy by McCarthy. Is he a better option than Connolly or Callum Robinson, Sean Maguire or Shane Long? Of course not. While David McGoldrick will, hopefully, have returned to fitness by the time play Denmark next month.
The Team May Be Better Without Coleman And Hendrick
Seamus Coleman had probably the worst match of his Ireland career against Switzerland. Breel Embolo gave him an awful time, beating him at ease repeatedly. It was tough to watch at times. The Everton and Ireland skipper also lost the ball far too many times, often surrendering possession under no pressure. As cruel as it is to say, Coleman’s red card may, ultimately, benefit the team. Doherty will come into the team next month and his inclusion can only be considered as a good thing.
Jeff Hendrick disappeared again against Switzerland. The Burnley midfielder has all the attributes required to be a key midfielder for Ireland, but it has just not happened for him in a green jersey. In too many games, he has gone missing, failing to show for a pass or losing the ball cheaply when he does receive possession. He has played every minute of McCarthy’s tenure and continues to be unconvincing. It is difficult to argue for Hendrick to start against Denmark. Josh Cullen, Jack Byrne and Hourihane, even Alan Browne, may all better options at this stage.
McCarthy must fix the issues in midfield. At this stage of his career, Glenn Whelan should not be the team’s best midfielder, as he was on Tuesday night. Ireland need to keep the ball much, much better to stand a chance of getting a win over Denmark. In short, the manager needs to dismantle his dysfunctional midfield. James McCarthy, who started for Crystal Palace against West Ham before the international break, simply must be in the next Ireland squad.
There Are Still Some Glimmers Of Hope
Ireland failed to score in 180 minutes against Georgia and Switzerland. They have only scored six goals in qualifying. Gibraltar scored more goals against Georgia in one game (2) than Ireland did in two (1). The national team hasn’t played well against a side of equal or better quality since beating Austria 1-0 in November 2016. However, there are still some glimmers of hope ahead of the Denmark game.
If McCarthy picks the right team, if McGoldrick returns to the side and partners Connolly up front, and the Danes have an off night, Ireland could sneak a win in front of a packed Aviva Stadium. It will be Ireland’s sixth meeting with Denmark in the last two years. Other than the 5-1 in November 2017, the other matches have been low-scoring – three goalless draws and a 1-1 draw last June. If McCarthy picks his best players, they will have a chance.
Would it be a deserved qualification if Ireland beat Denmark and reach Euro 2020? Given how the team has played over the last year, probably not. But football is a low-scoring sport and even teams as out of form as Ireland will still always have a chance.