Kenny’s Kids: Josh Cullen becoming a key man for Ireland

Josh Cullen is central to Irish improvement.

Ireland finally had something to smile about on Saturday evening. Stephen Kenny’s side were emphatic 3-0 winners against Azerbaijan in Baku and it could have been more with some sharper shooting.

Ireland struggled against their group rivals at the Aviva Stadium last month, unable to break down a sturdy defence, but this time around the Boys in Green created chance after chance in a rapid counter-attacking display.

Kenny’s well-documented move to passing football was on show as Ireland used the ball particularly effectively in the second half. Jamie McGrath made an influential impact off the bench and Rotherham’s Chiedoize Ogbene showed that he has more than just pace to his game too. What was interesting though was how Ireland mixed it up and used different channels of attack throughout.

This was an end-to-end fast-paced affair and Ireland’s approach, formation and spacing placed a lot of responsibility on the quartet of James McClean, Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty in front of the three central defenders.

Josh Cullen’s performance versus Azerbaijan

It finally feels like things are coming together and though still imperfect, the understanding of the Chelsea-influenced system appears to be growing with each game. Familiarity of personnel helps too and one man in particular seems to have earned ‘first name on the teamsheet’ status under Stephen Kenny, Anthony Barry and Keith Andrews.

Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen was well down the pecking order when Stephen Kenny took the reins as Ireland boss but is now central to almost everything the team does well. Against Azerbaijan, the 25-year-old looked impressively well-versed on his role and continues to arc on an upward trajectory.

An ever present in the Belgian Pro League, Cullen knows how to pick up the scraps and get the ball moving. Whenever Azerbaijan were untidy in Ireland’s half, he was the one getting his foot in and turning over possession.

Josh Cullen continues to improve with every game

As much as he has always been a tidy footballer going back as far as his West Ham United days, the amount he seems to have learned by playing for club and country regularly over the past year or more is striking.

Unused to seeing Ireland teams committing so many numbers forward, the space sometimes left in the middle of the park can understandably concern pundits, and there is still work to be done in that department.

However, in Ireland’s last couple of games, Cullen has shown good spacial awareness defensively and the more he wins the ball back, the more he can use his marvellous range of passing. Hendrick and Cullen can become stretched on counter-attack but they typically have an assured presence in front of the outstanding Egan, Duffy and Omobamidele.

Both players picked their moments to press or tackle very well in Baku. Cullen recovered the ball six times, won three aerial duals and had one interception and Ireland wouldn’t have had half as many good counter-attacks without him (85% pass success rate, one assist)

Ireland midfielder Josh Cullen becoming a key man for Stephen Kenny

There’s no doubt Cullen has lots of responsibility in his position but the management team trust him. The current coaches are believers and the great thing is that the players are now believing in themselves.

Callum Robinson understood his assignment to a tee, James McClean looked a natural at left wing-back and Josh Cullen was no different in front of the back three. The bedding-in period hesitancy is morphing into certainty as chemistry improves. Perhaps Matt Doherty wasn’t lying when he said this Ireland team is ‘coached brilliantly’. 

There’s a lot demanded from Cullen and at the moment, he’s delivering. The only previous criticism was that he could close down shots from distance more aggressively – we all know the painful consequences that Luxembourg and Azerbaijan inflicted at Lansdowne Road, but on Saturday he showed lessons were learned.

Testament to Ireland’s defensive structure, many of Azerbaijan’s efforts were from speculative range and thanks to good pressure on the ball, few were on target. 

Josh Cullen will be important for Ireland moving forward

It sounds like Cullen is unlikely to feature against Qatar tomorrow evening at a sold out Aviva Stadium because of a knock but is sure to play a pivotal role in the final fixtures of this campaign and beyond. 

The Premier League-experienced Conor Hourihane and Harry Arter were given their chance in 2020, but its the young man who took a chance in Belgium who has made the jersey his own in 2021.

Stephen Kenny will be relieved that he’s found a man to anchor his midfield and the good news is that there’s another generation of similar players to come. 

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