The last media question to Stephen Kenny the day before the Scotland game was about the make-up of Ireland’s midfield. After losing the last two games with the two-man central midfield of Jeff Hendrick and Josh Cullen, was there a case for putting a third man in the middle?
Kenny’s answer suggested it was not quite as simple as that.
“It is not so much three against two – sometimes we can create four against three . . . Like Jason Knight overloads in midfield in the game and our wing backs invert as well. So it is not so much just the system in place, it is how we utilise the players and sometimes our wing backs can invert and overload the midfield, sometimes our 10s can drop into midfield and overload. It is not just simple mathematics.”
On one level, what Kenny was saying is commonsensical: players aren’t just counters on the tactics board, they go out there and run about. Formations are fluid. It’s never just as simple as they have three and we have two. There is always a way to make the numbers add up in your favour.
But figuring out how to make those numbers add up from minute to minute is anything but simple for the players who actually have to do it. Every second of the game they are trying to find the right balance between competing responsibilities. As a wing-back, is this a moment to stay wide or to drift inside? As one of two so-called 10s, is this a moment to attack the box or to drop into midfield and make up the numbers? Often the players make the right choice, but as the decisions keep coming in a relentless stream you can see how tiring players might start to play it safe.
It turned out that the question had accurately anticipated the change Kenny was planning to make. Against Scotland 3-4-2-1 became 3-5-2, the Hendrick-Cullen duo gave way to a three-man midfield of Cullen, Jason Knight and Jayson Molumby, while the “fluid” front three of Callum Robinson, Chiedozie Ogbene and Knight became an old-fashioned strike partnership of Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott.
Parrott’s goal which made it 2-0 quickly showed the advantages of the new system. Michael Obafemi’s brilliant play to set it up naturally drew the attention – the control, the turn, the pause and then the brilliantly flighted pass, dropping so perfectly into Parrott’s path that he could head it past Craig Gordon on the run without breaking stride.
But it’s the run that makes the pass, as Obafemi acknowledged in his interview with RTÉ: “I saw the run, the darting run, and I thought, shall I put it right on his nugget?”
Parrott’s part in the move had begun when he jumped for a high ball with Jack Hendry and ended in a heap on the ground. Getting up, he could see that Obafemi had the ball and Hendry had gone with Knight, who was running forward through the middle. A gap had appeared between Hendry and his right wing-back Anthony Ralston, who reacted too late as Parrott tore into the space. Hendry never saw him coming, but Obafemi did.
Considering where Parrott had started off – on the ground, 45 yards from goal – it was a startlingly positive and ambitious run. It was the kind of idea that would only occur to a player who was absolutely focused on scoring.
Would Parrott have made such an aggressive run if he’d been playing as one of the 10s in the previous system? Or would his responsibility to the midfield numbers game have induced fractional hesitation? Jason Knight’s already going, can I afford to go too? Even the smallest hesitation on Parrott’s part and Obafemi never gets the chance to show off his Dennis Bergkamp impression.
The manager had been asked the day before the game what he could do to improve Ireland’s dismal finishing. His reply suggested that he wouldn’t wish to discuss such sensitive matters in public before a game, as though he was reluctant to reveal trade secrets.
Obviously, if Kenny had a secret formula for getting players to score he’d have used it before now. This side of a coach’s job is more art than science. We know that for finishers, inhibition is fatal. The hard part is helping them to overcome it.
Alex Ferguson used to tell strikers going through a dry spell to hit their next chance as hard as they could. He wanted them to keep it simple and not hold anything back. Simplicity is a striker’s friend. If Ireland’s forwards suddenly looked sharp and confident, maybe it was because their task had been simplified by the system change. A 10 has to balance the conflicting demands of a hybrid role. A nine has one job: get in the box and score.
Or score from outside the box instead if you like. Obafemi’s stunning shot for the third goal showed the same singular focus as Parrott’s run for the second. To smash one over the goalkeeper from 30 yards you need a little luck and a lot of conviction.
So much of what is good or bad in football is explained by the presence or absence of this mysterious thing we are calling conviction. It was there in Jayson Molumby’s fierce tackle to win the ball just before Obafemi’s goal. It was there in the way Alan Browne pushed past three Scotland players to force the opening goal over the line.
It was absent from Shane Duffy’s hesitant efforts to play out from the back. The final count there was three mistakes, two big Scottish chances, one yellow card for Duffy and, remarkably, no goals conceded. But it was there in Duffy’s aerial domination of both boxes, including his assist for Browne. Kenny needs to figure out how to reduce Duffy’s exposure in the build-up phase – how to give him either less responsibility or more help – because to keep going the same way is asking for trouble.
Afterwards Kenny hailed a “significant” win, though the furious and protracted booing from the Scotland fans showed what they thought of their team’s performance level. You had to listen carefully for those Scotland fans though, because they were almost drowned out by the unfamiliar sounds of euphoria rolling down from the other three-quarters of the stadium.
Parrott, Obafemi, Knight and Nathan Collins are all still eligible for the U21s. From wondering on Wednesday night whether Ireland would ever score again, many Irish fans walked out of the stadium on Saturday evening dreaming of a decade of domination. Despair to megalomania in the space of four days? The national team is once again functioning as intended.