Stephen Kenny offers relative clarity where previous Republic of Ireland managers chose secrecy.
Giovanni Trapattoni was no fool, yet the Italian allowed plenty to get lost in translation while Martin O’Neill leant into an adversarial media approach. Internal messaging was also vague at best.
Kenny’s improved media dealings are helped immeasurably by Ireland beating Latvia 3-2 on Wednesday night despite a near collapse after going 2-0 up inside 16 minutes, which was worryingly similar to the Armenia game last September. This could be framed as incremental improvements when defeat to Luxembourg and drawing with Azerbaijan at either end of 2021 is remembered.
A common trait across all four Aviva Stadium matches was the concession of goals from shots outside the box. On Wednesday, Roberts Uldrikis and Arturs Zjuzins both beat Caoimhín Kelleher from distance.
The trend will encourage France to shoot first, ask questions later this Monday night, as Aurélien Tchouaméni did when helping to eliminate England with a piledriver at the 2022 World Cup.
Statistics, tweeted by Andrew Cunneen from Stats Perform, signal a weird anomaly: Ireland have conceded 23 goals since 2021, nine from outside the area off 85 shots for a 39 per cent return, which is by some distance the worst record among European nations.
Uldrikis’s goal was a pure strike while Zjuzins’s shot deflected off Nathan Collins after Irish defenders messed up four separate opportunities to clear the ball. Kenny accepted these malfunctions but suggested they were side effects of a wider malaise rather than the sole cause of Latvia’s second goal.
“I was livid at conceding that goal but we did maybe play a few passes outside of our foot when we were 2-0 up, little chip passes that we weren’t playing earlier,” he noted. “We were more precise with our passing early on; cutting-edge passing, playing it forward.”
In the same answer, Kenny changed focus to the importance of Callum O’Dowda featuring at left wing back against France on Monday night.
“He’s the quickest player that we have in that position by some distance. We have good players that can counter attack but he’s rapid and we’ll need that against France – we need speed, that’s important.”
Historically, it is easier to extract hens’ teeth from managers about line-ups, but Kenny offers guaranteed team news. A club manager by trade, primarily in the League of Ireland until the international gig came along in 2019, Kenny has effectively signed four new players for this European Championships qualification campaign.
Mikey Johnston was persuaded to declare for Ireland over Scotland, Will Smallbone and Evan Ferguson graduated from Jim Crawford’s under-21s, and O’Dowda is no longer plagued by hamstring and ankle issues.
Smallbone and Matt Doherty tore up the Latvian left flank but Kenny indicated that both could make way while John Egan and Josh Cullen are certain to feature against the World Cup runners-up. Andrew Omobamidele will probably be squeezed out of defence as Dara O’Shea is retained alongside Nathan Collins and Egan, although Séamus Coleman for Doherty is not guaranteed as the Everton captain has a thigh strain.
“It’s a different game, I’m not saying we’re going to throw [Smallbone] in. We have to review and have a look at everything.”
A robust conversation with assistant manager Keith Andrews and coach John O’Shea can settle on the best way to use Chiedozie Ogbene and Johnston, who were both exceptional off the bench on Wednesday.
“I love wingers, Tony,” Kenny told RTÉ's Tony O’Donoghue. “We are producing centre backs, some centre forwards, which is brilliant, and goalkeepers but wingers are in short supply. Mikey is a terrific individual talent.”
Also, Jason Knight and Jayson Molumby offer energetic resistance in the face of Real Madrid’s Tchouameni and in-form Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot. France face the Netherlands on Friday night in Saint-Denis with five Dutch players, including Liverpool’s Cody Gakpo, ruled out with food poisoning attributed to a dodgy chicken curry.
Kenny escapes the Latvia hiccup, mainly because of his decisive introduction of Ogbene, Johnston and Egan – for Doherty, Michael Obafemi and Omobamidele – on 63 minutes. Within a minute, Ogbene was celebrating his fourth Irish goal after Johnston hit the post.
“We could set up defensively with two screeners and a back five and maybe not concede, but maybe not score,” said Kenny, eyeing up a formation change to handle the quadruple threat of Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann and Oliver Giroud or Randal Kolo Muani.
[ Latvia sorted, and just the French up next - what could go wrong? ]
“There are goals in our team. Obviously, sometimes, when you play like that you concede goals but we want to get better in that [system]. But we will have changes and John Egan brings a lot to us, Josh Cullen brings a lot to us in defensive stability, and Séamus ... We’ll see how we go.”
Coherent messaging never hurt an Ireland team. But Mbappé's France can pick them apart regardless of what they say or do.