Ireland’s lack of creativity remains McCarthy’s biggest issue
Manager says team will have ‘overachieved’ if they beat Denmark and make finals
Ireland’s Darren Randolph makes a save during the defeat to Switzerland in Stade de Geneva. Only the goalkeeper’s heroics and some desperate last-ditch defending prevented a rout. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Mick McCarthy insists his Republic of Ireland team will have “overachieved” if they beat Denmark in Dublin next month to qualify directly from Group D for the European Championship finals.
However just now, he acknowledged, there is precious little sense that his players are punching above their weight.
If Ireland fail to beat the Danes, who will almost certainly travel in a slightly better position to progress than they did two years ago when they ended up winning 5-1, then McCarthy and his men are still set to have the fallback of a play-off.
As things stand, the likes of Bosnia Herzegovina and Wales would await in what will be seeded, one-off ties. With qualifiers still to play, the cast of potential opponents is still not certain.
But if the latter two nations are an indication of what might await, it seems fair to say Ireland would still have to win a couple of tough games on the road if they are make a tournament at which almost half of the nations of Europe will be participating, some of them in Dublin.
Ireland have relied heavily on their defensive resilience to get this far. Only five teams of the 55 in this entire campaign, all of them also currently group leaders, have conceded fewer times than McCarthy’s men. But the key difference is that they have all managed to defend well while also scoring a few goals.
Those five teams have managed 99 goals between them, in fact, just short of 20 on average apiece while Ireland have six goals to show for seven games, one fewer than Georgia who, as we saw on Saturday, are pitifully poor around an opponents’ penalty area.
McCarthy sought to do something to address the situation here by starting Aaron Connolly as one of two strikers but it didn’t work. Ireland were left shorthanded in other areas, the midfield struggled as much as ever to get the ball forward in a controlled way and the manager had to intervene, more than once, to change things over the course of the first half.
Against a Swiss team that passed the ball far more effectively than the visitors his side struggled, yet again, to keep it in the face of an effective press. Then there were the times, like James McClean’s needless concession of the throw-in that ultimately led to the opening goal, where mistakes were made when there was really no pressure at all.
McCarthy accepted afterwards that the tactical change hadn’t worked and declined to single out McClean for criticism but the tone of his general assessment, at least of the first-half performance, was fairly damning.
“I don’t think that system caused us to have an inability to pass the ball to one another, so I’m not taking the rap for that,” said the manager with a hint of the exasperation Martin O’Neill used to express regarding the players’ apparent inability to do the basics at times.
He was far more upbeat about the second-half performance, insisting that Ireland had shown prior to Séamus Coleman’s sending off that they remembered how to pass the ball.
A portion of the improvement, though, might well be put down to the Swiss, in a winning position but not an unassailable one, simply being unsure as to whether they should stick or twist.
Ireland, in any case, desperately needed a goal to get back into the game but only created half chances with their two best opportunities to actually equalise having passed late on the first half.
On how to improve things, the manager says he is open to anything. With Connolly having come up short on what was not, in the end, a great day for him, McCarthy ended up being asked about Shane Long who, he said, would be back soon enough if he gets more game-time at Southampton.
David McGoldrick should add to the manager’s options next month, meanwhile, and Connolly will hopefully restate his case with some strong club performances between now and then. Otherwise, McCarthy acknowledged, he had no other trick up his sleeve.
“Not really, no,” he said. “Because if there was do you not think I would have been doing it now? Do you not think we have been doing everything we possibly can to score goals, in terms of training sessions; what we do? But we’ll continue to do that.”
The problem is that Ireland’s need to put so much emphasis on defence leaves whoever they play up front with a mountain to climb. Against Switzerland that might be understandable, Glenn Whelan being about the only one of Ireland’s midfielders to really impose himself.
But the fact the team does not have the capacity to shift on to the front foot against the weaker sides is genuinely perplexing given the number of Premier League players involved.
Few, though, produce the form they do at club level and sadly Coleman is among those to have struggled this past week. The Irish skipper had a poor trip, especially in Geneva, and is rated as only Ireland’s eighth best player by Uefa’s stats people over the course of the campaign. Only one of those ahead of him, Shane Duffy, makes the list’s top 100 with the Derryman taking the very last spot.
Ultimately, McCarthy suggested, very much the same group of players employing much the same system will simply have to play better.
“We’ll need to be at our best in Dublin,” he said with regard to Denmark’s visit on November 18th. “We’ll have to have a big performance. They’re a good team.
“But we’ve been underdogs from the start in the tournament. We were third seeds behind those two teams and that’s still the pecking order. If we beat Denmark and qualify we will have overachieved.”
Statistically, he is correct, but if we do not, after only winning three group games, two against Gibraltar and one against Georgia, and none with any genuinely great conviction, even he may have to admit we have disappointed. Although, he might just hold off until after the play-offs.