Ken Early: Ireland supporters must be patient with Stephen Kenny's team

It felt like this team was ready to shine. Then it just didn’t happen against Azerbaijan

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny’s comments after the game were surprising. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny’s comments after the game were surprising. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Hindsight reveals that Saturday’s match peaked on six minutes. As the crowd stood up for the boys in green, Séamus Coleman found Adam Idah, who thrillingly beat his marker round the outside and cut it back for Aaron Connolly. It looked like a scene from an under-21 match in 2019 . . . but Connolly’s effort was blocked, and Azerbaijan’s goal survived.

Still, as the crowd roared their appreciation it felt as though Ireland were going to go on and win by three or four. At last feeling the love of the fans, and buoyed by the memory of a brave performance in Portugal, it felt like this team was about to crawl out of its cocoon and spread its beautiful butterfly wings.

And then it just . . . didn’t happen. There had been a hint of the dysfunction to come in the opening minutes, when Troy Parrott and Idah collided with each other in the middle as Josh Cullen prepared to pass in the move that ended with Matt Doherty’s header flying high and wide.

Stephen Kenny had tweaked the approach that had worked well away to Portugal on Wednesday, shifting from 3-5-2 to an ostensibly more attacking 3-4-3. The midfield three of Cullen, Jeff Hendrick and Jamie McGrath was reduced to two, with Jayson Molumby partnering Cullen, and the forward line increased from two to three, with Parrott coming in at McGrath’s expense.

Doherty switched from left wing-back to right, with James McClean coming in on the left and Coleman replacing the injured Dara O’Shea in the back three.

This was therefore the same sort of system that was used, for instance, by England in the final of Euro 2020, Germany in their 4-2 Euros win over Portugal, and Chelsea as they won last season’s Champions League.

Dropping deep

Clearly, these teams all have better players than Ireland. But player quality is not the only reason why they all made a better fist of the 3-4-3 than Ireland did.

These teams all used two central midfielders who generally stayed behind the ball – Jorginho and N’Golo Kante for Chelsea, Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan for Germany, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips for England. And in the front three, on either side of their main striker they used two players who are not pure forwards or midfielders, but who are comfortable dropping deep and playing between the lines.

Chelsea used Mason Mount and Kai Havertz behind Timo Werner. Germany used Havertz and Thomas Müller behind Serge Gnabry, and England used Mount and Raheem Sterling behind Harry Kane.

Kenny’s front three had all been successful for him at under-21 level, but at this stage of their careers they are all more forwards than midfielders, and as the first half drifted on it became increasingly clear that there was not a lot of chemistry between them and the midfield.

Idah was giving Ireland an outlet for long passes, but Connolly and Parrott were hardly involved. There were situations when Ireland were advancing with James McClean or Coleman or Doherty on the ball and the three forwards were standing ahead of them in a line, with few good passing options available.

Only experience can teach Connolly and Parrott how to move to find the telling spaces in these games.

Ireland’s inexperience also showed in midfield, where Jayson Molumby showed great enthusiasm to get forward, helping to press the Azeri defenders and so on, at the expense of working with Cullen in the middle.

The two central midfielders in 3-4-3 usually play conservatively, because that’s how they provide the platform for the wing-backs to attack. This is a system that allows wing-backs to shine: remember Robin Gosens smashing Portugal, or Luke Shaw scoring after two minutes against Italy.

Leaving aside the early Doherty header, Ireland’s wing-backs never threatened. McClean had 102 touches – by far the most of any player on either side – an outcome that sounds more like it was part of Gianni di Biasi’s plan than Kenny’s.

But his possession was usually on the outside, far from goal. Once he found himself unmarked and screaming for a pass inside the box, but Molumby shot wide. Another time he tried to overlap Connolly, but the forward did not notice he was there in support and launched a solo attack, leaving McClean redundant.

Having let the first half pass them by, Ireland then conceded a goal that was beautiful and horrible to behold. It might have been the most spectacular goal yet scored at the Aviva Stadium, but you do wish either Coleman or Josh Cullen had closed him down.

It looked like Coleman and Cullen had made the same mistake as the US Civil War general John Sedgwick, whose last words are reported as: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-...”

Inspire

True, nobody was realistically expecting that shot to fly all the way into the net. But the memory is still fresh of Cullen charging out to block a Cristiano Ronaldo shot from even longer range at Estadio Algarve. Apparently the sight of Emin Mahmudov lining one up doesn’t inspire the same kind of urgency, though his right foot has long been the wonder of the Caucasus.

Kenny saw it wasn’t working and hooked Connolly at half-time, which was the earliest point at which he could substitute him without humiliating him. It was surprising to hear the Ireland manager after the game describing the Azeri goal as “a killer blow for us. It changed the narrative”.

Killer blow? It was a setback, and Ireland have to react to these better – it’s not like they don’t get enough practice. There was still plenty of time to win the game. Kenny was, however, correct that it changed the narrative. The team’s dread of another humiliation was palpable, the chase for an equaliser soon becoming desperate.

The frenetic flurries eventually forced an equaliser, but when you remember the momentum-killing mistakes of the closing minutes – Horgan passing the ball out of play instead of finding Coleman, or Hourihane rushing a cross out for a goal kick – you know the outcome might have been better had they mixed more method into the madness.

It’s not just the players who need to focus on reality rather than narrative. Some Ireland fans booed at the final whistle (though what sounded like a larger share of the crowd then responded with sustained applause).

You assume the boos were from people attending their first ever Ireland game, because people who actually watch Ireland know by now that drawing at home to Azerbaijan is not some historic disgrace.

It’s the sort of result you can expect when you have won five of your last 31 competitive matches. Wales (without Gareth Bale), Gibraltar (x2), Georgia and Moldova: that’s the entire list of teams Ireland have beaten since the start of 2017. On and off the pitch, we’ll get nowhere without patience.

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