Ken Early: Is a new midfield in McCarthy’s plans for Georgia?
Perhaps the decision to move Conor Hourihane was actually to experiment in midfield
Ireland’s Alan Judge is tackled by Kristiyan Malinov of Bulgaria during the international friendly at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Mick McCarthy prides himself on being a straight-talker so when he casually dropped into his Monday press conference the news that Conor Hourihane would play at left-back against Bulgaria, the inclination was first to be grateful for the information, and then to take that information at face value. If he’s using Hourihane there, then it’s because he sees him as potential cover in that position.
One former Ireland international in the Aviva pressbox before the game saw it differently. He was less interested in the fact that Hourihane was being tried out at full-back, and more interested in the fact that that he was being moved out of central midfield.
Maybe the whole thing was an ingenious piece of misdirection by Mick, luring the focus towards the Hourihane experiment at left-back, while the real experiment was taking place in the zone Hourihane had vacated?
Hourihane had played alongside Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan on Thursday as Ireland’s midfield turned into big sky country for the Swiss midfielders, who roamed proud and free as the bison herds on the American prairie before the humans came.
While there were some mitigating factors, such as the defensive orientation of James McClean when the Swiss had the ball, McCarthy has now seen Ireland’s Hendrick-Hourihane-Whelan midfield dominated by Denmark and Switzerland, who between them had 31 attempts on goal to 11 for Ireland over these matches.
The results have held, but if this pattern also holds then Ireland will pay the price soon. So the most interesting question ahead of the match last night was whether the midfield trio of Josh Cullen, Alan Browne and Alan Judge could make a case to break into the first team.
The match was certainly rather different from last Thursday’s. Shortly after kickoff Ireland produced what must surely have been one of their longest unbroken sequences of possession since this stadium reopened in 2010. Throughout the first half Ireland continued to own the ball: the only problem was that, as though unaccustomed to such domination and not quite sure what to do with it, they could not convert possession into chances.
Browne and Cullen in particular will have given McCarthy something to think about. Glenn Whelan has been playing at the base of the Ireland midfield but at 35 he is vulnerable to pace, as happened a couple of times in the Swiss match.
Browne and Cullen can’t match Whelan’s experience but they have more snap about them. Browne kept it simple with crisp and accurate passing. Cullen was more ambitious in his use of the ball, and his covering run to make a last man tackle on Daniel Mladenov demonstrated both energy and defensive awareness.
In the front three, Callum O’Dowda showed some composed and classy touches, but in general he, Scott Hogan and Ronan Curtis were struggling to affect the game. Bulgaria showed the same stubborn determination to play out from the back that had proven so suicidal in their qualifier against England last Saturday – left-back Georgi Pashov at one point dribbled straight out of play for a corner – but Ireland’s forwards could not punish them as Raheem Sterling had at Wembley.
Hogan in particular has not had much luck with Ireland, but on 57 minutes he showed selflessness to tee up the opening goal for Browne. Curtis shot from the edge of the area, Hristo Ivanov got down low to save, but Hogan pounced on the loose ball and knocked it across goal for Browne to tap in.
Ireland’s lead didn’t last long as an unforced error by Cyrus Christie allowed Bulgaria to steal the ball in Ireland’s penalty area and John Egan brought down Bozhidar Kraev. The penalty was dispatched unerringly by Ivelin Popov.
But Ireland kept up the tempo and Jack Byrne, a popular introduction for Alan Judge on the hour mark, flighted an inswinging corner that was headed in by Kevin Long.
Byrne played well in the half hour he got, showing his ability to receive the ball on the half-turn and make things happen with quick positive passes. Once such move created a chance for substitute striker James Collins, but he couldn’t quite reach Byrne’s cross from the right channel.
Collins did connect with Enda Stevens’ cross a few minutes later, stretching and poking a far-post finish past Ivanov for his first Ireland goal.
By the end of the game Ireland had had 60 per cent of the ball, compared to 40 per cent against Switzerland and 37 per cent against Denmark. Of course Bulgaria are not remotely in the class of those opponents, but that doesn’t mean the evidence of this performance should be discounted completely. The Irish midfield looked sharper and better-balanced than the supposed first choice combination had last Thursday, and it will be up to McCarthy to decide how much of that is because the opposition were weak, and how much of it was because the new players played well.
The Ireland manager is only under contract until the end of this campaign, and may therefore be disinclined to try anything radical in the few games he has left. But why persist with something that isn’t working? As the under-21s thrilling comeback in Sweden showed, change is coming in Irish football, and soon. The chance is still there for McCarthy to be a part of it.
As for the experimental full-back Hourihane, he was not tested defensively by Bulgaria and it would be difficult to argue after tonight that he had proved his mettle in that position. But then what happened at left-back was never really the point.