Lessons from Portugal feat help Kenny plan for Ireland’s clash with Belgium

Manager focusing on getting balance right in attack so players complement each other

Stephen Kenny is at the tactics board. The media are deep inside FAI offices in Abbotstown, so deep that our digital recorder believes it is up on Sheephill, where the ill-fated "Bertie Bowl" would have dominated the Fingal skyline.

Kenny is explaining the simplicity of Ireland's tactics that almost brought Portugal to their knees last September. The strategy – to isolate Pepe and let Aaron Connolly twist the ageing defender inside out – was designed to secure the "best ever" result away from home in the Irish football's 100-year existence.

"How do you exploit Portugal, one of the best teams in Europe with some of the best players, how do you find a weakness?" Kenny wondered aloud earlier this month. "I don't want to be saying any of their players are 'weak' but we played 3-4-2-1 against them.

“McGrath is on [starting] debut on the right, and Jamie is not going to run away from you, he is a midfield player, and they got Rúben Dias there, so they are completely solid in that area but [João] Cancelo plays as the highest right wing back in any European team, and in here they have Pepe, who is still a good player, but he is 38 and that’s a big area to cover.


“Hence, we played Aaron Connolly in that area, and we worked opportunities between [Matt] Doherty and Connolly.”

The mind races back to that night at Stadio Algarve, when Connolly had multiple chances to become a national hero (Callum Robinson was absent with Covid).

“Connolly was not probably at the top of his game,” Kenny continued, “he was still finding his form, trying to get back to where he was two years ago. Had he been, he would have had a field day. He was unlucky on a couple of occasions and should have had a penalty that would have put us 2-nil up.

“But that’s where we got joy. Where we lost the game was we retreated too much and they put too many crosses in. . .”

Lesson learned.

Kenny's starting XI to face a third-string Belgium in the FAI's centenary celebration at the Aviva Stadium on March 26th could include Gavin Bazunu, Nathan Collins, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Séamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, Josh Cullen, Matt Doherty, Jason Knight, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson, with Wigan Athletic duo Will Keane – 17 goals in League One this season – and James McClean along with Troy Parrott pushing hard for minutes.

Rejected call-up

Michael Obafemi rejected a call-up to Jim Crawford's under-21 squad this week, as the once capped Dubliner considers himself a senior striker. Six goals in nine starts for English Championship strugglers Swansea supports what will prove a brave or foolhardy stance.

Kenny will make that decision, but Obafemi might have done enough to usurp Connolly from the squad. Since Connolly’s loan move to Middlesbrough in January, the Galway man has scored twice in 12 appearances, including a timely strike against Birmingham last Tuesday.

"If he continues to score goals then it will enhance his international prospects," said 'Boro manager Chris Wilder. "Against Birmingham, Connolly was aggressive up against a big competitor in Marc Roberts who is a physical, powerful boy. He didn't get bullied, he didn't get dominated which was good as well. He linked things up down the sides which is not always easy when he is playing against three big centre halves."

Connolly's rediscovered aggression may assuage concerns Kenny previously held about the 23-year-old. With Adam Idah joining Andrew Omobamidele on Norwich City's long-term injury list, the three attacking slots in Kenny's established 3-4-2-1 are up for debate. Robinson's six goals in Ireland's last four matches all but guarantees his place. Same goes for Ogbene's consistently brilliant showings for Rotherham United.

“I think it is about getting the balance in attack,” said Kenny recently, “so their characteristics complement each other”.

That indicates a continuation of Robinson, Ogbene and Knight after the trio combined so effectively in the 3-nil win over Luxembourg last November.

Bazunu will start against Belgium despite some sensational performances by Liverpool's Caoimhín Kelleher, en route to scoring the winning penalty in the Carabao Cup final, and Mark Travers in the English Championship as Bournemouth close in on promotion to the Premier League. Kenny remains open to rotating the goalkeepers against Lithuania on March 29th but it feels like rotten luck that three of Ireland's best players over the next 15 years can never play together.

The same problem was developing at right wing back until Kenny switched Doherty to the left against Portugal. McClean might prove an irresistible selection, especially considering Coleman's ageing legs were highlighted by Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports after Everton's recent 5-0 defeat to Spurs. Festy Ebosele, despite a string of quality displays for Derby County, has been redirected to Crawford's under-21s for a crucial European Championship qualifier in Sweden on March 29th (live on RTÉ).

Options at centre half have not looked so healthy since David O'Leary was ignored during the halcyon Jack Charlton years, when Mark Lawrenson and Paul McGrath were used in midfield. Not that Collins at Burnley or Duffy at Brighton are commanding regular starts but John Egan continues to thrive at Sheffield United. Dara O'Shea has yet to re-establish himself in the West Brom defence, having fractured his ankle in Faro seven months ago, but a recall to Ireland camp seems imminent.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent