Ireland are at an unexpected crossroads with Stephen Kenny and it's time for him to make aggressive decisions.
Ireland must reset.
Stephen Kenny needs a hard reset to fix the Ireland squad and turn his side back towards his long-term vision. Kenny was hired to oversee a transition to a new playing style, implement greater youth structures and play better football. Sections of Irish fans, sections of wider media and seemingly some sections of those within the FAI lost sight of that after Kenny was hired.
It can be traced back to the start of his reign.
Mick McCarthy was supposed to be a bridge manager, an interim hire. He was supposed to oversee the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and then hand off to Kenny. That would have allowed McCarthy to make one final swing at a big tournament with Ireland's established core before Kenny came in to execute a hard reset of the squad.
Covid changed that. Instead of Kenny taking over after Ireland failed to qualify for a tournament, Kenny came in at the end and was part of that failure. That immediately changed the dynamic. Not only was Kenny now expected to win more games to prove himself worthy of his position, but he also came in at a time when he had to pick the established players.
Kenny couldn't pick a squad of youngsters for a playoff in Slovakia.
His first squad in August 2020 featured mostly established veterans. A 33-year-old starting goalkeeper in Darren Randolph, six defenders all aged 27 or older and Jayson Molumby as the only new face in midfield.
The only real injection of youth came upfront, where Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly and Callum O'Dowda were all involved.
Kenny deserves credit for bringing through younger players. Some of Ireland's best performances have come on the backs of Dara O'Shea, Andrew Omobamidele, Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and more. And obviously don't forget Gavin Bazunu, who likely wouldn't even be in the squad under previous managers.
But that bravery in squad selection has been curtailed.
While he's bringing some players through, he's also still mimicking McCarthy, O'Neill and Trappatoni by picking underperforming veterans who don't play club football. Shane Duffy and Jeff Hendrick are in the spine of the team. James McClean is still an inevitable substitution off the bench no matter the situation.
The argument for keeping Duffy in the starting lineup is he is our biggest goal threat at set pieces. But against Armenia and Ukraine, we saw the limitations of our output from the back. Duffy is not a ball-playing defender. He's better suited to sitting deep and winning headers than coming out with the ball and picking out a pass.
AT some point, Dara O'Shea, Andrew Omobamidele and Nathan Collins will be Ireland's starting back three. Omobamidele is injured so we should see John Egan in his place now.
O'Shea is particularly good on the ball. He's comfortable moving into midfield and has the pace to recover if he loses the ball. Collins offers the same size and physicality of Duffy if moved into the middle of the back three. He'll make mistakes that young defenders make, but he'll also give Ireland that base of passing ability at the back.
If you're going to have a passing team, it has to start at the back. Having defenders who can come forward with the ball or pick out passes from deep will alleviate the pressure on Josh Cullen and his central midfield partner.
Hendrick's energy and overall technical ability means he still has value. But he also looks like a player who would greatly benefit from coming off the bench for 20-30 minutes at the end of the game rather than trying to carry the team.
Ireland have other options in midfield.
Jason Knight is capable of playing central midfield. Allen Browne has shown he is exceptionally good at arriving late into the box from midfield too. Josh Cullen is a certain starter now, which means Ireland need someone who will naturally move forward from the middle of the field while he drops deeper to get on the ball.
The dynamic between Cullen and Henrick worked well prior to this international window. Stuey Byrne noted on Wednesday that they are no longer complementing each other the way they did previously.
Kenny has gradually included more of Ireland's young players and now he can take the next step by moving them into key positions. If Knight plays in central midfield, then he can put Parrott, Obafemi and Ogbene in the front three together. But even then, Ogbene will be better suited to playing wing back on occasion.
One of the major disappointments from this window is at wing back.
Seamus Coleman can still start for Ireland but not at wing back. He's 33 years old and not that far away from 34. You shouldn't expect a player of that age to get up and down the sideline. Enda Stevens isn't far behind him and is a more natural left back. Both Coleman and Stevens better fit on the outside of the back three.
They are great depth options behind the younger defenders.
Cyrus Christie is younger than Coleman. He's about to turn 30 and has his pace, but he didn't look comfortable as a wing back either. He is a better player playing as a natural fullback so his fit in a 3-4-3 is not ideal. Christie wasn't bad against Ukraine but didn't fit his role ideally. The same can be said for James McClean, who came on at left wing back in both games.
Kenny is extremely conservative with his wing backs. Ryan Manning and Festy Ebosele at a minimum should have been involved in those positions. Ideally, Chiedozie Ogbene would switch back to wing back against teams playing a low block.
Ogbene is a revelation for Ireland. He showed some of his limitations against teams that sit deeper, but Kenny deserves huge credit for discovering him and trusting him at international level. Now he needs to help the young Cork man by understanding when he needs to play a deeper role and when he can play on the last shoulder in the front line.
He would have more easily found space at wing back against Armenia and Ukraine.
The wing back positions in this window are the most perplexing from an Irish point of view. You play a 3-4-3 to put your wing backs in position to be impactful. Selecting Stevens, Coleman, Cyrus Christie and McClean at wing back over more dynamic options such as Ebosele, Ogbene or Manning is a blatantly conservative call that fits with every Ireland manager of the last two decades.
That is the biggest surprise of Ireland's struggles. Kenny is an ambitious, courageous manager with a long-term vision. His team selections are trapping his team between two different phases of their development. The key figures of McCarthy's final qualifying campaign are lingering too long in the starting lineup.
Ireland still need those players as leaders and for depth. But the team should focus on incorporating younger players while building them into a system that allows for sustained success.
You then have a more difficult evaluation with Callum Robinson. The West Brom attacker probably shouldn't start when Ireland are at full strength. Idah is a better lead-the-line striker than him while Knight and Ogbene do more as support options. Robinson is streaky, his flashes of great play and form stick with fans. His inconsistency could be offset in a super-sub role. Robinson can be the Plan B option when Ireland are chasing a goal.
And similar to the changes at the back and midfield, putting a combination of Parrott, Idah, Ogbene, Knight and Obafemi up top will improve the general play over having Robinson in there.
Since Ireland aren't winning games playing the established, older players, there is no real argument for keeping them in the starting lineup.
We're making individual mistakes, we're trying to fit players into positions they aren't comfortable in and we're making it too easy for our opponents to pick us apart. So what's the fear if we start younger players? That they'll make mistakes, not perfectly fit into their roles and make it easy for our opponents?
Maybe they'll do all that but also offer glimpses of what's possible in the future.
Everyone wants to qualify for the next major tournament, but that might not be realistic for Ireland at this stage. Kenny's best route to building a great team is by embracing the next generation even further.
But Kenny needs to do that. Nobody else can do it for him. He has to show the bravery and commit to the vision he sold to the wider nation. A wider nation that is still desperate for him to succeed on the whole.
Give Parrott, Idah (when healthy), Knight, Ogbene and whoever else comes through as much time as possible to develop together. Ireland's young players will only figure out how to win international games with more exposure. Kenny must give that to them.
If he doesn't, the cognitive dissonance between building for the future and trying to win now will continue to tear the team apart.
What's the worst thing that can happen?
We lose to Armenia?
We lose to Ukraine's second team?
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