Stephen Kenny is now in position to really change the identity of Ireland.
Troy Parrott's goal covered up a poor performance from Ireland on Tuesday.
Parrott's strike was spectacular. It was a great moment for the young striker. But the elation at the end of the game was relief more than excitement. Parrott individually is the most promising player Ireland have had since Damien Duff or Robbie Keane. Scoring that goal will be invaluable for his confidence.
But the game itself was one Ireland were lucky to win.
The performance against an inferior opponent at home was off.
Four offside goals are a fair retort, no question. But none of those goals were wrongly ruled out. Ireland's own lack of execution was the reason they didn't score. And the fourth goal went in long after the whistle went so that doesn't really count.
Stephen Kenny's Ireland have been engulfed in an argument between two extremes since he took over.
On one side, you have the traditionalists. They preferred the days of Mick McCarthy, Martin O'Neill and playing down the quality of the players. Results are all that matter to them and they see the best way of getting results as shutting up shop at the back before hopefully scoring from a set piece.
They can't really complain about Tuesday night's win over Lithuania. Ireland won. Results are what matter. So that's it.
On the other side of the argument, you find Kenny's backers. Those people are more optimistic about what Ireland can achieve. They embrace his long-term outlook and prioritise short-term performances over short-term results. On Saturday against Belgium, Ireland got to see the potential of that. Chiedozie Ogbene was the best player on the pitch and Ireland played attractive, attacking football against the official best team in the world.
Even without their leading stars, Belgium were still a formidable opponent. Ireland matched them.
We hadn't seen a home performance like that against a top team for more than a decade.
The Belgium draw gave Ireland everything they needed. A good result, a good performance and more experience for new players. Kenny kept the system he's employed in all of Ireland's recent games, so the players continue to build chemistry together.
Now that Ireland's identity is in place and Kenny has his new contract, Ireland are going to reproduce that performance more often.
Ireland will be a very difficult opponent for opposing teams. They've always been that at home. But now it won't be because they defend well for 90 minutes and hope for a smash-and-grab win. It's because they're going to match the quality of football top teams play. Saturday's game proved what Kenny has achieved.
Tuesday's game highlighted what Ireland still need to do.
They need to figure out how they can emphatically beat the teams they should beat. They did it against Qatar, but couldn't replicate it against Lithuania.
Lithuania were never going to offer much threat going forward. Kenny should have recognised that and risked the more aggressive approach. That means changing formation and embracing Ireland's more creative players. Kenny is an ambitious manager who believes in his players. He trusts them and understands how to guide them on the field.
It's not a coincidence that Kenny's enthusiasm and belief has coincided with Irish players playing their best football in years.
But Kenny has also been a manager under intense scrutiny from all directions. It's why he tried to push focus towards Euro 2024 when facing criticism last year. Naturally, he feels he still needs to rely on the more veteran players and not make major alterations to maintain momentum.
Kenny can both make some big changes, maintain the identity of his team and make it easier to win games. The best way to beat teams such as Lithuania is by being more aggressive. Both in formation and in player selection.
Ireland have a system established with three at the back and wing backs. Lithuania were never going to offer a real threat going forward, so there was no reason for Ireland to play three at the back in this specific game. Playing three at the back unleashes Matt Doherty, who is one of Ireland's key attacking players. Doherty should have scored against Lithuania. He could have played the exact same game as Ireland's right back rather than right wing back against Lithuania, though.
Playing the same formation and picking players consistently helps to develop chemistry. That's vital for qualifying games. But Ireland should be adaptable in qualifying games too.
Against better teams at home, they shouldn't play three at the back. They should switch to a 4-2-3-1 or another formation that gets more of Ireland's most creative and most incisive players on the field. Kenny needs to be braver and more aggressive against teams that Ireland can dictate play against.
Dara O'Shea and Nathan Collins could have comfortably played together in a back four against Lithuania. Even if Kenny wanted to be a little bit safer, he could have put O'Shea at right back and kept Egan in the middle with Collins. That would provide balance to the team.
By removing a third central defender, Ireland could have unleashed their attacking midfielders more easily. Alan Browne played as a traditional central midfielder against Lithuania. In a 4-2-3-1 or in a 4-3-3, Browne could have been encouraged to run forward more while Conor Hourihane sat deep.
Browne had very little impact on the game against Lithuania. Had he been paired with Troy Parrott or Jason Knight in front of Hourihane and behind the central striker, Ireland could have got more bodies in the box more consistently.
Since Ireland were bogged down by their own formation, they resorted to a style of play that they've been trying to move away from in the second half. There were far too many crosses into the box and they were ineffective. Many were blocked as Lithuania packed their defensive third. Will Keane was often isolated and didn't receive much quality service. His aerial threat never materialised.
Keane will have a role for Ireland moving forward. But he's part of Plan B. When Adam Idah is absent, he offers Ireland a physical presence up top they're lacking.
But starting for Ireland alone upfront against a low block is not where Keane is going to thrive. Parrott showed in his short time on the field that he's advanced past his years. His technical quality and his understanding of how to find and create space in a crowd was invaluable. There were a couple of occasions during the first half when Ireland built well passing the ball but Keane was uncertain when he got on the ball.
That moment of hesitation prevented Ireland from getting into scoring positions.
Kenny watched Parrott play exceptionally well for his under-21 team. He knows how good Parrott is and how much better he can become. After those goals against Andorra and that goal against Lithuania, the rest of Ireland knows it too. That moment will propel Parrott forward. He now has momentum to start for Ireland in the next international window.
And maybe that was Kenny's plan all along.
If Kenny put Parrott into the starting team against Belgium or Lithuania and it didn't go well, it could be a setback. So instead, Parrott barely played but produced a moment that fans will remember ahead of the next window.
Parrott's limited usage was frustrating, but more frustrating was the complete absence of Conor Ronan.
Again, maybe it's a purposeful decision to be cautious with younger players, but if Kenny was braver he would have brought in one of Ireland's most creative options. Ronan wasn't in either matchday squad despite impressing in Scotland for St. Mirren. He reflects the next evolution of this Ireland team. He's a purely creative playmaker who does his best work in the final third.
Will he start every game once he's established? Probably not. But at home against inferior opposition, Ronan is the exact type of player you want on the field. He'll create chances, retain possession in tight spaces and score goals.
The question then becomes what benefits Ireland more: Scott Hogan coming off the bench as a tried-and-trusted option or Ronan coming into a perfect situation for him to earn his first cap? Ireland were lacking a playmaker in the second half. Parrott became the playmaker by default but that's not necessarily his best role.
Aaron Connolly's struggles and subsequent absence from squads might influence Kenny's handling of younger players. Connolly's promise evaporated after a couple of disappointing performances. He is now working his way back into the squad by playing for Middlesbrough in the Championship.
This is something Dan McDonnell noted as a wider approach. He is slow-rolling the exciting, young prospects onto International level.
"Falls to Parrott.....oooOOOHHHHH" 🤤
"It's like Stephen Gerrard in the cup final, that kind of finish." 🔥@nathanmurf and Stuey Byrne enjoyed tonight's winner from Troy Parrott!
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) March 29, 2022
That might be the smart way to do it.
Kenny has earned trust from fans at this stage. But he's also not beyond further development. Ireland are building towards the future and the future doesn't appear to be that far away. Maybe Ronan plays in the next window. Maybe he doesn't even make the squad. Or maybe he's the key to more convincingly beating the likes of Lithuania. Either way, Ireland can't play the same formation against Belgium as they do against teams ranked outside the top 100 in the world rankings.
At under-21 level, Kenny was flexible. He changed formations when chasing games and adapted to the players he had available to him.
3-5-2 is the setup Ireland have for games against comparable and better teams. 4-2-3-1 makes sense as Ireland's more attacking identity against weaker teams. With the likes of Parrott, Ronan, Idah, Jason Knight and Callum Robinson available, there's a perfect group of technically gifted attacking midfielders and strikers.
That specific group could also interchange positions to become a more fluid attacking structure.
That group will be more effective against teams that play a low block for 90 minutes. Ireland's younger players are more technical than those who came before them.
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