When Stephen Kenny agreed to take over from Mick McCarthy as manager of the senior team, he would not have given much thought to the possibility that he would be involved in any part of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign or the tournament proper.
But thanks to the current COVID-19 pandemic that is exactly the position he finds himself in. A situation in which just two wins would see him qualify Ireland for only their fourth European championship. An opportunity that he is lucky to have, and one he needs to grasp with both hands.
Kenny’s opening two games in charge of the Irish team have thrown up more questions than answers. We have a good idea of what his vision is for this team, but questions remain on just how he is going to achieve it, which involves transforming the team into a cohesive unit that can play his pragmatic style of football.
I have no doubt that he is the right man to try to take on such a monumental task, although judging by the reaction from some supporters after the defeat to Finland, I would be wary of him getting enough time to do so. Football supporters can be an impatient bunch and rarely do they have the patience required for such a huge restructuring job on the pitch. Football after all is a results business.
A win in the playoff against Slovakia could play a huge role in seeing that the new manager is afforded the time he needs to turn this Irish team around. But what is the right way to approach this game? Does he continue in the same manner as his opening two games?
Well as we saw against Bulgaria and Finland, it’s going to take a lot of work and plenty of games to change how this Ireland team plays. The change in formation didn’t work and our strongest asset – our defence, looked more vulnerable than it has in a long time.
Midfield was also a big issue as it wasn’t able to protect the back four while it also struggled to link up successfully with our attack, which looked isolated for large parts of both ties. If we play in a similar manner against a Slovakian side who themselves aren’t on a great run of form, then we will struggle to get a result.
So Stephen Kenny has a decision to make. With so much on the line in a game of such importance and one that has come so early into his tenure, should he park his passing game and have this Ireland team revert back to type? Heart, desire, physicality and a never say die attitude is what this Irish team is used to being described as, usually as a sort of backhanded compliment by the opposition.
It’s a description that Stephen Kenny and most Irish fans would like to see banished. We have longed to watch our senior team play easy on the eye, cohesive and attacking football. It’s why Kenny has been brought in after all.
He deserves to get enough time to try and fulfil these ambitions for this team, but so early on in his tenure and for such a big opportunity, is the smartest move for all involved to revert to type against Slovakia? If he loses this game in a similar manner to the Finland game then panic and doubts could start to set in amongst fans, with signs that’s happening already.
So what does reverting back to type mean then?
It means a possible change of formation to a familiar midfield diamond. It means defensive solidity as our first priority. It means bringing back an in form Seamus Coleman into the defence, to set the tone and to organise the back line. It means not having Shane Duffy pretend he’s comfortable juggling a hand grenade in his own box as the opposition swarms him while he tries to pass out from the back. It means starting someone like James McClean, who we know will run all day and be chomping at the bit at the prospect of potentially playing Northern Ireland in a knockout final to reach the Euros. It really means just going back to basics.
Our defence is our strongest asset and the longer the game stays level then the better chance we have to win it. We gave up a lot of chances against Finland and Slovakia are technically on a par with them and maybe even slightly better. If we line up the same way then we may give up the same types of chances which isn’t something we are used to seeing this Ireland side do to often.
The problems are usually further up the pitch and in front of goal. Jack Byrne’s inclusion along with Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson’s good early season form is a huge plus though, and may remedy such problems. Couple that with our ability to score from set pieces and we have a chance of nicking a goal if we keep Slovakia quiet the other end of the pitch.
In a one off game like this where everything is on the line, this could be the most successful approach, and there is no shame in it. We all want to qualify for the Euros. Kenny parking his rebuild for one or potentially two games is a compromise everyone should be willing to except. Kenny needs to buy himself as much time as possible to ensure he can have the best opportunity to implement his methods on this team.
Reverting back to a default position isn’t a show of weakness, it’s the smart decision. This team isn’t good enough to win the way Kenny wants them to win yet. That time will hopefully come but it will take time. This will only be his third game after all. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Dogged football, set pieces and playing it long turning the opposition defenders. This is what this team is still used to when they throw on the green jersey. It’s engrained in them. There is a reason we have played this way for the last nearly 15 years. It’s because that’s the type of player we produce, bar the odd Wes Hoolahan or Damien Duff. That’s changing now though with the emergence of a whole host of technically proficient youngsters coming through the youth ranks.
It shouldn’t be seen as some sort of recognition of defeat for Kenny’s vision so soon though. It should be seen as the most sensible option. It would be a smart compromise. It would earn him more respect from some of the non-believers out there and also more vitally, would but him more time to implement his style.
The reaction from fans after the Finland defeat makes you wonder how long he would get if we were knocked out by Slovakia. Football fans are a fickle bunch. A win though would buy him some valuable time.