Defence Ireland’s strongest asset, but Kenny still has decisions to make

Stephen Kenny comes into the role of Republic of Ireland manager bringing with him a reputation for playing an attractive and attacking brand of football.

Fans are licking their lips at the thought of eventually seeing Ireland string together fifteen passes at ease and carving team’s open. Expectations are as high as they’ve been in a very long time that this could be the managerial appointment that sets Irish football on a new path when it comes to how we play the game.

In order to play on the front foot and control games though, you must have solid foundations and build from the back. The discussion amongst fan’s and pundits so far around Kenny’s appointment have been generally about two things. The first being just how different his approach will be compared to most of his predecessors. The second is guessing who are the new faces we could see in the starting eleven and on the bench.

Their is no doubt that there are certain area’s of the pitch that could do with a complete overhaul regarding personal, midfield being most prominent. We have sorely lacked creativity in the middle of the park over the course of the last qualifying campaign and the Nations League, and probably since the criminally under used Wes Hoolahan retired from international football.

The one area of the pitch where we shouldn’t see much in the way of change though is in defence, which had been our strongest attribute under Mick McCarthy. Considering just how much of the ball the opposition had during nearly all our qualifying games, excluding Georgia at home and both Gibraltar games, it’s a testament to how good our back four and keeper actually were. The emergence of Enda Stevens and John Egan has been a godsend.

Both Egan and Stevens have enjoyed impressive club campaigns this season and slotted easily into the Irish starting eleven. Left back had become a problem position since Stephen Ward retired, and the serious injury that Richard Keogh suffered meant we were down an experienced central defender. We also have some good cover in Ciaran Clark and Kevin Long. Derrick William’s is also a good option to have off the bench at full back. So it’s probably a case of if it’s not broke then don’t fix it for Kenny. Well, it may not be broke but there are a couple of big issues to sort out.

The first is the goalkeeper situation. Darren Randolph hasn’t put a foot wrong yet wearing the green jersey, but his move back to West Ham in January has raised some questions regarding his status as Ireland number one. He gave up his chance of first team football to move back to the Premier League. He surely knew he wouldn’t displace Lukas Fabianski, who was The Hammers’ Player of the Season for the 2018/19 campaign. And that’s been the case as Randolph has warmed the bench since arriving back to London. It isn’t an ideal situation for our number one to be on sidelines week in week out.

So the question is do you drop him and if so for who? While Keiren Westwood is a solid keeper I would prefer if they stuck with Randolph as he is what the back four are used to having behind them and has a lot of international experience. We have a couple of potentially brilliant prospects coming through in the shape of Mark Travers and Caoimhin Kelleher, but they are a bit off first team football yet and still raw. Who knows, Randolph may seek another move this summer if he is fed up playing second fiddle, although I wouldn’t count on it as his move back to London looked financially motivated.

The second issue regarding the defence could be the biggest headache Kenny had to face during his first few games in charge. That is the dilemma of how do you fit Matt Doherty into the team? Easy really, you just play him at right back. Oh, but only if it were that simple. It is just our luck that two of our most talented players fill the same position, and one of them happens to be our captain.

Seamus Coleman didn’t have the best of campaigns last time out. He looked leggy, and a good bit off the pace, like he had lost a couple of yards. He was making reckless decisions and even worse challenges, mainly down to his own frustrations at his inability to perform at the level he was used to. Since the restart of the Premier League though he has looked more like his old self, putting in a Man of the Match performance against Liverpool in his first game back.

His good form coupled with his status as team captain makes it very hard for Kenny to drop him. One alternative option would be to play with three central defender’s and move him inside while Doherty takes up his preferred role at right wing back. This seems to make sense considering that John Egan and Enda Stevens both also play on the same formation for their club. It makes perfect sense really. But Kenny has dismissed this idea in recent interviews he has given. He more or less said he would stick with a back four as he likes to have an extra body in midfield to help him try and control the game better.

In this case then either Coleman is dropped or Doherty is played out of position on the right wing. Playing Doherty on the wing looks to be the more likely outcome. Since we are devoid of proper wide men on the right, this could be an acceptable outcome. It’s this writer’s opinion that Coleman should be dropped. Harsh? Yes, but you should play your best player’s in their best positions, and Doherty is the best right back we have.

Will this become the stick fans use to beat Kenny with if he doesn’t get off to a good start? You get the feeling it has a whiff of the whole play Andy Reid/Wes Hoolahan situation. Hopefully this isn’t the case.

As far as new faces in our defence go, we will probably see only a few moving up from the U21s and I wouldn’t expect any of them to go into the first eleven. There are some great prospects though that could provide valuable cover and squad depth. Ryan Manning is having a terrific season in his new position of left back at QPR. Conor Masterson is also having a good spell with them. The centre back has bounced back well since Liverpool released him. Lee O’Connor who is on loan at Partick Thistle from Celtic made a huge impression on his senior debut against New Zealand, in which he looked lively up and down the wing, bagging an assist to boot. That’s just to name a few.

A strong defence coupled with a good goalscorer can be all you need sometimes to be successful in International football. Kenny is lucky to have inherited a solid defence unit so he can focus more of his time and energy on fixing our biggest issues which are further up the field.

The Author

Philip Flanagan

A West of Ireland based football writer/blogger. You can find me daily over at The Bottomless pit of football.

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