Cullen and Hendrick’s midfield partnership
Jeff Hendrick has now started three games in a row in the midfield pivot, once alongside Conor Hourihane (against Qatar) and twice beside Josh Cullen, whom he is forming a very strong partnership with.
It’s fair to say Hendrick has frustrated more often than not in an Ireland shirt. Having never really capitalized on his terrific Euro 2016 campaign, struggling to find a role in the various midfield systems that have been played over the course of the past three managers, it’s exciting to see him look confident, comfortable and threatening in an Irish team.
He was often tidy in possession in tight corners, offering an outlet for Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty on the right-hand side. He was progressive moving the ball up the field, trying to attack the space in behind Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene. He clearly seems more productive slightly deeper, where he can keep things moving and there’s less pressure on him to have to unlock defences in and around the box.
Cullen, on the other hand, but in another very tidy performance and led both teams in passing numbers. He’s playing the type of role that had been earmarked for someone like James McCarthy at the early stages of Kenny’s reign, but he’s taken the #6 jersey and now is not only to give it up lightly, but is likely one of the first names of the teamsheets. He’s a good example of a player moving to Europe and playing weekly at a high level and his international form has benefited as a result.
Shane Duffy has found his swagger
The Cruyff turn as Cristiano Ronaldo bared down, the comfort on the ball playing triangles with his goalkeeper and defensive colleagues, the bravery and determination to challenge for every ball and go toe-to-toe with out of the best players of any era.
Last year, Duffy’s career had stagnated so much that nobody thought he’d play in the Premier League again. His form was so poor that there were question marks over his Ireland place. Now, 12 months on and Duffy is lording it for a very impressive Brighton team at the top end of the league and has earned his 50th cap for Ireland.
He deserves an incredible amount of respect for the turnaround. It’s one of the most positive Irish storylines in recent times, amidst everything that has gone in the Kenny reign, and fair play to Duffy for proving everyone wrong.
Is it fair to say Chiedozie Ogbene wouldn’t have been in the squad under either of the prior managers, let along starting in a game against Portugal? Maybe not, but Ogbene has been lifted from League 1 with Rotherham where there are other, more standard players competing for selection.
Since his days in the League of Ireland, Ogbene has been electric with his pace and lifted the crowd with his forward running and threat behind the defence. Kenny has seen that and at this level, where pace can cause so many problems for an international side, Ogbene has emerged as an unlikely hero. Last night he played over 90 minutes and, despite taking a while to gain his footing, gave the Portuguese a hellacious time and looked tireless throughout. Danilo was fortunate not to receive a booking earlier for his efforts in bringing Ogbene to a stop.
It’s another great stroyline in the last year, seeing Ireland’s first African-born international not only get some caps, but break into the team and being truly impactful. It’s the new-look Ireland identity that we should be very proud to support.
Kenny sharpening his selections
One thing that was concerning over the course of the early part of Kenny’s games were his selections weren’t always spot on, and his in-game changes often slow or misread.
In the past few games, he’s got them absolutely spot on. Not many had Coleman on the back three against Portugal, but he started and playing a blinder. Enda Stevens got the nod over James McClean and did well. The previously mentioned Ogbene started over Adam Idah and soon justified that decision.
It’s a hugely important facet that he needed to improve on and if the last few games are going for, the system being applied is lifting the team – but the selection decisions are also being sharpened.
Another clean sheet
That’s three in a row now for Ireland, twice under he watchful eye of Gavin Bazunu and once for Liverpool’s Caoimhin Kelleher. Clean sheets are not to be sniffed at and were a glaring problem earlier in the campaign, leading to silly goals against the likes of Serbia, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.
With a huge confidence now emanating from the back line throughout the team – as well as depth emerging with the likes of Nathan Collins and Andrew Omobamidele – the Irish team look more and more comfortable and heart attacks and unforced errors, which were all too regular early on the in the campaign, are being eradicated.