So What Exactly Is Ireland's Strongest Team?

So What Exactly Is Ireland's Strongest Team?
By Gavin Cooney

Ireland find themselves in a remarkably good position in World Cup qualifying: top of the group with ten points from 12, having played only one game in Dublin.

Much is made of the fact that there are very few objective world class players in the Irish squad, but Martin O'Neill has built a squad of great character and surprisingly good depth.

Second-guessing Martin O'Neill's team selection for any game is a fool's errand, such is his proclivity for change and the sheer number of options at his disposal. But it got us thinking, based on current form, what exactly is our best line-up?

So, here is our humble suggestion. Please, disagree in your droves.

Formation 

The best way to do this is to work out our best formation and fit the players in from there. The options include 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 with a diamond shaped midfield.

The formation is, of course, changed to suit opponents, but in terms of getting the best out of our best players, we reckon that 4-4-2 diamond is the best option. It's with that in mind we will fill the positions.

Goalkeeper 

While Keiren Westwood is a fine 'keeper, and there was a huge clamour for him to be included in the Euros squad, Randolph got a chance against Germany and hasn't relented since. First-choice.

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Defence 

We reckon that Seamus Coleman might just squeeze in at right-back. After that, it's slightly less certain. Robbie Brady is a left-back of great merit, but the Euros have taught that he is wasted that far away from the opposition's goal, so Stephen Ward should remain first-choice.

After that, the centre-back pairing is hard to settle on. Injuries and master time have conspired to leave John O'Shea an able squad player, meaning the choice is down to two from the trio of Richard Keogh, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy. Duffy and Clark have started the last two qualifiers, and although to conspire to cock-up in a major way against Moldova, they were solid in Vienna.

Duffy's lack of pace, however, can sometimes be exacerbated by Clark's willingness to push up - as seen against Moldova - so we are going to plump for a centre-back pairing of Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark.

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By all means, disagree.

The midfield diamond

At the base 

Right. Here we go. Harry Arter did well on his competitive debut in Vienna, but we don't think he deserves inclusion here just yet.

So at the base of the diamond, sitting in front of the back four, we're going to go with James McCarthy. The Everton midfielder is often damned by expectation: we sometimes expect him to be Ireland's answer to Xabi Alonso, when in reality, he doesn't have that skillset. This does not mean he is without talent, and when he is playing in the engine room alone, and his role is more defined, he usually thrives. The German game is the prime example: he plays much better in Glenn Whelan's absence.

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Whelan gets a lot of unfair stick, also, but if we're going to pick one, we feel that McCarthy offers more.

Either side 

Loads of options here, but you can't ignore the Kevin's Boys duo of Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady.

At the tip 

Wes Hoolahan does not always play the perfect game. In many ways, Vienna was among his worst: he consistently lost the ball in dangerous positions. But there is not another player in this country capable of playing that ball to James McClean. Wes is not Iniesta: he won't kill you on flow.

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But he will kill you on moments. Like the pass in Vienna; like the pass to Coleman to set up McClean in Moldova; like the volley against Sweden. Few good Irish moments don't bear his imprint, and he is at his best when he has some room to play with at the tip of the diamond.

A general rule: don't ever not play Wes.

Forwards 

Jon Walters was absolutely critical for Ireland in the last qualifying campaign, and his not being fully fit at the Euros was a major blow. But as strange as it seems, he hasn't been in great form for Ireland of late, and on current form, he doesn't make our strongest team. (In our opinion, friendly commenter).

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And with three goals in two games, James McClean is filling that goalscoring void. The Derryman is now an automatic starter, and Shane Long is still in our best selection also: our best regular source of goals, plus his searing pace will - at the very least - give Wes a bit more space.

This is how we think our first choice XI should look:

Randolph; Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Ward; McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady, Hoolahan; McClean, Long.

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Some big names left out there, so please, come and find fault with our selection.

See Also: Weekend TV Review: How RTE's Coverage Made A Superb Saturday So Much Better

See Also: "First Big Away Win Since 1987!" - Breaking Down Ireland's Curious Away Record Since The Late '80s

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