Football

Stephen Kenny Has Some Big Calls To Make Ahead Of World Cup Qualifiers

Stephen Kenny Has Some Big Calls To Make Ahead Of World Cup Qualifiers

And with a whimper, Ireland's year has drawn to a close.

It was not the one we envisaged this time 12 months ago. There was no Euro 2020 play-off win over Slovakia, nor an appearance in the finals themselves.

The Stephen Kenny era, one that looked to be filled with so much promise early on, has now begun eight games without a victory. If only avoiding relegation in the UEFA Nations League was a genuine cause for celebration.

New year's resolutions are rarely decided upon in November, but Kenny will be already hoping for some better fortune in 2021.

While off to an inconspicuous start, it is still far too early to write off Stephen Kenny as Ireland manager. It is perfectly reasonable to be concerned with many aspects of the team's direction, but context is also needed.

Ireland have had an incredibly unfortunate run of injuries and coronavirus related absences, with 13 of Kenny's original 26-man squad unavailable for the Bulgaria game.  There is little doubt that missing so many key players resulted in a stagnation of the early strides we witnessed under his management.

2020, as disastrous as a year as it has been for Ireland, is now in the books. It certainly won't live long in the memory of the supporters, many of whom are probably secretly thankful that they were unable to attend the recent fixtures.

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Unlike the fans who already long to forget the last few months, Stephen Kenny and his staff must look at the games and learn some valuable lessons that can be carried into the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Not all are negative. As the manager himself said after the Bulgaria game, the issue of missing players has presented opportunities to others who would have otherwise been on the periphery of the squad.

Dara O'Shea is perhaps the finest example. The West Brom player has been exemplary in his four international appearances thus far, already spending time at centre back, right back, and left back at this level.

At 21-years old, he has the potential to be a hugely important player for Ireland over the next decade or so. His performances have thrown a real spanner into the works in terms of Kenny selecting his first choice back four.

Ireland seemed to have a settled defence in the form of Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, and Enda Stevens. That is likely still the case, but O'Shea's form at both club and international level mean he is now difficult to leave out.

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Perhaps it could finally push the team towards a 3-5-2 formation? It is a system that many of our most important players have thrived in at club level, while it would also compensate for our lack of natural wingers.

The Ireland manager has been reluctant to use three at the back, but his hand may be forced. It is something worth keeping an eye on.

Jayson Molumby has also caught the eye. There is an argument to be made that he has been Ireland's best midfielder during Kenny's time in charge. You feel he has to be in the team for the World Cup qualifying campaign, regardless of if that means leaving out more experienced players.

Jason Knight is another one who should now be a full-time member of this squad, even if not necessarily in a starting role. Couple all this with the obvious strides made by the likes of Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah, and all of a sudden the team has that youthful streak that many expected would be a trademark of the Kenny era.

Perhaps even more importantly, Kenny has also learned plenty about the more experienced members of the squad. Some of them are in a far less secure position than you would have imagined.

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Conor Hourihane is amongst that bunch. He was a player that you would have thought would have thrived in the possession based style that is preferred by the Ireland manager.

However, with each passing game it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where the Aston Villa man fits in. He hasn't had the impact on the ball that you would have expected, while he is often found wanting off the ball in a holding midfield role.

With the emergence of the likes of Molumby and Knight, he could well struggle for minutes by the time March rolls around.

The case of Shane Duffy is a bit more difficult to assess. His performances in recent months have been very mixed, but you'd imagine Kenny will persist with his vice-captain for the time being. However, we have seen that he is willing to mix things up, as evidenced by Seamus Coleman's move to the bench during the September international window.

Unfortunately, Ireland's main issue is the one that is the most difficult to solve.

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Putting the ball in the back of the net is the hardest thing to improve via coaching. Systems can help and there is little doubt that Ireland will be more potent in the final third when they have a full compliment of players to choose from.

They won't be a prolific team anytime in the foreseeable future. To even become a consistent team in front of goal could be a challenge, and there is every chance that may not be achieved until the likes of Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, or Troy Parrott take a major leap forward in their development.

Until then, everything must be done to ensure the forward are put in the best possible positions to succeed.

How this group will fare in the World Cup qualifiers remains to be seen. In truth, we have learned little from the last few months.

Things will perhaps be clearer by March, once the draw has been made and we can see what sort of form our players are in.

Ireland are more likely to receive a tougher draw after their recent poor run saw them drop into pot three for the qualifiers, but a place in the top two of most groups should not be beyond their reach.

Stephen Kenny now has to make some brave decisions. With the next game 120 days away, he has much to ponder.

SEE ALSO: Ireland Player Ratings As Kenny's Side Draw Another Blank Against Bulgaria

Gary Connaughton

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