After Ireland's 1-1 draw last night with Bulgaria in Sofia officially ushered in the Stephen Kenny era, we asked former Ireland international Jonathan Douglas to give us his analysis of Ireland's tactics.
It takes time to adapt to a new playing philosophy, especially at international level. Overall, we did really well. It was a fair result. Ireland were very good in the first half. It was great to see the lads in the back four looking to play into the midfield, with James McCarthy sitting in front of them, linking play. When was the last time you saw Shane Duffy bursting forward with the ball? Getting the ball to Callum O’Dowda and Aaron Connolly was the priority. It was a completely different style of play to what Ireland are used to. There were few long balls. Even when we did go long, they were diagonal balls to O’Dowda or Connolly.
That said, our play was good up to a certain point on the pitch. We didn’t create enough chances. We’re still missing a bit of quality in the side. That final cross was missing.
It was a big change for Ireland, but playing 4-3-3 suited us. Enda Stevens had the license to go forward because he knew Conor Hourihane could sit and cover left back. That flank was effective because Hourihane could always sit in for Stevens.
Obviously, picking Doherty over Coleman was going to be the big talking point of the match for Stephen Kenny. Coleman has been Ireland captain for the last four years. Leaving him out of your XI a huge call. One thing I’d say is playing full back is totally different to playing wing back. You’re getting the ball much further up the field. Everyone knows Matt Doherty is more of an attacking fullback, almost like a winger. Doherty is in the team to attack. I’m not sure we saw everything that he has to offer last night. I wonder about playing three at the back to experiment a bit, especially given what our players are used to playing in the Premier League. Enda Stevens and John Egan at Sheffield United and Matt Doherty at Wolves are all used to playing 3-5-2 with their clubs. It could be something to look to get the most out of our players.
I thought we were really good in the first half. We clearly wanted to attack, to pass the ball and control the tempo. O’Dowda was a bright spark in the first half. The difference between him and Connolly is Connolly can cut in from either side. I think the Bulgarian fullback worked O’Dowda out for the second half, that’s why he drifted out of the game. But if we can get 90 minutes out of O’Dowda, our attack will really improve.
We asked a lot of Adam Idah, and I thought he mostly delivered. Whatever about getting your first international cap when you’re 19. We asked him to play up front and play against the back four on his own. I thought he did pretty well considering all we asked of him and that he probably hasn’t trained much this season. When he did get the ball, he linked up well. David McGoldrick - with the form he was in last season - should be first choice up front but Idah is promising.
Aaron Connolly was my Man of the Match. He was a threat for the 90 minutes while O’Dowda drifted out of things. The pace he has is a huge asset. He should have looked up and squared that ball in the first half but that will come with time and experience.
Glenn Whelan was a huge player for us in 2019 but it was great to have James McCarthy back in the side. It was a poor goal to concede, but I didn’t think McCarthy was at fault for the goal. If you look back at the replays, the three Irish midfielders were squeezed into the same side of the pitch. From that point on, they’re chasing and chasing. Maybe Hourihane could have pushed over more. Duffy was slow to get over and in fairness it was a great ball from Nedelev to Kraev; a really well-worked goal. I wouldn't be worried about our midfield being picked apart, though. Stephen Kenny will look at that and Keith Andrews was a central midfielder, so it will be addressed.
All in all, the future is bright, especially when you consider how different we're playing to the previous regimes. The lads will rest today, look to implement some learnings from last night and be ready to go again Sunday.
We need more quality. We had a lot of possession, but we needed more cutting edge. That could come from more games together. But let’s not get carried away either. It’s Bulgaria.