On 4th April 2020, ex-Dunfermline manager Stephen Kenny took over the Irish men’s national team. His predecessor was the former-Wolves boss, Mick McCarthy, who only lost one game in charge of the national team throughout his 10-match reign, winning five of the 10 matches.
On the day that McCarthy was announced as the manager of Ireland, Kenny was also subsequently appointed as the manager of the U21s. The deal made between both men was that McCarthy would manage the team up until Euro 2020. After the Euros, Kenny would take the reins. However, this deal hit a major bump in the road. Due to the pandemic, the European Championships were pushed back to 2020. This meant that Kenny would prematurely take over the national side, despite speculation that the proposed deal would be extended until after the Euros in 2021.
Ireland have gotten off to a rocky start under Stephen Kenny. Both he and his predecessor have very different football philosophies and it has been evident that Kenny is trying to change the pragmatic style of play that was used by previous managers. Regardless, Kenny has already been put under the microscope, with questions being asked about Ireland’s capabilities to play a more expansive, attacking system.
In this tactical analysis, we will be taking a look at whether or not Ireland are improving under the Irish manager. It will be an analysis, in the form of a scout report, of Ireland in their opening two games and will be a comparison of the different managers’ tactics with the team.
Typical formations and line-ups:
Stephen Kenny’s typical starting line-up and formation with the Republic of Ireland has been quite different from that of McCarthy, as can be seen from the graphic below.
The choice of formation has changed slightly to a 4-3-3, compared to their usual 4-2-3-1 under Mick McCarthy. The 4-2-3-1 is a very conventional formation and gave Ireland a lot of balance defensively during McCarthy’s tenure. However, with Kenny looking to play a more attacking, expansive style of football, the slight tweak in formation will be crucial for Ireland going forward. The 4-3-3 is a far better option for teams centred around ball retention. This is due to the possibility of creating triangles everywhere on the pitch during the attacking phases.
Throughout his two matches so far with the national team, his back four and goalkeeper have remained the same. Darren Randolph has been a mainstay in the Irish net since their infamous win over Germany in 2015. Under Kenny, this has not changed. The Republic of Ireland’s system of play requires the goalkeeper to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. Whilst Randolph is not faultless with his distribution, he is the best keeper available for the national squad.
Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, and Enda Stevens make up the back four. This is an extremely solid backline defensively, and apart from perhaps Duffy, they are very comfortable in possession. Each player has a vast amount of experience playing Premier League football, with Doherty also having Europa League experience. Seamus Coleman has been the usual starter at right-back for Ireland for many years. However, Kenny has preferred Doherty in his two games so far, as of writing. This is more than likely down to Doherty’s superior ability going forward.
The midfield looks slightly different under the new manager. Ireland’s best midfield trio quality-wise is James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane, and Jeff Hendrick. Each of these three have a vast amount of Premier League experience and can offer a very well-balanced midfield. However, they lack creativity, most obviously in the Republic of Ireland’s opening match in the UEFA Nations League against Bulgaria in which they failed to create from open-play.
In contrast with Mick McCarthy’s midfield, he generally used stalwart Glenn Whelan as one of the double-pivot in his 4-2-3-1. Hourihane typically started next to him, with Hendrick pushed further up into the ‘number 10’ role. This was a midfield more centred towards defending as Whelan protected the Irish backline well for many years. In contrast, Kenny’s midfield revolves around maintaining possession.
For the second match, Kenny fully rotated his best midfield for a less-balanced one, adding Robbie Brady, Harry Arter, and youngster Jayson Molumby, into the starting team. He was hoping to add a creative flair. Nonetheless, this did not work.
The forward line has been full of youth. As he was previously employed as the Republic of Ireland’s U21s manager, he decided to start a few of the players that he worked with previously. Brighton’s Aaron Connolly was deployed as the left-winger, with Norwich’s Adam Idah making his debut as the centre-forward. Callum O’Dowda has also played on the right-wing for both of Stephen Kenny’s matches in charge of the side.
Possession-oriented style of play:
As stated before, the appointment of Kenny as manager of the national team promises a much-improved style to Ireland’s football. For a long time, fans have been subjected to very negative football, mainly due to the nation’s lack of quality.
At his previous club, Dundalk, Kenny was hailed in Europe and in Ireland for his possession-based style, which was very easy on the eye. Ireland, under Kenny, are transitioning from their usual pragmatic style of play, to a more expansive one. So far, in his first two games in charge of Ireland, the transition between styles has been very clear.
Under McCarthy, Ireland played out from the back at times, but they predominantly opted for longer balls from the goalkeeper. They managed an average of 49 long balls per 90 under the former-Wolves manager, winning 26. Under Kenny, Ireland only averaged 41.5 long balls per 90, completing 27. However, these stats may be misleading as Ireland completed far more passes under Kenny, with an average of 59.5% ball possession across his two games in charge.
There is an emphasis on playing out from the back, under Stephen Kenny.
The image above is an example of how they set-up during the build-up phase of play under the new manager. It is from their opening game against Bulgaria, in which they drew 1-1.
The fullbacks push up very high during the build-up phase. The ball-near fullback drops deeper to act as a passing option, allowing the backline to circulate the ball. The ball-far fullback pushes up higher in the case of a switch of play. In this image, you can see the right-back, Doherty, dropping to be a passing option as the ball is moved to his side. Meanwhile, Stevens, at left-back, is moving further up the pitch.
As the fullbacks are pushing high and wide, the centre-backs split wide also, in order to stretch the pitch. This forces the opposition’s defensive block to stretch, allowing passing lanes to open up centrally.
The pivot player, whether it be Harry Arter or James McCarthy, does not drop in between the centre-halves. Instead, he maintains his position behind the opposition’s first-line of press, dropping to the ball-side to act as a progressive passing option.
The two advanced central midfielders must constantly move during the build-up phase. This is mainly so that they are not easy to mark. However, it is also their job to drop into space if Ireland are struggling to move the ball and help with the ball circulation.
In the previous image, the left advanced midfielder is moving behind the Bulgarian midfield line, after dropping to create a triangle with the left centre-back and left-back. The right advanced midfielder is about to drop into the space in front of the Bulgarian midfield line, to create this same triangle on the right-side. These constant movements help Ireland to progress up the field quicker and more efficiently.
As they move up the field, the offensive structure changes slightly;
Here, Ireland have progressed into the final third through their patient build-up play. Once they get to this area using their neat, structured possession game, all of the outfield players position themselves beyond the half-way line.
In this image we can see just that. The two centre-backs have pushed up inside the opposition’s half so as to close the gap with the rest of the Irish players. The wingers move inside and play off of the centre-forward, positioning themselves in the channel between the opposing fullback and centre-back. They drift between the halfspaces and the central corridors.
The positioning of the wingers to the inside channels allows the two fullbacks to push very high and wide to play like wingers. This stretches the opponent’s defensive block and allows the centrally-positioned players to find gaps to play or run into.
More examples of how they set-up in the build-up phase and progress up the pitch can be seen in the following images;
The advanced central midfielders always move up into the halfspaces whilst Ireland have the ball. This allows Ireland to create triangles out wide in order to break the opposition’s defensive line on the flanks. It also allows them to overload the halfspaces. This method of breaking the defensive line has been the most used under Kenny. In the two games that he has managed so far, 80 of the 95 attacks Ireland have had were down the flanks.
Eventually, Kenny would prefer if Ireland were efficient at creating chances centrally. However, at the moment, creating from the flanks is Ireland’s best option due to their potency from the wide areas from under previous managers.
Under the reign of Mick McCarthy, Ireland’s style of play was very pragmatic and built around a solid defensive structure. They deployed a lob-sided 4-4-2 mid-to-low block, which turned into a 5-3-2 when defending at the edge of the box.
In the footage above, from a Nations League game against Switzerland in 2019, the Republic of Ireland’s typical defensive shape, under McCarthy can be seen. The block was very narrow, and the aim was to limit the opposition’s space to play through the central areas. By limiting the space in the central corridors, the opposition were forced to play into the wide areas. This played into Ireland’s hands as they were very comfortable at defending in these areas. To put a negative spin on this, they were also very poor at defending in the central areas, and so had to try and prevent this.
Even when the team pressed under McCarthy, they were tasked with angling their runs and their defensive block in order to allow the other team to play passes out wide. This can be seen in the following image;
Here, we can see the pressing runs of the Republic of Ireland’s centre-forwards, angling their run so to block off the passing lanes inside.
They used a man-oriented marking system during the defensive phases, which can also be seen above. In this footage, Ireland are facing Switzerland. Switzerland rotate their midfield players very often, so it was vastly important for the Irish players, especially the midfielders, to remain disciplined and focused whilst defending.
We can also see the rest of the players, in their defensive shape, are getting ready to shift their block with co-ordination, to try and win the ball back numerically in the wide areas.
From the data-viz above, it is very apparent that the majority of Ireland’s defensive duels under McCarthy, in their own third, were predominantly in the wide areas, particularly the left side.
Under Kenny, this is no different. When the opposition have the ball, Ireland’s defensive structure is centralised around compacting the central spaces. They purposefully leave opposing passing lanes open on the flanks to tempt the opposition to play into them. Once the opposition play into the trap, generally three players quickly push over to close down the ball-player or else force him to play backward into harmless areas.
The defensive shape has been a 4-3-3 mid-block in both of Kenny’s matches in charge. However, he has encountered the same problems as Mick McCarthy in terms of pushing the defensive line up higher.
As previously stated, under McCarthy Ireland mainly deployed a low-block. Ireland’s backline lacks speed and can be easily caught out by the opposition with balls in behind them. With the low-block, this was less apparent as there was very little space for the opposing players to play into behind the backline.
With a mid-block, the backline is pushed higher up the field. In Ireland’s two games against Bulgaria and Finland, both teams took advantage of this high line constantly. The two goals that Ireland have conceded so far under Kenny have both been from this exploitation of space.
This instance led to the match-winner for Finland, and it was one of the numerous similar chances created by them throughout the game.
Another way Kenny has changed Ireland is in terms of their defensive transitions. Under McCarthy, once the opposition regained possession, Ireland would quickly drop back into their defensive shape. The nearest player to the ball-carrier would press him in order to delay the counter-attack, allowing the Irish players time to recover their defensive shape.
Under Kenny, they counterpress the ball, looking to regain possession as soon as they lose it. When Ireland counterpress, they use the nearest three players to close down the ball in order to stop the counter before it begins.
It is still too early to tell yet whether or not Stephen Kenny will be a success with the Republic of Ireland. However, what is apparent is his changing of the philosophy of the team from the opening two games of the UEFA Nations League. Ireland are following a similar game model to that of a Manchester City or a Barcelona.
Results-wise, it has not been the best start for the forty-eight-year-old, losing one and drawing one from these two games. Mick McCarthy began his tenure in 2019 with two wins from two and no goals conceded. The fans and the FAI will need to be patient with Kenny if he is to succeed as he is bringing through some of the Republic of Ireland’s next generation of players, including the likes of Idah, Connolly and Molumby, with Idah and Connolly starting both matches up-front so far. With more games under his management belt, assuming that the players begin to adapt to the new play-style, Kenny may provide some of the most exciting football that the people from the Republic of Ireland have seen in a long time.