Football | A tactical analysis of Mick McCarthy’s Ireland

Mick McCarthy, Ireland’s national team coach, has had two stints in the job now, with the first coming in 1996 before recently again taking over after the wheels came off Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane’s side in the wake of their capitulation against Denmark in the World Cup play-offs.

In his second stint, Mick has recorded three wins, three draws and a single defeat, a 2-0 loss to Switzerland.

Clearly the O’Neill/Keane double act had come to an end, with in-fighting and arguments spilling over into the public domain by way of a Stephen Ward WhatsApp message.

The FAI were left reeling, unsure where to turn, but there were two obvious candidates.

McCarthy, jobless after a public falling out at Ipswich, in which he had told his own fans to “F**k off” in response to a late goal for his side, and Dundalk boss and serial winner Stephen Kenny.

Opinion was divided in the public, but the FAI chose the rather bizarre structure that we now have in place, where Kenny takes over from McCarthy whenever Ireland’s current campaign ends.

Rumours from the Ireland camp say that neither of the men is particularly keen on this idea, especially in Kenny’s case, as he will be unable to see his U21 side through to the tournament which he is currently vying to qualify for.

Ahead of the trips to Georgia and Switzerland, McCarthy said that he would lose his job no matter the success he brought, a statement which becomes all the more humorous the further into Mick’s tenure that we go, but it is perhaps this bravado that is his saving grace, especially in the eyes of the media.

Mick’s pedigree, on paper, is impressive.

Milwall, who he took to third in the First Division, Ireland, who he took to the World Cup in 2002, Sunderland, twice promoted, Wolves, promoted and Ipswich Town, where despite the limited budget, he narrowly missed out on the play-Offs on a number of occasions.

That he has enjoyed some success cannot be denied and football is a results business, but he also twice broke the record for lowest points total ever in the Premier League, and has cut a divisive figure, evident from Ipswich and the infamous Saipan incidents.

The FAI felt the need for a safe pair of hands that could as close to guarantee Ireland’s place at the Euros in 2020, or else they would risk facing huge losses in attendance at the games to be played in Dublin in said tournament.

Appointing Kenny would have been a risk, Ireland had worked well under limited styles under the previous two managers, Trapattoni and O’Neill, whereas the more expansive style of Staunton had proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

One can forgive the FAI for not taking the risk, but it has to be asked, had Dublin not been successful in it’s application to get Euro 2020 games played, where would the Irish national team be now?

One could easily argue that Mick’s tactics have acted as a hand brake on an Ireland side, limited by a rigid structure which we don’t have the players to perform.

Ireland’s tactics thus far have been reliant on wingers, which we don’t have, this article is not attempting to out-tactic a proven and successful manager, but merely point out that the limitations of the squad are entirely self-imposed.

In their last competitive outing, away to Switzerland, Ireland switched to a 5-3-2 with Seamus Coleman and James McClean at wing-back.

This was despite the fact that Ireland have 2 of the most impressive wing-backs in the Premier League, Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens, both adept in 3 and 5 at the back systems. Adding to the bizarre shape was the decision to start Stevens in the central defensive trio.

Since the loss of Richard Keogh to freak injury, Egan has stepped up to partner Duffy, performing well in both the Switzerland (in a back 3 with Stevens) and Georgia game, but no defensive performance shines when the out-ball results in it bouncing straight back at you.

This change in shape was short-lived, and Ireland re-structured into a familiar 4-1-4-1, as McClean was pushed into his left-wing spot, and Stevens returned to left-back.

This is again, an example of McCarthy’s self-imposed limitation on his squad. Rather than playing his most comfortable and strongest left-wing- back, he instead opted to play James McClean, in what appears to be raw fear of going behind in an unfamiliar formation. It cannot be argued but that Ireland’s current squad is limited in creativity and flair, but perhaps not so much as McCarthy’s style renders them.

In the 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, McCarthy was able to name seven Premier League players, with more on the bench, as well as leaving Robbie Brady and Shane Long out of the squad entirely.

The limitations that were put on the team were the tactical ones, Ireland’s primary outlet, both in this game and throughout McCarthy’s reign, has been long diagonal free-kicks for Shane Duffy to attack in the air.

While set-pieces have led to goals for Ireland in the games against Denmark (A) and Gibraltar (H), there has been a serious lack of creativity across the board for the side, best most evidently in the Gibraltar and Georgia games, where Ireland scored four goals in total, despite scoring 15 in the same four games during the 2018 qualification campaign.

McCarthy’s stubbornness has also been questioned, as he has continually opted for James McClean on the left hand side, with the experimenting coming on the right. He has started Matt Doherty, Robbie Brady, Callum Robinson and Aaron Connolly on the left hand side across the 4 games, with each of them showing various levels of ineptitude across these games, either due to their own short-comings or the tactical limitations put unto them by their gaffer.

Robinson for example, has shone in a Sheffield United side, who are the under-dog in every game that they play, but the constant need to slow down his game and conform to the unity of a system eliminates his biggest asset, his unpredictability.

Robbie Brady’s reliance on his left foot has left him as wholly inappropriate for that side, and Doherty is a full back, and thus looks lost in that position.

It would be unfair to criticize Connolly this early, but one has to ask what Mick’s logic is to start him on the right hand side. Connolly, a centre-forward, has played on the left for Brighton and as with many dynamic strikers, has done so with great success. Unfortunately for, Connolly, this position is taken by McClean for Ireland who, aside from his patriotism and work-ethic, has lacked any real kind of end-product since McCarthy took over.

The injury to David McGoldrick was a loss to Ireland, but Mick’s insistence on a large battering ram of a number nine, saw the woefully ineffective James Collins leading the line against Switzerland.

When you play wingers who can’t cross, with a striker who feeds off crosses, what should we have expected…

Mick’s underwhelming performances, and at best acceptable results, hopes are high for “Kenny’s Kids”, with the future appearing bright, but fans ought to be careful not to expect the world from this crop of youngsters.

Of course, there are bright talents coming through, Troy Parrott (Tottenham), Jayson Molumby (Brighton) and Nathan Collins (Stoke) all immediately spring to mind, but never has there been so much coverage on an Ireland U21 side by the media.

The FAI has gone through tumultuous times recently, to say the least, and it very much suits them to have a promising crop of youngsters coming through at the same time as serious questions are being asked of their investment in the grass-root game in this country.

Thankfully, nobody has thrown about the tiresome “Golden Generation” cliché as of yet.

With expectation, comes pressure, with McCarthy’s reign riddled with the sentiment of “it’ll be better with Kenny”, there is swathes of pressure on the soon-to-be Ireland Manager and his current crop of youngsters.

In the case of Troy Parrott,who looked competent in the 3-1 win over New Zealand, and has yet to appear even semi-regularly for Tottenham. The sheer weight of public expectation has damaged many players’ careers, when they don’t reach expected heights, such as Freddy Adu, Bojan Krkic and
Jack Wilshere.

While no one hopes that the same happens here, the FAI are doing not helping these players one iota by using them as a smokescreen for the internal deficiencies.

Up next for Ireland, the Danes where if Ireland win, we will qualify. Any other result would result in a play-Off spot for Ireland.

In this writer’s opinion, that play-Off spot is more of a crutch than a help for Ireland moving into the crunch tie with the Danes. In a must win game for Ireland, where they have nothing to lose, I can not help but expect that Mick will be happy to sit back and hope to score a winner
from a set-piece.

With O’Neill and Keane came a sense of camaraderie and swash-buckling football at times, with Kenny, we hope to see Ireland on the front foot and a more modern style. With Mick, we are waiting for it to end, hopefully in the wake of a European Championship.

Cian McGrath