The tactical decision that came back to bite Ireland against Armenia
Armenia defeat shows Ireland's midfield is being overrun.
At Euro 2012, Ireland went into the tournament with Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews as their first-choice central midfield pair. Against Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Luka Modric in a stacked group, this proved to be the equivalent of trying to fight a war with a water gun.
Ireland didn’t stand a chance and Whelan and Andrews were run ragged as the world’s best midfielders cruised through the matches. Ireland lost to Croatia, Spain and Italy and exited the tournament after conceding nine goals and scoring just once.
Giovanni Trapattoni's team were outclassed in every position. The 16-team tournament was a step too far for a well-coached but limited team.
Ireland must find a way to stop their midfield from being outnumbered.
However, there were some errors that were self-inflicted that only made the talent gap seem wider - such as Ireland's two-man midfield. Whelan and Andrews were solid footballers, Premier League level midfielders who played more top-flight games than most in the current Ireland squad ever will.
Yet, the team's system didn't do them any favours. The results would have been the same, but Trapattoni could have helped Andrews and Whelan by playing a third midfielder. The same is happening with Stephen Kenny and the current Ireland team.
In the 1-0 defeat to Armenia on Saturday, Ireland's two-man midfield of Jeff Hendrick and Josh Cullen were exposed by the team ranked 92nd in the world. Kenny's decision not to play a third midfielder arguably came back to bite the Boys in Green.
Ireland simply cannot afford to play competitive games with a two-man midfield, particularly when one of the two - Hendrick - wanders from his position, offers little in defensive situations and not a lot more when in possession
The Newcastle United midfielder started Saturday's game well. He played a couple of forward passes that turned the opposition defence and gave something for Chiedozie Ogbene to chase. The Dubliner, however, then faded from the match and began drifting out of position, leaving Cullen with a lot of space to cover and little support. He also made no impact or penetrative passes in the final third.
Kenny appears to be trying to use Hendrick as Ireland's most advanced midfielder, the one to unpick opposition defences. Yet, there was no evidence from Saturday to suggest that he is suited to this role.
So, if Hendrick is not going to be the one to break down opponents with his forward passing and direct running, what else does he offer? Against Armenia, he didn't win the ball back once.
For Eduard Spertsyan's long-range strike that won the game, Hendrick turned his back on the shot and didn't even get close to blocking it.
Some ping to be fairpic.twitter.com/bTOUPLKFVd
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) June 4, 2022
Yet, at this point, there is nothing to be gained by focusing on the shortcomings of individual Ireland players. Ireland are an average international team. It wouldn't be a surprise that, at some point within the next five years, there won't be an Irish player featuring regularly in the Premier League.
So, the focus must be on the coaching team and their decisions. And is Kenny giving his limited players the best opportunity possible by playing a two-man midfield? It doesn't appear so. He deserves credit for getting the players to perform at a level higher than their club form suggests against Portgual, Serbia and Belgium.
Ireland, however, were overrun in midfield in the friendly against Belgium in March and the Ireland manager didn't change his formation for the Armenia game despite the warning signs.
Armenia, playing in a 5-3-2 formation, outnumbered Ireland in midfield and were comfortable throughout the second half, happy to play on the counterattack. At international level, even Armenia will take advantage of having an extra midfielder.
Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne aren't world-beaters, but Ireland arguably wouldn't have lost their grip on the game as easily had either started. With three midfielders, Ireland would have gone man-to-man against Armenia and at least, maybe, got closer to Spertsyan, who scored and played in midfield for the hosts.
The goal came from a counter-attack. Ireland lost the ball in midfield and didn't get close enough to win the ball back, dropping off before Spertsyan shot.
Ireland also wouldn't have lost anything by dropping one of the three forwards - Callum Robinson, Troy Parrott or Ogbene - to play another midfielder. Parrott looked unsure of his role, a centre-forward playing in an inside-left position. It didn't work.
Yet, like Trapattoni at Euro 2012, Kenny persisted with a two-man midfield. After an encouraging start, Ireland faded, ran out of ideas and resorted to targeting set-pieces as Armenia adapted to the game and struck on the counter-attack.
There shouldn't be any talk of positives from Saturday's match, but hopefully, there is now an acceptance that Ireland simply are not good enough to play against any international team with just two midfielders.
Keith Andrews, Kenny's assistant manager, knows this better than anyone and knows what happens when the Irish midfield gets overrun.