Clear at the top but Ireland are stuck in the middle

Ireland’s Conor Hourihane takes a tumble after a challenge from Gibraltar’s Jayce Olivero in Monday night’s Euro 2020 Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Stephen McCarthy.

At the half-way point in Euro 2020 qualifying, the good news for Ireland is that they sit atop the group table with a healthy haul of ten points from four games.

The bad news is that, if the performances in their last two outings are anything to go by, I fear they will struggle to maintain a top two position through to the end.

Yes, there was genuine merit in the draw with Denmark in Copenhagen, a comeback point secured on the back of great fighting spirit, heroic defending and, for the crucial equalising goal, the danger we always pose at set-pieces when the delivery is good enough to allow Shane Duffy to attack the ball.

On top of that, I felt there were glimpses of efficient counter-attacking football from Mick McCarthy’s side in the Parken Stadium.

But the big worry for me, both in that game and again in Monday’s laboured win against Gibraltar, is how poor we remain in midfield: against the Danes, the problem was retaining possession when required to defend; against Gibraltar it was a lack of quality in our attempts to be creative.

Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady were particularly disappointing in Copenhagen, where at least half of the home side’s eight gilt-edged chances came from our midfielders coughing up possession through unforced errors.

When he was Ireland manager, Jack Charlton based his philosophy on not risking the loss of possession against top calibre players who could hit you on the counter-attack and, in many ways, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill were of a similar mindset.

Mick McCarthy has opted for a more liberal, middle of the road approach but his players aren’t matching that modest ambition.

Glenn Whelan has never been comfortable advancing the play so the onus was always going to be on the likes of Hourihane, Hendrick, and Brady to take that responsibility.

Unfortunately, we saw too many misplaced passes over the course of the two games while, when it came to the no less important job of stopping the Danes, far too often our entire central midfield was taken out with one simple pass.

In fairness to McCarthy, he has had precious little time — and no friendly games — in which to work with the players on this but, even so, the number of chances conceded to Denmark was alarming.

Immediately after the Gibraltar game, Mick seemed a bit irate at being asked about deficiencies in our creative play but when he goes away and gets the opportunity to look back at the last two games he will recognise that the players’ level of performance, especially in that key midfield area, will have to improve dramatically if we’re going to break down teams like the Swiss, home and away, and the Danes when they come to Dublin.

And, again, we need huge improvement to ensure we are not broken down by them. Communication and awareness were qualities conspicuous by their absence in the Irish midfield in Copenhagen, where the Danes were running all over us in the second half, repeatedly finding space in behind Whelan.

That’s the kind of stuff you can work on in training.

That’s not down to ability. The other side, the creative side, is trickier to solve. You can’t click your fingers and magically enhance the quality of the players you have but, somehow, they have to try to find the confidence to be more constructive and cohesive in their play.

Where I would find fault with the manager is in his reluctance to take the opportunity of the game against Gibraltar to have a look at Matt Doherty in Glenn Whelan’s position.

When the Wolves man looks at the make-up of this Ireland team, he can only be bemused that he couldn’t get on the pitch, whether from the start or as a substitute, in the last two games.

Outstanding in the Premier League, he is the kind of capable, all-round player who, I have no doubt, would be well able to adapt to different roles.

In my day, Jack Charlton always had it as a basic principle to get his best players on the park, even when that meant Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan playing as full-backs, left and right, against Scotland.

But it seems Mick McCarthy regards Matt Doherty exclusively as an understudy to Seamus Coleman, something I must admit I would find hard to accept if I was in Doherty’s boots.

And I think it was especially unfair of the manager to come to that conclusion on the basis of a game in Gibraltar when the team played poorly as a whole on an artificial surface in a gale-force wind.

On the plus side, I have been impressed with David McGoldrick, who is adept technically and imposing physically, someone who has shown he can create opportunities, not just for himself, but also for his team-mates.

His has been a major contribution to the positive results in the group so far.

The willing Callum Robinson has shown no lack of confidence and Alan Judge did his bit with that fine free-kick delivery to Duffy’s head for the equaliser against Denmark — a threat we will consistently rely on as the group progresses, especially since, on the basis of his display against Gibraltar, you wouldn’t back Scott Hogan to make much of an impression against the Danes or the Swiss.

If we are to get our strikers back on the goal trail, I think the best option would be to play a fit Shane Long as the out and out front man with McGoldrick playing as the second striker, in which role his awareness and touch would help bring others into the game.

Off the field, attention will now revert to the crisis in the FAI but, while the clamour continues for reform in the post-John Delaney era, I am still of the opinion that nothing of real significance will happen until this Euros group is decided, with the old guard, I suspect, hoping that qualification for the finals will provide the good news boost which will enable them to hang on.

But, as I said, qualification still looks a long way off despite how the table reads at this point.

Three of the four games Ireland have played were always going to be the easiest we would face in the group.

And while there can be no denying the point in Copenhagen was a real bonus, especially after they had already drawn with the Swiss, an away draw with the Danes is absolutely no guarantee we will beat them at home, especially when you bear in mind the number of chances they squandered over there.

The Swiss too have shown that they are a pretty good side and, like the Danes, probably have a bit more quality than us.

And Georgia away, as we know, will also be a test.

So, while I very much welcome the 10 points currently on the board, I worry about our capacity to build on that in what will be a much more demanding and perilous second half of the qualification campaign.

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