Mick McCarthy has an acid tongue that is also capable of delivering lines as smooth as velvet. The Republic of Ireland manager may be the king of the one-liner but, rarely at least, will he suffer a careless verbal slip. Especially when it comes to his team formation or selection.
On Monday, when McCarthy casually pointed out in his press briefing — one dominated by the emergence of Aaron Connolly — that Ireland would again play a 4-3-3 formation against Georgia this afternoon, it was his way of setting the tone for the week to come.
Ireland won’t be changing tack, even with the stakes about to be raised to a point where some would seek to draw comfort from caution. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to work out that McCarthy would stick with the system that has taken his unbeaten side to the top of Group D with three wins and two draws.
The temptation might have been to play up the threat posed by Georgia — a side that have proven to be technically impressive, yet clearly vulnerable — and lay the groundwork for a more passive approach.
But the Ireland boss, who didn’t speak in front of the media again until today’s pre-match press conference, was keen to get his message across early: Ireland are coming to impose their own game.
Who will be centre of attention?
The circumstances surrounding Richard Keogh’s absence in defence are deeply unfortunate. The fact Ireland have an understudy as capable as John Egan certainly softens the blow. The Sheffield United centre-back is charged with being the primary organiser at the back for his club, so it will be interesting to see if he bows to Shane Duffy’s presence in that regard.
In the Premier League, Egan is the one who will hold the fort in a three-man defence that allows the centre-backs on either side to overlap. His first full season in the top flight has so far been impressive. Egan’s ability to play from the back is an added benefit, certainly an upgrade on Keogh’s, and that could prove crucial if the visitors are to have the confidence to play their way from danger and maintain possession.
Burnley’s Kevin Long and Blackburn’s Derrick Williams are alternative options — the latter offers balance as left-footer, for one — but Egan’s qualities both on the ball and in terms of leadership put him at the top of the queue.
Can the left unite?
If you go by the premise that you make as few changes as possible to a winning team, Matt Doherty should be the only player brought in to fill the void left by the suspended Stevens. It’s not quite like-for-like as the Wolves man operates on the opposite flank, but he has experience in that position and is a more than competent replacement who offers the added benefit of being a major attacking threat.
What adds an added layer of intrigue is the use of James McClean, primarily based further forward as part of the front three, with Conor Hourihane the midfielder charged with covering space on that side.
Losing the natural balance of a left-footer isn’t such a problem when someone as capable and dangerous asDoherty can be parachuted in.
It seems unthinkable that one of the best full-backs in the Premier League wouldn’t be trusted, and it could say a lot about his standing in McCarthy’s plans if someone like Williams is preferred there, or the manager deems it necessary to use McClean at full-back in order to give Connolly a full debut on the left side of attack.
How is the middle ground faring?
Glenn Whelan said this week that he has rhino skin, so as the veteran midfielder continues his surprise second act, he will be grateful to have the reinvigorated pair of Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick working diligently either side of him.
The latter has found himself back in a midfield position for Burnley, scoring twice since September and putting in the sort of energetic performances that looked like becoming the norm after Euro 2016.
Hendrick possesses a goal threat, as does Hourihane, who has forced his way back into Aston Villa starting XI with displays that have married goals, assists and composure in possession. It’s hard to recall an Irish midfield playing with such confidence individually, the hope now is that it translates this afternoon to help them to get the sort of foothold which allowed them overpower Georgia in Dublin.
What is the forward thinking?
The best nights out are rarely planned, often they come out of the blue and leave a hazy trail of destruction. So, step forward Aaron Connolly. The Galway teenager announced himself to the world with two superb goals on his Premier League debut for Brighton against Tottenham last weekend.
The diminutive forward, who played through the middle for the Seagulls, but also impressed for Stephen Kenny’s U21s on the left of a front three, is in a vein of form which McCarthy admitted was “irresistible”.
With David McGoldrick absent, Ireland need a player to lead the line. Connolly proved capable of doing it for Brighton, but the question is whether this Ireland team are capable of playing to his strengths, which is why the form of Hendrick and Hourihane is so important.
If McCarthy feels Connolly won’t be wasted by showing to feet, holding up play, and bringing others into it, then he may well start. However, do not discount the esteem in which James Collins is held. And Scott Hogan netted a timely goal for his club at the weekend, too.
It may well be that Connolly is sprung from the bench and used on either the left or right when Ireland are in need of some second-half inspiration. What’s certain is that McCarthy will want his players to do his talking for him this afternoon.