Conor Ronan is in Ireland's senior squad for the first time and Stephen Kenny should state his ambition by immediately starting the young attacker.
Stephen Kenny's future is fixed. The Republic of Ireland manager will be in place until 2024 at the very least.
Kenny's first stretch in charge wasn't perfect, but he built a foundation for the team he is going to create moving forward. Young players are now established internationals. The team has a clear philosophy on how they want to play. Formation flexibility is also a thing now after years of Ireland forcing sides into 4-4-2. That doesn't mean 4-4-2 won't be the right formation at some point moving forward.
Ireland will need to adapt as older players continue to drop off and younger players emerge. Captain Seamus Coleman is the best example of this. Coleman still has a role to play for Ireland. But there are serious questions about whether he can play wing-back anymore.
Does he still have the legs?
If he doesn't, he will be installed as the right-sided center back in the back three. That will have a knock-on effect on the rest of Kenny's selections. Dara O'Shea is back from injury and should start again. John Egan is undroppable. So Coleman and Shane Duffy are now essentially in a direct competition with each other. And that's before Andrew Omobamidele gets healthy again.
A back three of Omobamidele, Egan and O'Shea is coming. It should be a very impressive foundation for the rest of the team.
SQUAD CONFIRMED 🇮🇪
Kenny names 25-man squad as @OUFCOfficial midfielder Mark Sykes and Connor Ronan receives first senior international call-up
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) March 18, 2022
Enda Stevens is not in Stephen Kenny's squad. Neither is Liam Scales. James McClean is. The safe selection for Kenny in the upcoming friendlies is McClean at left wing back and Doherty at right wing back. But the better selection, the more ambitious selection and the more attacking selection is incorporating Chiedozie Ogbene. The Rotherham attacker is versatile enough to play right wing back. Especially if Coleman is starting in behind him.
Doherty is in great form for Tottenham. He will excel regardless of what side of the field he's on so long as he plays wing back. With him on the left as a focal point of the attack and Ogbene sprinting down the right side, Ireland will be able to create width in attack and counter attack with speed. Both Ogbene and Doherty have mindsets that encourage them to get into the box at every opportunity too.
The predictable lineup for Kenny involves a base of Jeff Hendrick and Josh Cullen. Either Allen Browne or Jason Knight will play in the hole, with Callum Robinson and Troy Parrott starting upfront together.
Lithuania and a second-string Belgium side will be Ireland's opponents in these friendlies. Neither side will overwhelm Ireland at home. Kenny's side should be able to retain possession and create chances in both games. There's no reason for them to play with fear, there's no pressure on Kenny to get results in these games, so a slight adjustment makes sense.
Jeff Hendrick has played well for Ireland recently. But the 30-year-old lost his place at Newcastle and is now on loan at QPR in the Championship. He still has a big role to play for Ireland moving forward. He just won't be a fulcrum of the team as he moves through his thirties. His work rate and discipline in the structure of the team will need to be replicated by others.
Cullen is a proven starter and should keep his place. Instead of starting him next to a Hendrick or Hourihane at the base of midfield, Kenny should make him the deep-lying midfielder in a three. That's what Kenny wanted James McCarthy to be originally. It's what Fabinho is at Liverpool and what Rodri is at Manchester City. But since both of those players play in front of a back four, they need to be more defensive-minded and impactful than Cullen will need to be in front of a back five.
Starting Cullen in the middle with a combination of Jason Knight, Ronan Curtis and Troy Parrott in front of him would give Ireland a quartet of ball-playing, versatile midfielders.
Knight has proven for Derby that he can play on the right wing, in central midfield, upfront or in the hole behind the striker. Parrott has mostly played upfront for Ireland but is a natural atacking midfielder who excels coming off the left side or working in the hole behind the striker. Ronan is the least proven of the four young players but maybe the most intriguing.
His highlight reel in Scottish football is always growing and he can play high upfield. Ronan's potential to unlock defences and score goals makes him a worthwhile risk for Ireland in these games.
Callum Robinson obviously would start upfront.
The diamond of midfielders would give Ireland more attacking options and more players who can play in different areas of the field. The front three of that group are essentially interchangeable. With dynamism coming from both wing backs also, Ireland will suddenly have a very fluid and pacey attack playing on the foundation of a proven defensive structure.
Stephen Kenny's succession plan was put in place to change Ireland. The initial phase of that change is complete. Kenny has his contract extension, but that only means he gets the chance to continue his good work. Ireland can't wait until they have a string of bad results to make changes. If they make changes in anticipation of where they want to be, the string of bad results should never come.
Or they will come at the right time. Such as friendlies against a second-string Belgium side and Lithuania.
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