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Thursday 14 November 2019

Mick can't get stuck in the middle

McCarthy's loyalty to midfield tested as changes are needed for Geneva

ON HIS KNEES: Callum Ronbinson had a game to forget in Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile
ON HIS KNEES: Callum Ronbinson had a game to forget in Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile

It's the muddle in the middle which could cost Ireland their chance to play on the Euro 2020 stage next summer.

And Mick McCarthy's sense of loyalty will be tested, severely, in the hours leading up to kick-off here in Geneva tomorrow night. Loyalty is a key part of McCarthy's makeup, as a man and a manager.

And he needs to wield an axe and shape things up in the middle of the park because, if that pallid, disorganised, unconvincing display by the midfield in Tbilisi on Saturday is repeated in Geneva, Ireland will finish this international double-header with one point from six.

Of course, qualification could still come Ireland's way, with a win at home to the Danes next month. To do that, Ireland need to come up with something different as the Danes, and the Swiss, have figured out that a set-piece tailor-made for Shane Duffy's head is our most likely source of a goal. The Danes were caught out at home late on in the game in June; they won't be fooled again.

Same

McCarthy has essentially had the same midfield for most of the campaign, with some switches. Matt Doherty, Robbie Brady and Callum Robinson have played in different variations of a wide midfield role, but Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick have started every game in the group in the centre.

James McClean, who got frustrated with his own team-mates. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
James McClean, who got frustrated with his own team-mates. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

James McClean has started, and finished, every game essentially as a left-sided midfielder while Glenn Whelan has been dropped into the side as McCarthy sees fit, starting at home and away to Georgia, away to Denmark and at home to the Swiss.

Whelan's role is different to those around him, his main job to protect the back four and give the midfield a stiffness often needed, especially away from home.

He was needed on 65 minutes in Tbilisi, scampering back to cover as Jano Ananidze burst through with dangerous intent on his face, and Whelan had to take one for the team, a yellow card that is, to prevent the Spartak Moscow man from doing damage.

McCarthy has to decide if Whelan, at 35, can deal with the physical demands of two starts in four days.

The player himself has no doubts about that, telling this newspaper last week that he played three games in six days for his club, one of them going to extra-time and penalties. "And I put my peno away too," he said.

But the midfield did not work in Georgia. Callum Robinson was way below the standard needed, the Aston Villa man looking lost for long spells. James McClean delivered his usual effort and grit but his lack of pace, and inability to influence the game, was worrying.

VETERAN: Will Glenn Whelan (r) be physically up to the task of taking on the Swiss just a few days after the Georgia tie? Pic: Sportsfile
VETERAN: Will Glenn Whelan (r) be physically up to the task of taking on the Swiss just a few days after the Georgia tie? Pic: Sportsfile

The lack of cohesion was evident for all to see on 85 minutes in Tbilisi, McClean and Hourihane at crossed wires, getting cross with each other as Hourihane's pass to McClean didn't go where the Stoke City player wanted it. The ball bobbled over the touchline, handing a throw into the grateful hands of the Georgians. Ireland lost an opportunity and McClean and Hourihane started to lose it with each other.

Asked about that moment of conflict between the pair, John Egan said it was a natural expression. "I don't think it's frustration, I just think it's people wanting to do better and setting high standards. Every single player demands more of each other," Egan said.

"It might come across that it looks a bit frustrating and people are arguing and stuff, but it's all just people trying to drive each other on to be better, and it's all good. We have a great squad, a great bunch of lads and everybody just wants to do well."

McCarthy won't make four or five changes to his midfield for tomorrow, but he should be looking at it in depth, as Robinson and McClean, in particular, would have no complaints if they were dropped.

The UEFA stats show that Georgia had far more passes than Ireland (507 for Georgia, 382 for McCarthy's side), more passes completed (403 against 292).

That's not all on the midfielders. Every player in green was guilty of giving the ball away too cheaply, and as Whelan pointed out in his interview on these pages last week, for so long the Irish midfield were the whipping boys: criticised for being too open in a defeat, hammered for not being creative after a draw.

Risk

It would be a risk for McCarthy to butcher his midfield and throw in untested players like Jack Byrne and Josh Cullen, or even to give Callum O'Dowda or Alan Judge a start.

But with risk there can be reward. McClean, Hendrick and Hourihane have started every game in the campaign to date, Robinson has started the last three.

Their places in the side should be under threat, but only McCarthy can make that call and loyalty could come at a cost.

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