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Shane's the head boy as Kenny era gets going

Nations League: Bulgaria 1 Rep of Ireland 1

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Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during the Nations League match against Bulgaria in Sofia. Photo: Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during the Nations League match against Bulgaria in Sofia. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during the Nations League match against Bulgaria in Sofia. Photo: Sportsfile

Time will tell if this game is remembered as a step in the right direction. Opening results for Ireland managers don't always correspond with the success - or otherwise - of their tenure, so knee-jerk reactions in either direction are ill-advised.

Shane Duffy's injury-time header to rescue a point prompted predictable quips about the old-fashioned route to goal proving best, but it followed an atypical Irish display that hinted at a change in strategy, albeit without a real cutting edge until Robbie Brady's dead-ball broke the resistance.

Ireland had the ball for long spells without carving open the defence in general play; they didn't really fashion the type of opportunity that Bozhidar Kraev slotted away to give the hosts a second-half lead.

But after a handful of training sessions off the back of pre-season, this fixture was always likely to have a bang of work in progress off it.

When a new manager comes in, there tends to be a more generous appraisal of the team's performance. If the incumbent is under pressure, an unsympathetic view is adopted. In Slovakia next month, what the scoreboard shows at the final whistle is more likely to shape the mood.

Youthful

What we saw in Sofia was a Kenny side that adopted a 4-3-3 formation - with debutant Adam Idah flanked by Aaron Connolly and Callum O'Dowda in a new-look and youthful forward line - with an intent to dominate the ball. In the first half of the game, the number of Irish passes attempted and completed was in, or around, the overall 90-minute tally for Martin O'Neill's Nations League bow in Wales two years ago.

And there were moments at both ends that could naturally be traced to a change of game plan.

For starters, the glaring first-half miss from Connolly that arose from an Irish press from a Bulgarian kickout that forced a defensive error. He might have squared to either Idah or O'Dowda but the pass was neglected and the shot was terrible.

Bulgaria's best opportunity to break the deadlock prior to the interval was also a product of Irish adventure.

Matt Doherty, who as expected was preferred to Seamus Coleman, was committed in an attack that broke down, and a quick diagonal pass from Bulgaria exposed space on the opposite flank. Todor Nedelev nipped in behind Enda Stevens before chipping the ball over the bar.

This is a product of the risk that comes with more adventurous play. Ireland set out with a high defensive line in an attempt to move yards up the pitch, an outlook that always leaves a team vulnerable in behind if the opposition can gain possession and move it quickly enough. Darren Randolph had to be alert at the edge of his box on more than occasion. Better sides might have enjoyed more joy.

Still, there were promising Irish breaks too, arising from John Egan stepping forward into space or O'Dowda and Connolly cutting inside to make angles to keep the ball and allow full backs to advance.

The three-man midfield relied on James McCarthy in a deep lying role, taking the ball from the centre backs and trying to feed Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick.

Awkwardness

It was a mixed bag on that score with some early awkwardness between Duffy and McCarthy, and passages where Hourihane and Hendrick were a small bit out of sync and Ireland looked quite open in that section of the pitch. McCarthy was playing his first Irish game in almost four years and was an injury doubt too, so there are mitigating factors that offer an excuse for sluggish moments.

Hendrick made a charging run prior to the interval that emphasised what he can offer when driving on into space, a stated aim for Kenny, but he drifted in and out of proceedings too.

Debutant Idah, the central striker, had mixed success when it came to holding up the ball without ever necessarily drifting into space in the box and the Norwich teenager wasn't put in situations where he was able to utilise his pace.

From the restart, the 19-year-old illustrated the versatility that Kenny likes, dropping short to show strength and awareness to tee up Connolly for a weak right footer.

This was promising, yet it was quickly followed by a concession that did come against the run of play. Hourihane's mistake in possession gave the ball to white shirts, but it shouldn't have led to such dire consequences with Duffy slow to get back into position and Egan struggling to track the run of Bozhidar Kraev with Nedelev's slide rule pass setting up a conversion through the legs of Randolph.

It was a momentum checker for the guests and the invitation for the natives to sit deeper defensively and challenge Kenny's team to show what they could do. McCarthy was sacrificed to make way for Robbie Brady, with Hourihane reverting to the holding role. Callum Robinson and Shane Long were sprung for O'Dowda and Idah in an attempt to turn the screw.

All the newcomers were busy and Kenny's faith in Brady was justified by the late pressure that forced the corner which salvaged the draw. Finland will visit Dublin on Sunday for the maiden home fixture of the Kenny era. We witnessed enough here to be interested in what happens next.