Midfield issues for Stephen Kenny to ponder as Irish fall to Finland

Finland's Teemu Pukki (left) and Republic of Ireland's Harry Arter battle for the ball during the UEFA Nations League Group 4, League B match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin
From Brendan Crossan in Dublin

Nations League Group B4: Republic of Ireland 0 Finland 1


THE capital was just a weird place to be yesterday. The streets around Lansdowne Road weren’t thronged with Ireland fans rushing around like ants or spilling out of pubs.

No queues at the tolls or the chippie.

For once, it was a breeze in reaching the Aviva Stadium. And you could park as close as you wanted.

Courtesy of Covid, this is the new normal on international dates. No greasy burgers and fried onions scenting the streets. Nobody buying or selling tickets. Nobody selling ‘hats, scarves or headbands’ in the harshest of Dublin brogues.

This was just like any other lazy Sunday afternoon in Dublin. Dog walkers and joggers had the footpaths all to themselves.

Inside, the stadium was as empty as the streets around it. Yesterday evening’s UEFA Nations League tie with Finland was totally devoid of atmosphere.

Every player’s shout during this drab affair could be heard loud and clear up in the press tribune and every thud of the ball sounded like a cannon ball being fired.

Ireland’s problem throughout their first home game under new boss Stephen Kenny was that they were firing blanks all evening and were deservedly beaten by their well organised visitors thanks to a well-worked move finished off by substitute Frederik Jensen in the 64th minute.

Only for two fantastic saves from Darren Randolph in either half, the Finns might have won more comfortably.

After grabbing a late draw in Sofia on Thursday night, Kenny left his defence and attack untouched and made wholesale changes to his midfield.

Out went James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane and in came Harry Arter, Jayson Molumby and Robbie Brady.

While the trio who started against Bulgaria are all tentative first choices, one issue that may give the new Republic of Ireland manager some broken sleep between now and next month’s Euro 2021 semi-final play-off against Slovakia is the formation itself.

A big advocate of 4-3-3, Kenny’s preferred system of play has shown some early signs of malfunctioning. In neither game against the Bulgarians and the Finns has the Republic looked compact.

When the Bulgarian’s attacked them, the Irish midfield looked threadbare at times – and even more so against Finland yesterday.

With players still very much in pre-season mode, supporters may be getting a false reading of Ireland’s midfield and how ineffective it has been in 180 minutes of football but playing one holding player makes them easy pickings for an opposition with decent pace.

Ironically, Harry Arter, who played as the defensive pivot yesterday, was one of the team’s better performers.

The Fulham man, who was surplus to requirements at international level in recent seasons, made some full-blooded interceptions but he still doesn’t have sufficient pace to recover situations, especially with the other midfielders stationed further forward.

Matt Doherty’s form remains patchy on the international stage but it appears he has ousted captain Seamus Coleman for the right back slot.

He plays higher than Coleman and for Finland’s goal he didn’t smell the danger and should have tucked in to prevent Teemu Pukki getting down the side of the defence and providing the cross for Jensen’s goal.

Kenny’s few leap-of-faith selections didn’t work either. Apart from showing the Finnish defence a clean pair of heels in the early stages, young Adam Idah is still acclimatising to the senior stage.

Making his senior debut after cutting a dash at U21 level, midfielder Jayson Molumby couldn’t impose himself on proceedings either.

Aaron Connolly and Robbie Brady posed the greatest threat to the Finns but their early momentum sagged in the second half as the Irish failed to cut open the visitors.

Things looked a little brighter, though, when Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick were thrust from the bench in the 59th and 67th minutes, respectively.

McGoldrick’s confidence in possession gave the Irish attack more of a threat and Robinson – who has always played his best football for Ireland from the bench – sprayed some fine passes and latched onto Doherty’s slipped pass but couldn’t find a way past Lukas Hradecky in goal on 70 minutes.

The Republic may have been chasing an equaliser but with no great faith in getting one, whereas the Finns could easily have doubled their lead when Nikolai Alho was denied by a fantastic Darren Randolph save, while their top scorer Pukki fired just wide in another assault on the home side’s goal.

It was a frustrating day for Kenny's new-look Irish team. Preparation and tactics have had to be microwaved and with no Green Army cheering them on, this was always going to be tricky. Trickier than they probably imagined.


Republic of Ireland ratings

Darren Randolph: Ireland’s best performer. The West Ham keeper denied Teem Pukki in the early stages in a one-v-one situation and made sublime finger-tip save to keep out Nikolai Alho’s curling effort late on. 7

Matt Doherty: The manager kept faith with Doherty ahead of Seamus Coleman at right back. Coleman may not be the player of old but he minds the house better than Doherty, illustrated by Finland’s goal. Doherty did put Callum Robinson through for a great chance late in the game. 5

Enda Stevens: The Sheffield United defender has evolved into Ireland’s most accomplished footballer. Makes the pitch bigger and is ideal to implement Stephen Kenny’s passing game. Might have covered the far post better for Finland’s goal. 6

Shane Duffy: Almost equalised again in the closing stages but saw his header breeze over the Finnish crossbar. Still in pre-season and Celtic’s new central defender will get better but currently looks leggy. 5

John Egan: Put under the cosh as Ireland chased the game and made some telling interceptions towards the end. In fairness to Egan and Duffy, they didn’t have a lot of protection in front of them. 6

Jayson Molumby: Making his senior debut, it was a big step up for the youngster. His passing was a bit too lateral at times, picked up a yellow card which kind of summed up his evening. 5

Robbie Brady: Still needs games in his legs but still looks like the one player who has the ability to unlock a defence. Some of his set pieces caused a some stress to the Finland defence but tired as the game entered the final quarter. 6

Harry Arter: Anchored the midfield in place of James McCarthy and emptied the tank. He threw himself into a host of challenges and broke up some Finnish attacks. His passing was okay but doesn’t have a lot of pace to shield the Irish defence from danger. 6

Callum O’Dowda: His 59th minute shot was that went wide was his last contribution of the match due to injury. Has ability but narrows the right side of the Irish attack. Under pressure from Callum Robinson for a place in the team for next month’s Euro play-off with Slovakia. 5

Aaron Connolly: Lively, buzzed around and looked like being Ireland’s biggest attacking threat. He cut in from the left side and had a couple of efforts on goal, but his end product could have been better. 5

Adam Idah: Nothing stuck for the Norwich City teenager and you could see the confidence sagging as the game wore on. It’s a big call if the manager retains him in the starting line-up for Slovakia based on the evidence over the last two games. 5


Callum Robinson: Improved the Irish attack and had the best chance but was denied by the Finnish ‘keeper Lukas Hradecky. Pushing for a starting slot. 6

David McGoldrick: Probably imagined he’d get more game-time than he did but entered the fray in the 67th minute for the ineffective Idah and showed leadership in possession. Had one sight of goal but was still cold to the game at that point. 6

James McClean: Put a couple of decent crosses in after his 77th minute introduction.

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