In November 2018, the Football Association of Ireland announced the return of Mick McCarthy as head coach of the senior national team. Stephen Kenny was placed in charge of the under 21s, with a view to succeeding McCarthy after the 2020 European Championships. Ireland managed to qualify for the play-offs, where they were due to face Slovakia in March, before a potential decider against either Bosnia Herzegovina or Northern Ireland five days later. However, with the Euros now being postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the FAI decided to release McCarthy from his duties, with Kenny set to take over as soon as football returns.
Kenny’s relatively short spell in charge of the under 21s, coupled with his previous success as manager of League of Ireland side Dundalk, has created a lot of excitement among Irish fans who crave a more progressive brand of football. The Dublin born coach favours a possession-based approach, and shares the public’s frustration with the negative, fearful tactics typically deployed by Ireland managers.
“Traditionally, we limit ourselves in how we think we can play. We don’t think we’re good enough as a nation. To me that’s unacceptable. We have to demand more from ourselves.”
A couple of months back, the 48-year-old outlined his principles of play for the attacking phases in an extended interview with FAI TV. This article will break down the core ideas he discussed, as well as providing video evidence of the principles being applied by his U21s team.
Who is Stephen Kenny?
During the 90s, Stephen Kenny ran a meat-production business. He began his coaching career with St. Patrick’s Athletic U21s, before taking charge of Longford Town at the age of just 26. After three successful years with Longford, Kenny went on to manage the likes of Bohemians, Derry City, and Shamrock Rovers. He took the reigns at Dundalk in 2012, guiding them to the title in four of the following six campaigns. The Lilywhites also reached the group stages of the Europa League in the 16/17 season, where they became the first Irish club ever to earn a point at that level of a European competition.
In 2018, Martin O’Neill was sacked as Ireland manager, with Kenny among the names touted as a possible replacement. As mentioned already, the FAI opted instead for the international experience of Mick McCarthy, placing Kenny in charge of the under 21s with the promise of him taking over the top job in 2020. While McCarthy’s senior team failed to generate any real excitement over the past 18 months, Kenny’s youngsters were outstanding and produced some memorable performances. Below are the attacking principles that helped shape those displays.
Build out from the back with maximum distances between defenders
“We want maximum width from our back four in possession. I always try to instil that so there is real distance between the centre-backs when they’re passing. We want defenders who are comfortable in possession and can play out.”
Kenny’s teams look to play out from the back whenever possible, using the full width of the pitch. The centre-backs split and are happy to get on the ball and attempt line breaking passes. The expansive positional layout creates extra room for each individual in possession and stretches the opponents to create space between the lines. Kenny’s first priority is to build out cleanly from the defence, but even when they are forced to take aerial routes into the opponent’s half, it is always done in a manner that maximises their chances of retaining possession. Intelligent positional play allows them to create pockets of space behind lines of pressure, with accurate lofted passes and lay-offs used to bypass the press.
Always try to play passes in front of defenders
“Every pass should be in front of the defenders. If the right sided centre-back is missing out the left sided centre-back to play it to the left-back, it’s got to be in front of him. He’s got to receive it in his stride. There’s no point in the fullback being too advanced where they’ve got to check their stride and come back. We’re looking to inject pace into the game.”
In order to further aid clean progression from the first phase, Kenny stresses the importance of players making passes that arrive in front of their teammates. This allows the receiver to come onto the ball, preventing him from having to waste valuable time dropping back. The idea is to pass efficiently in a way that allows players to continue moving forward, maintaining momentum and increasing the overall speed of the attack. Up-back-throughs are also used to enable players to receive facing forward and on the move.
Fullbacks and wingers on different vertical lines
“We want the fullbacks and the wingers not to be on the same line. We want the fullbacks narrow and the wingers wide, or the winger inside and the fullback wide. So then they can play angled passes, one-twos, and create space for each other.”
In order to ensure the best conditions exist to exploit wide areas, Kenny demands that his wingers and fullbacks avoid positioning themselves on the same vertical line. This is done to create better passing angles between the pair, as well as creating space for each other. If the winger is infield, the fullback will have more space to overlap. Meanwhile, if the fullback is infield, the winger should be isolated against the opposing fullback, allowing him to utilise his pace and dribbling abilities. Generating 1v1s on the flanks is a prominent pattern of play for Kenny’s sides and in order to execute these scenarios effectively, he says he always tries to have at least three dribblers in his team.
Midfield three interchange continuously
“We always play with three in midfield, whatever the configuration is. It’s important to have that fluid interaction where players aren’t static. Whether it’s two holding and one number 10, or one and two, we want fluidity and players being able to interchange.”
Crucial to Kenny’s build-up approach, the midfield is expected to be fluid positionally. One of the holding midfielders will often drop into the spaces between the centre-backs and fullbacks to receive as a free player before looking to play line-breaking passes. Furthermore, the number 10 regularly swaps positions with a holding player in order to disrupt the opponent’s marking scheme. Whether they play with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the midfield always tries to engage in dynamic movements to generate central breakthroughs.
Dominate possession and inject tempo
“Have the determination to dominate possession regardless of the opposition. You can only do that by overloading the midfield and trusting your talent. We want players who are willing to take the ball in tight areas. Once you can control a game, it’s important to inject tempo and pace into the attack. If teams are sitting off us and we’re struggling to break them down, it’s knowing when to play that first time pass into the centre-forward, or the attacking midfielder, or the winger coming off the line. One touch passing also injects tempo.”
Whether they were up against Sandro Tonali’s Italy or a side with inferior players, Kenny’s U21s always sought to dominate the ball and control the game. Overloads in midfield, sometimes aided by the inverted positioning of a fullback, is a crucial factor in these attempts. Additionally, triangles and diamonds are formed to ensure ball retention. From a psychological perspective, players are instilled with the confidence to express their talent and not to fear any opponent. Encouragement of quick passing, combinations, and creative actions helps to increase tempo and avoid sterile spells of possession.
Attack with a minimum of 5 players and have 3 in the box for crosses
“I always play with five attacking players. That’s not including my fullbacks, so it can be seven. If we have a right winger going down the line, we’re looking to get our centre-forward and our left winger in the box. The number 10 is the next one to get in, if we’re playing 4-2-3-1. But if he’s involved in the build up and can’t get in the box, one of the central midfield players has to. That’s why I speak about attacking with five players.”
Kenny’s brave approach ensures that sufficient numbers exist in the final third to fully exploit the attacking moments. Two midfielders, both wingers, and the centre-forward are all expected to contribute high up the pitch, with extra support arriving from the fullbacks’ overlapping or underlapping runs if necessary. As Kenny outlined, this creates the ideal conditions for crosses to the box. He often refers to his fullbacks as “raiders”, and gives them license to make occasional free man runs into the attack. He has also stressed, however, that his defence must always have a numerical advantage over the opponent’s forward line, with at least one holding midfielder staying back to maintain balance.
Dual responsibility for centre-forwards
“We want the centre-forwards to have dual responsibility, offering with their back to goal and threating in behind.”
For the most part, Kenny’s under 21s have played with one centre-forward. However, he has often deployed Aaron Connolly in wide areas and Troy Parrott in the number 10 position to enable Adam Idah to play as the central striker. The trio are among Ireland’s most promising young talents, and Kenny has been determined to fit them all into his starting XI. He demands versatility from his forwards, asking them to vary their game between acting as a reference point for hold up play or lay-offs, as well as making well-timed runs into depth to receive behind the opponent’s last line of defence. Each of the aforementioned players have the abilities to fulfill these responsibilities, and the expectation is that they will all play a prominent role in Kenny’s senior team over the coming years.
The video below highlights many of the core attacking principles discussed in this piece.
What about the defence?
Kenny didn’t expand on his defensive principles, but he did present a more general list of guidelines for the out of possession phases. Fundamentally, he wants his teams to have the ball and as such, many of his defensive ideas relate to preventing the opponents from playing out from the back and gaining any real control over the game. They typically press high for opposition goal kicks, with a 4-diamond-2 positional structure implemented for these moments. The image below highlights this, with the two front-most players primed to apply pressure to Mexico’s centre-backs, while also shutting off passes into the holding midfield players.
On many occasions, Ireland’s opponents went long from goal kicks, avoiding the risks associated with playing out under such pressure. However, in this particular instance, Mexico’s goalkeeper chose to play short to his right-sided centre-back. Ireland’s left striker instantly applied angled pressure to limit his short options and force him into attempting a long pass. When opposing teams do take direct routes on goal kicks, Kenny’s team is well placed to deal with the first and second balls by retaining a numerical advantage at the back. As mentioned previously, he also demands that at least one of the midfielders stays deep to support the defence.
In situations where they have conceded possession high up the pitch during an established attack, counterpressure is typically applied to recover the ball immediately. Many of the remaining defensive principles on the list presented by Kenny simply enforce the crucial role that aspects such as strong team ethic, good communication, and aggression play in executing a high-pressing game. Kenny’s U21s were predominantly an attack-minded side, scoring 17 times in 12 fixtures. However, they remained solid without the ball, conceding just 6.
Which players are likely to feature under Kenny?
When Kenny took over the U21s, he decided that he would select the Irish youngsters that he felt had the most potential to one day play at senior level, rather than selecting based solely on age. Troy Parrott was fast tracked into the side at just 17, while Adam Connolly and Adam Idah made their debuts at 18 and 19 respectively. It will be interesting to see how quickly he promotes them to senior level, and it could depend on whether or not they are playing first-team football with their clubs. Idah’s Norwich are expected to drop back into the Championship next season, so he is likely to gain more starting opportunities. Connolly, meanwhile, has already played a handful of games for Brighton and will be hoping to nail down a regular spot next term, regardless of whether Brighton remain in the Premier League or not. Finally, Parrott may be forced to leave Tottenham on loan, with Jose Mourinho so far reluctant to give him any meaningful chances.
Midfielder Jayson Molumby, currently on loan at Millwall from Brighton, is another player expected to enter the senior national team before long. Zack Elbouzedi, Lee O’Connor, Jason Knight, Nathan Collins, Conor Ronan, and Conor Coventry, among others, are also worth looking out for over the next couple of years.
In terms of the current crop of senior international players, it’s difficult to say who will be in Kenny’s plans and who will be ushered aside. David McGoldrick, James McClean, Shane Long and Seamus Coleman are all past the 30 mark, but may remain part of the squad in the short-term. Kenny is likely to find a place for Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, too, and the pair will be hoping he can help them rediscover their Euro 2016 form. Given the shift in playing philosophies, Shamrock Rovers playmaker Jack Byrne may gain favour, while Conor Hourihane and Matt Doherty are also likely to fit within Kenny’s plans. At 36, holding midfielder Glenn Whelan will almost certainly retire, with Josh Cullen joining Molumby as a potential candidate to replace him.
Speaking about the influence of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool assistant coach Pepijn Ljinders once said that a team will always grow to reflect the character of their coach. If the coach is conservative in his ideas, and insecure about the quality of his team, the players will quickly begin to mirror those beliefs with risk-averse actions and performances void of confidence. For too long, Ireland managers have talked down the quality of the players at their disposal to protect their own reputations. Stephen Kenny’s appointment marks a significant cultural shift, and many fans can’t wait for the transition to begin. Furthermore, his incredible journey provides inspiration for every ambitious coach.
The quote below is taken from Kenny’s first press conference as Ireland manager.
“I’m not a celebrity, I’m just a football coach and that’s all I want to be. I’m just looking forward to working with the players. We’ve got a great group and I’m honoured to work with them. It’s my job to unlock their potential. We’ll have a very definite way of playing. Life’s short & you only get one chance at this. I want my team to play completely without fear.
This is not a stepping stone for me. This is the job you would dream of. We’ve got tremendous support and I think they want to look forward to coming to the AVIVA and seeing a team pass the ball, open up and really entertain them.”
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