Teams in Transition? Luxembourg hitting their highest heights but Ireland in freefall
The Republic of Ireland’s recent woes hit new depths on Saturday evening as they lost to 98th ranked team Luxembourg, who themselves had arguably the most impressive night of their footballing history, with a 1-0 win in Dublin.
A late Gerson Rodrigues strike was all that was between the sides on the score line. But the story of why Ireland came up short and why Stephen Kenny continues his search for a first win as Head Coach can be examined in closer detail.
This encounter was never likely to produce a flurry of goalmouth action, with Luxembourg goalless in 3 of their last 4 matches and Ireland going 5 straight home games without finding the net. However, a reaction was expected from the Irish, who were much fancied for a first win in 9 games before kick-off.
Where did it go wrong for Ireland, and consequently, what worked in Luxembourg’s favour?
Firstly, Ireland were missing Brighton striker David Connelly through injury, but Kenny had plenty of attacking options, with West Brom’s Callum Robinson and Luton’s James Collins selected to lead the line. With Collins’ physical strength a clear advantage for carving out chances at club level, we might have expected to see a fast paced and direct offense from Ireland. What actually happened was Ireland adopted a slower, more patient attacking build up, preferring to carefully work the ball into the box. This appeared ineffective against a Luxembourg side who are used to dropping deep and defending in numbers for large periods in games.
An inability or unwillingness to utilise Collins’ aerial threat cost Ireland, who managed only 2 attempts on target all game and often resorted to long shots out of frustration. Ireland’s most clear-cut chance came from a cross into the box for Collins, supporting the point on crosses into the box. The total headers won by Ireland over Luxembourg (32 to 20) demonstrates they were the aerially dominant team, and they should have used this more to their advantage. When Robbie Brady came on midway through the second half, Ireland resorted to putting in more crosses. However, this proved to be too little too late, and their opponents stubborn defence held on.
Kenny opted to continue the same shape that saw Ireland lose 3-2 to Serbia in their opening World Cup qualifier, putting in a spirited display. His 3-4-1-2 formation pushed captain Seamus Coleman into centre back and allowed Premier League full backs Enda Stevens and Matt Doherty to create width for the team. Robinson, usually deployed as a second striker or wide forward at West Brom led the line with Collins but was given free license to roam from his position.
Luxembourg adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation in the first half which allowed for their full backs and wide midfielders to effectively double up on Ireland’s wing backs and close the gaps. Key players Vincent Thill and Gerson Rodrigues were deployed at right and left midfield respectively.
Ireland had plenty of creative options on the bench to change things up should they have needed to, most notably Brady, James McClean and Jeff Hendrick. But Kenny opted to stick to his system through the whole game, moving personnel within the formation despite them being in more unfamiliar positions. One example being McClean brought on as the left wing back, when he is naturally a more central player.
Luxembourg’s risks pay off
As the game went on Luxembourg visibly grew in confidence. However, it was also a positive start to the game for the visitors, who registered the first shot on target and were not afraid to press Ireland deep in their half. This aggressive high press was a risk, with the midfield five pushing up at times as a blanket press and leaving gaps in behind which exposed their defensive line. However, Ireland failed to exploit the middle area of the pitch where most of the space was, as they opted to focus their play in the more heavily marked wide areas.
It can be suggested that Luxembourg’s risk-and-reward approach was ultimately effective as not only did they grind out the win, but Ireland made far more unforced errors than their opponents, perhaps out of frustration but also through the shape their opponents had set, which they struggled to break down.
At half-time, Luxembourg opted to tweak their formation to a 4-1-4-1 with Rodrigues now leading the line and the versatile Sinani dropping into the midfield. It was this kind of positive approach taken by their constantly animated Head Coach Luc Holtz that increased the belief that they could get a result.
The creative Rodrigues would make the biggest impact in the game with the only goal, which was a well taken strike crafted through his hold up play. In truth, the Irish defence afforded him far too much space to turn and shoot and epitomised their lack of intensity throughout the game in that one moment.
Irish silver lining?
If there was to be a shred of positivity in the Ireland camp after the final whistle, it would be that 19-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu had a confident performance in his first full cap. In his pre-match interview, Kenny had stated his confidence in Bazunu’s distribution and mentality, saying he was ready for the occasion. He certainly impressed, making some smart saves and consistently good distribution. He had no chance with Rodrigues’s strike for the goal
There is no doubt that Luxembourg continue to improve as a footballing side and, despite their diminutive size as a nation, last weekend’s win highlights the progress they have been making. With major tournament qualification still not a realistic aim, they are a great advert for what the Nations League tournament is able to do for the international minnows, and success through climbing the divisions will surely be their future aim.
As for Ireland, it appears there is a long road back to redemption for the team and for Head Coach Kenny. However, a reprieve in competitive fixtures (with a friendly versus Qatar the only immediate game) may provide the coaching team with an Easter miracle and ease the pressure slightly. Regardless of what the Qatar match performance will be like, the Luxembourg result along with recent form will not be ignored by the media and no doubt some form of enquiry from the Irish FA on the team’s direction will ensue.
Whether this will be judged as the last straw or the latest disappointment in a difficult period of transition, it appears Ireland’s last World Cup appearance in 2002 will continue to be an unreachable feat for at least another four years.
28th March 2021
Image source: Eurosport