Stephen Kenny spoke to Off The Ball this week and suggested that he was going to make changes to Ireland's squad. While he noted that he couldn't make dramatic changes before the playoff in October, he did outline the failures of previous regimes to embrace Ireland's younger talent.
Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were Ireland's best players at Euro 2016. Then 24 years of age, Brady and Hendrick were the focal points of Ireland's midfield. Neither player, for a variety of reasons, has lived up to expectations since. Stephen Kenny made a salient point regarding the two when speaking to Off The Ball's Nathan Murphy this week.
Kenny noted that Ireland haven't had anyone come through after Brady and Hendrick's class. He detailed the gap between 19-year-old Aaron Connolly and the duo.
"Apart from Allan Browne at Cork City, and Seanie Maguire played in Gibraltar - apart from those Cork City lads that played once or twice in competitive games, the next player [after Brady and Hendrick's generation] is Aaron Connolly.
"So we have nine years of no players actually making the breakthrough."
The 48-year-old further explained that Ireland now have a glut of talented players coming through at the same time. And unlike previous managers, he's ready to play them. The under-21 team that Kenny managed had some outstanding performers in it. Adam Idah, Connor Ronan and Dara O'Shea might one day play for Ireland, but they're likely not ready yet. Jayson Molumby, Troy Parrott and Connolly can hope to make the next squad in September.
What that squad looks like will be fascinating.
Not only are Ireland likely to undergo a dramatic change in personnel, but they will also be taking on a new philosophy. As Johnny Ward noted on OTB AM this week, Kenny will attempt to dominate the midfield. He wants extra bodies in the middle with wingers who can work hard up and down the sideline. It's the same formation and a similar style to that of Jurgen Klopp.
That's going to impact who plays in midfield and it will also impact how Ireland play the ball out from the back. There's going to be a greater premium on retaining the ball at each level of the field. Starting with the keeper.
So now that Kenny has acknowledged that he will be incorporating younger players into his squad, who is likely to be pushing for inclusion in October?
Goalkeepers - Darren Randolph, Mark Travers, Caoimhín Kelleher
Darren Randolph should start for Ireland's playoff game later this year. He's the established starter and no other Irish keeper has established himself as a viable short-term replacement. Randolph's deep distribution has typically been good for Ireland. His ability to link up with his defenders on shorter passes will need to be proven.
Neither Mark Travers nor Caoimhín Kelleher have played enough senior games to push Randolph. Travers made his senior international debut for Ireland last year and has played in cup games for Bournemouth. He's highly-regarded by Eddie Howe.
Liverpool chose to bring in Adrian on a free transfer prior to the start of this season. Their other option was using Kelleher as Alisson's backup. Kelleher played in cup games earlier this season. He didn't particularly impress. But Kelleher did show off his distribution and comfort linking up play from the back. That's something he did consistently for Kenny's under-21 team too.
Kelleher clearly has Kenny's approval and Jurgen Klopp has repeatedly singled him out for praise since he moved to England. He listed Kelleher as a young player he would trust to put in his starting team as recently as December 2019.
Right Backs - Seamus Coleman, Matt Doherty, Cyrus Christie
Cyrus Christie is back! At least, that's according to Kenny. Christie received lavish praise from Kenny when Nathan asked about the right back position. He exclaimed, "Christie scored a great goal for Fulham last week, from outside the box, put it in the top corner. He's actually been playing really well for Fulham recently. I've been very, very impressed with him."
That was likely a tactical non-answer from Kenny. By praising Christie he emboldens the outsider while avoiding picking one of Coleman or Doherty over the other.
Doherty has been in fantastic form for Fulham all season. He plays wing back in that system, allowing him to be an attacking threat for 90 minutes. Coleman wasn't playing as well as Doherty before the break but has been one of Everton's better players since the restart. His performance against Sadio Mane in the draw with Liverpool was especially impressive.
Coleman likely has the inside track on the starting job. Doherty will be involved more under this regime than he was with the previous regimes. Mick McCarthy abandoned the idea of playing Coleman and Doherty at the same time, Kenny will be more open to different ideas that get his best players on the field.
Left Backs - Enda Stevens, Matt Doherty, Ryan Manning, Derrick Williams
Enda Stevens is an ideal left back for Kenny. He's adventurous and plays wing back for his club, so he'll have no hesitation getting forward. There is no real question mark over who will start for Ireland at left back. The only question is if Doherty is absent, will it be Matt Doherty who shifts over from the right side to the left.
It would make sense. Ryan Manning has a skill set that suits what Kenny wants to do. Manning has never played for Ireland so he would be getting his debut whereas Derrick Williams has only three starts. Williams has been effective when he's played but he hasn't been tested at a truly international level.
Centre Backs - John Egan, Shane Duffy, Darragh Lenihan, Dara O'Shea
Ideally, Conor Masterson would be making his debut for Ireland over the coming months. The former Liverpool centre back was at the foundation of Kenny's success with the under-21 team. He's very comfortable on the ball and understands how to set up attacks from the back. But Masterson doesn't play at club level. He's still young so he has time to develop.
Dara O'Shea, his partner in the middle of that under-21 defence, is receiving rave reviews at West Brom.
West Brom manager Slaven Bilic has repeatedly heaped praise on the 21-year-old. His most recent appraisal was extensive, culminating in the line “He is the present and future of West Brom.” O'Shea was the less cultured centre back at under-21 level but was good enough on the ball to stay in the system. His physical presence is greater than his age suggests. He's physically ready for senior international football.
It wouldn't be a major surprise if O'Shea supplanted Shane Duffy by October. Duffy has been Ireland's best defender but he doesn't start for Brighton when everyone is healthy and his ability with the ball at his feet is a major concern. He's also lacking in pace. Duffy's quality at set-pieces won't be prioritized now like it was before.
Should O'Shea not be ready by September, then the competition falls between Shane Duffy and Darragh Lenihan. Lenihan obviously doesn't have Duffy's aerial presence but he's playing week-in and week-out in the Championship for Blackburn and playing well.
John Egan will start for Ireland. There's no question about that. Damien Delaney, Kenny Cunningham and Gary Breen have taken turns talking him up on Off The Ball over recent weeks. Kenny himself called Egan "underutilized by Ireland" and declared that he rates him "very highly." Egan is arguably Ireland's best player right now.
Central Midfielders - James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane, Alan Browne, Jayson Molumby, Jeff Hendrick, Jack Byrne, Harry Arter
This is where Ireland change most. Glenn Whelan should be gone. The Fleetwood Town midfielder has been an everpresent for Ireland over the last decade but his reluctance to show for the ball won't work with Kenny. James McCarthy is the obvious replacement in that holding role. McCarthy has fully returned from his injury issues at this point and re-established himself as a starter at club level.
Kenny acknowledged McCarthy and talked him up this week, along with Harry Arter.
McCarthy and Arter seem like safe bets to start for Ireland. The third starter in the middle of the field is less clear. Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick have both obviously been excellent servants for Ireland, even if not consistent performers. Kenny might look at Hendrick's form from four years ago and think he can rediscover that by redeploying him in a more advanced role. That means playing him ahead of McCarthy and alongside Arter.
A dark horse is Jayson Molumby. He's Ireland's under-21 captain and put in some stellar performances during their qualifying campaign. He also starts every week for Milwall. One can't help but be reminded of Roy Keane when watching Molumby. Like Keane, he set the tone for the Irish under-21 team. He demands possession when he's open and looks for space when he's not. His energy allows him to play box-to-box for 90 minutes and his tenacity sees him hound opponents to win the ball high upfield.
Molumby should have featured for the first team under McCarthy. He doesn't need to start. He can make an impact off the bench. Whether you ask him to be the deep-lying midfielder or one of the two in central midfield, he'll offer Ireland a dimension they haven't had for a long time.
Being that Stephen Kenny developed in the League of Ireland, he's unlikely to overlook Jack Byrne. The Shamrock Rovers star probably won't start but he'll be a valuable impact sub initially.
Wingers - Robbie Brady, Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly, James McClean, Chiedozie Ogbene, Scott Hogan, Sean MaGuire, Callum O'Dowda
Kenny will have an opportunity to put his two most exciting youngsters in the same team. Aaron Connolly has started upfront for Brighton regularly this year and played very well. He can be a lone striker but when he played for Kenny's under-21 team he mostly played on the left wing. He excelled with the ball out wide, although his willingness to track back wasn't always evident.
Connolly's work rate for Brighton has been excellent in a different role. Playing him on the left or right wing might be what's best for the team as a whole. Ireland don't have obvious options to start out wide.
Troy Parrott is another who could play out of position to maximize the quality on the field. Parrott is behind Jose Mourinho's chastity belt at Tottenham, following in the footsteps of many quality youngsters. He's also currently injured. But he figures to be healthy again come October and he was in Mick McCarthy's final squad. Despite his youth, he wasn't far away from breaking into Ireland's team before Kenny took over.
Parrott probably won't start but when he did start upfront against New Zealand, he was very impressive.
James McClean has played for Stephen Kenny before. McClean is a fan favourite because of his work rate but his touch is absent and his link-up play has never been good enough for Ireland. His style of play doesn't really fit with what Kenny wants to do. Robbie Brady is in the opposite situation.
Brady has dealt with injuries and poor club form over the last four years. He was once Ireland's star. He was reduced to a fringe squad player. If Brady proves his health in time, he should be a strong consideration to start again for Ireland. Southampton's Michael Obafemi is probably the more exciting option. Kenny noted this week that he's likely to be with the under-21 squad.
Callum O'Dowda, Sean MaGuire and Scott Hogan have all played on the wing for Ireland before. O'Dowda probably fits better than Hogan and MaGuire. Club form will determine their roles.
Strikers - David McGoldrick, Aaron Connolly, Shane Long, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah
David McGoldrick has proven his value for Ireland and Sheffield United over recent years. He's 32 but he's not reliant on his pace to be effective. McGoldrick is a target man who can hold up play and bring his teammates into the opposition half. His age will make him a good bridge to the next generation while helping those around him retain possession and build quality attacking platforms.
There isn't much argument for replacing McGoldrick. He's a Kenny type of player. Technically astute with outstanding awareness. He's not going to score a huge number of goals, he's similar to Roberto Firmino where his value comes within the context of the wider team success. That's not to say he's on Firmino's level.
Connolly has proven he can be a quality target man too. His deft touches have set up chances for his Brighton teammates this year. He's still developing physically and mentally so playing on the wing would be an easier starting point than leading the line on his own.
Shane Long is a different type of option to McGoldrick. As a first sub off the bench to attack space in behind the opposition, he still has a lot of value to Ireland.
If Parrott plays for Ireland this year, it's unlikely that he'll be leading the line upfront. He is an option there though, as he proved against New Zealand. It would take injuries to those ahead of him for that to happen though. Idah will need to make major strides over the coming months to force his way into the squad. He's had his moments for Norwich, but still looks like he's figuring out Premier League football. He may develop better with more frequent opportunities in the Championship next season.
As Kenny noted, there are a lot of players coming through for Ireland right now. He's not going to completely revamp the squad this year, but he can make a lot of changes before the trip to face Slovakia on October 8th. Those changes should significantly improve performances on the field.