As a proud Irishman I grew up with the accepted belief that Ireland would never qualify for a World Cup or European Championships. We were always the bridesmaids and had many 'near things' without getting over the final hurdle and reaching a major finals.

It was well understood that we had quality players – Liam Brady was one of the great midfielders of the 1970s and early 1980s, Liverpool were generally the strongest club in Europe in the same era and had Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Jim Beglin and Michael Robinson in their ranks, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran were starters for Manchester United, Chris Hughton and Tony Galvin were starters at Tottenham, Kevin Sheedy (Everton )and Dave O’Leary (Arsenal) were too.

A lack of quality players was not our biggest problem. Dreadful refereeing cost us qualification for the 1982 World Cup Finals and France – who qualified at our expense – went all the way to the semi-finals. However, in the following campaigns Ireland dropped meekly short of qualifying for Euro 84 or the 1986 World Cup Finals.

Jack Charlton then entered the Irish scene and suddenly the results started to roll in. Pipping Bulgaria for a place in the 1988 European Championships Finals was the first domino knocked over in a golden run that saw the Boys in Green qualify for the Italia 90 and USA 94 World Cup tournaments.

But this success came at a price. Charlton was an exceptional coach and produced an Irish side that was extremely difficult to score against. The 1966 World Cup winner was very pragmatic in his preferred version of football and the passing style which Irish teams had always relied upon was cast aside.

While it is arguable that the quality of players Charlton had to work with may well have succeeded with a passing style, Charlton’s plans weren’t just based on having a dinosaur approach. After analysing the 1986 World Cup tournament he felt that a high pressure style would be very effective in international football. He saw that international teams were allowed play out from the back under no pressure and defenders were seldom forced to defend facing their own goals having been turned.

This high pressing approach was similar to what Arrigo Sacchi implemented with his legendary AC Milan side and it became the cornerstone of Charlton's Ireland team’s playing style. It worked and very good teams struggled to play Ireland. 

Two problems emerged in time - when Ireland conceded they generally drew as the Irish did not score a lot of goals and secondly if they faced a side that just bedded in and didn’t try to play, the Irish struggled to break those sides down.

As new players emerged including Denis Irwin and Roy Keane, Charlton’s teams did produce a more varied attacking approach but they seldom dominated possession and didn’t really try to do so. The end of the back pass to the goalkeeper also impacted as Ireland often launched their attacks with a length of the field punt by their No.1 Packie Bonner.

In due course this era eventually ended and Charlton was succeeded by his former captain Mick McCarthy, who produced an Irish side which blended the work-rate of the Charlton era with a more expansive playing style. The hard part was qualifying for tournaments – the break-up of Eastern Europe increased the size of UEFA and many of those new nations proved to be high class outfits.

McCarthy led the Irish to World Cup 2002 but left as manager later that year. The knock on effect of the failure to reach tournaments on a regular basis as his successors Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton dropped short in their respective qualifying campaigns saw the Football Association of Ireland's focus shift from playing style firmly towards results.

Enter Giovanni Trapattoni as Ireland boss and while Thierry Henry’s handball prevented Ireland from reaching World Cup 2010, Trap’s Irish side eventually reached Euro 2012. The pay off for the results was a return to a 1980s-type direct play but this time without a high defensive line and full-backs told not to join the attack.

Trapattoni’s Ireland was the best organised Irish side over a long period since the Charlton era but the style of play met its match at Euro 2012 when we consistently conceded possession to group rivals Croatia, Spain and Italy and lost all three games.

Martin O’Neill came in as manager in November 2013 with Roy Keane as his assistant. The results were reasonable – a better showing at Euro 2016 and an incredible home win over Germany in the qualifiers – but as qualification for World Cup 2018 ended very poorly the focus came very much on the playing style.

The reality was that the Irish team had now evolved into a side that seemed incapable of playing passing football of any sort. I delved into this topic and my analysis showed that not only were we not completing passes but we were also not even attempting them! See for more on this.

My research found that of the 55 UEFA nations in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland were amongst the very worst teams across a number of metrics.

When it came to completing passes, just Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar and Luxembourg rated worse than we did.

For average ATTEMPTS to pass to a team-mate, just Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar were worse than Ireland on average per game  and just seven countries had a worst average passing accuracy than Ireland with Malta and Moldova joining the five nations named above.

Many football people will dismiss these matters as not being relevant if the team is getting results. Unfortunately it wasn’t.

When I analysed the Irish side again in the UEFA Nations League qualifying rounds in 2018 Ireland had actually gotten worse for their attempted passes, completed passes and possession overall.

The reason why this is important is because of the correlation between attempted passes and attempts on goal. San Marino and Andorra were the only country that averaged less attempts on goal than Ireland in that campaign. In the UEFA Nations League qualifying campaign, there was a 0.74 correlation between the average attempted passes a team made and the average amount of shots they get on target.

While it is commonly stated in football that there is no right way to play the game, there clearly appears to be a strong statistical argument in favour of a more passing style of play in international football.

For Ireland fans, the return of Mick McCarthy as senior international team manager for the Euro 2020 qualifiers was generally seen as positive and it was clear very early on that his side appeared to have improved in several areas from the previous two years.

Under McCarthy the Irish now passed the ball a lot more than they had under O’Neill. They attempted 3453 passes in eight games compared with 3184 in 12 World Cup qualifiers and their average passes per game went up to 431.62 compared to 265.33. The average completed pass ratio was far higher as well – 337.37 passes compared with 208.5 in the World Cup qualifiers.

But just to show you how there is no magic formula for success in football, McCarthy’s side ended up scoring less goals an average 0.88 compared to 1.08 under O’Neill but they conceded a lot less 0.6 compared to 0.92 per game. It should also be borne in mind that O’Neill’s side shipped five goals at home to Denmark in the play-offs to skew those stats. 

Another interesting note is that despite playing a more attractive style of football, McCarthy’s side only averaged 0.25 more attempts on average per game (12.25 compared to 12.0) and averaged less on target per game (3.0 compared to 3.08).

To add a new twist to this story, McCarthy’s contract has now expired and he has been replaced by his preordained successor Stephen Kenny. In a peculiar move the FAI announced that Kenny would take charge in August 2020 regardless of how McCarthy’s side fared when McCarthy took the helm in November 2018.

McCarthy’s side finished third in their group but qualified for a play-off series involving a game against Slovakia away before hopefully progressing to meet the winners of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Northern Ireland. Due to Covid-19 those games have yet to take place.

Kenny’s appointment comes after some brilliant work in the League of Ireland with numerous clubs and he has always been associated with a dynamic style of playing with high energy, positive passing and creativity in attack.

He has managed the U21s since joining the FAI at the same time as McCarthy returned and the style of play Kenny's young Irish side produced was both exhilarating to watch and effective. They currently sit top of that table with three games left as Jim Crawford takes the U21 helm.

Attacking principles of play remained relevant in the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers. Just three of the top 20 sides with the most attempted passes in the qualifying campaign did not secure automatic qualification for the finals and of those sides only Greece failed to reach the play-offs.

It is also noteworthy that there was a 0.86 correlation between average attempts on goal and the average number of passes teams attempted in the Euro 2020 qualifiers and the correlation between average points per game and average passes attempted was 0.83. In international football it is still the case that the more you pass the ball, the higher the likelihood of creating chances and securing points from those fixtures.

Kenny’s approach is likely to see Ireland continue to rise up the ranks for most passes attempted and it is vital that this should result in more chances created. Ireland are now close to where they were way back when this piece began in the Charlton era in terms of defensive shape and Kenny’s side will most likely press with intensity.

Irish fans will be in seventh heaven if Kenny can start his reign with successful progress through the play-offs into Euro 2020 – which is now scheduled for June 2021! – as it would be just the seventh time they’d have reached a major finals tournament. Hopefully for us Irish fans, further progression in the attacking style under the new manager will result in more victories and more occasions to celebrate.

Stephen is a UEFA A Licensed Coach and Football Research Group (WIT) Member

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @futsalfinn

Thank you to the FAI for use of their photos


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