As Ireland slumped to a limp and late defeat at the hands of a Norwegian second string, there was a glaring issue that was additional to the laboured performance.
Stephen Kenny’s side set up with what has become a predictable 5–3–2 formation and safe lineup. Ireland passed away and kept the game ticking over in a basic and controlled fashion. This perhaps contributed kindly to the 56% possession stat in favour of Kenny’s men and to their credit, 5 shots on target compared to Norways three, two of which they scored.
The Irish passing however, lacked any real purpose other than retaining possession in and around their own half. This was generally amongst the back three or the most simple and cautious 5 yard passes by the midfield three who showed absolutely no craft, penetration or progression in the play.
Ireland were undone by two defensive lapses and run ragged in midfield by a slick Norwegian side depleted by injury. Alan Browne’s screamer of a goal was really the only positive talking point of the night along with Evan Ferguson’s debut who has a huge future in the game.
The performance and result aside, the lack of willingness for Stephen Kenny to experiment was criminal. This was evidential as far back as last weeks squad announcement when form fringe players like Ryan Manning and Sammie Szmodics and youngsters such as Conor Coventry and Connor Ronan were missing from the list.
Kenny cited the Norway game as perfect preparation for France. What he got was a weakened Norwegian side who diluted their own momentum during the game by making a plethora of substitutions. This will not be the case for the French game. Friendlies don’t come around that often anymore and it is paramount that they are used in the broadest way possible.
Norway boss Stale Solbakken did exactly what Kenny should have and tested his depth in a game that lacked any intensity. Given Norway’s superior quality of depth to Ireland, Solbakken fully utilised and experimented. This makes it is baffling that Kenny who has a much smaller and inferior pool opted for the tried, tested and not necessarily trust worthy.
This would have been the perfect opportunity to see if Will Smallbone can actually offer that bit of technical nuance that Ireland lack and give him that bit of senior experience that he has earned after a successful apprenticeship at under-21 level. Instead Jeff Hendrick was introduced to the audible sound of groans around Lansdowne Road.
It was an ideal window to try out the in form Manning and Szmodics who offer much needed depth in their positions. Although Coventry and Ronan are lacking first team minutes, Kenny still afforded Evan Ferguson who has even less game time, his debut in a position where we Ireland are well stocked compared to midfield. The logic is hard to grasp.
Not many would have backed Ireland against Norway anyway nor would they have remembered the result for long. It would have served Kenny better to lose experimenting with some new players and assess his alternative options. Instead he learned absolutely nothing while overseeing a shocking performance and losing in the process. That in itself is poor management.
Kenny has the opportunity for experimentation against lowly Malta but could feel the pressure to end the international window on a high and go for another low risk approach. He has already sold himself short with the exclusion of certain players in the squad but could do himself absolutely no harm by giving the likes of Smallbone and Ferguson a start to analyse his alternatives for the upcoming qualifiers.