Vera Pauw loves a low block. It has served her well. The Republic of Ireland are going to the World Cup. A monumental achievement.
Here’s when reality bites. Qualification was the easy part. For Ireland to escape a group containing Australia, Canada and Nigeria, a difficult choice is needed – do we want to see an ambitious Irish side perform above themselves at their first major tournament or is the secure approach enough?
It’s not a trick question. Every successful team requires both traits, of course, but one must trump the other if reaching the knockout stages is a realistic goal.
Do we want Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan to run themselves into the ground while achieving three 0-0 draws – see low block – or can Ireland make a lasting statement Down Under this summer?
In a nutshell, McCabe and O’Sullivan need to be connected for any form of success to materialise because, make no mistake, if The Maltildas score early in Sydney on July 20th, they will waltz to victory.
Everybody hopes to see the women’s version of Italia ‘90 but we need to consider the growing potential of revisiting the Euros of 2012.
Older football heads will note the reopening of an old wound. This argument goes back to Eamon Dunphy craving style over Jack Charlton’s “put ‘em under pressure” approach.
The history of Irish sport will be rewritten either way. Victory at the World Cup automatically adds another city to Stuttgart, Genoa, East Rutherford and Lille, or early starts in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane could resemble how our men’s side suffered in Poznan and Gdansk.
Pauw has some crucial calls to make before two matches against the USA in April. Good luck getting a touch of the ball off the world champions in Texas and Missouri. By then, time’s up to develop a possession-based approach that allows McCabe and O’Sullivan guide Ireland into a momentous last-16 tie against England.
Last week’s 0-0 draw with China felt like the final wake-up call. Or maybe it’s a dose of reality. Perhaps we should lessen expectations to three competitive shifts in Australia. Stay safe and secure, offering respectability for the next generation to piggyback off.
I believe we should aim higher. The current approach leaves me cold. Capping players with Irish heritage five months out from a World Cup indicates poor medium to long-term planning.
Aoife Mannion is the exception that proves the rule. An instant success at age 27, she is a proper, ball-playing centre half who only missed out on England caps because of serious injury.
Point being, Pauw knew what Ireland was getting. But Mannion is another brick in the wall. Ideal for a low block.
The other pair, Deborah-Anne De La Harpe and Marissa Sheva, were unable to impress against China because Ireland failed to retain possession; because Katie and Denise were too far apart; because Megan Connolly was at centre half, and not in midfield; because of our obsession with keeping a clean sheet.
Parachuting new passport holders into the squad feels like an unnecessary risk that could upset morale among a group that trades on their unity of purpose. Picture the mindset of young Irish talent at League of Ireland clubs, who religiously attend Pauw’s home-based sessions in Abbotstown, when two foreign players with little pedigree suddenly appear on the scene.
The alternative is to double down on resources already to hand. Erin McLaughlin at Peamount and Shelbourne’s Jessie Stapleton spring to mind.
Another no brainer: the Ireland manager needs to accept that Heather Payne is not a lone striker.
Heather trained with us at Peamount United last year, during her off season from Florida State, and I don’t know a better dribbler in the country. She is fully equipped to play right wing back, the other procurable position in this team.
At the moment, Heather’s effectively a defender positioned up front. Kyra Crusa, on the other hand, is a proven goalscorer in the Danish league. She is well able to come short and hold up play.
Leanne Kiernan can also do the high pressing job, which would allow Heather stay wide, but Leanne’s baffling non-selection under Pauw and her ankle injury leaves the Liverpool forward in a race against time.
Time is something Ireland do not possess. What they do have is two world class operators at the peak of their powers. Against China, O’Sullivan was clearly coming out of preseason in North Carolina but McCabe’s body language worries me.
Maybe it’s her difficult situation at Arsenal or the changing dynamic of the Irish squad or how she is being utilised by Pauw. I suspect it is combination of all three.
Ireland needs Katie McCabe to be the eye of a storm that blows through Sydney on July 20th. Winning the World Cup is unrealistic, but ruining it for Australia and Canada is doable. But only if Katie and Denise are in touching distance of each other.
This is no Rubik’s cube conundrum. Job one: abandon the low block. Trust the three defenders plying their trade at Manchester United, Liverpool and Birmingham City – the club captained by Louise Quinn.
Quinn, Mannion and Niamh Fahey have the necessary experience to handle one or two attackers, especially if they are protected by a box-shaped midfield, with Lily Agg and Megan Connolly in dual holding roles.
Free McCabe and to a lesser extent O’Sullivan. Play them as a fluid number 10 and number 8. Let them exist in the pockets between midfield and attack, encouraging Katie to roam but with an intelligent footballer like Denise and target player like Kyra Carusa in proximity.
The Irish back five can and will be employed at a moment’s notice – Heather and Megan Campbell are reliable wing backs, but most importantly the manager needs to put the best players in their best positions and alleviate the current dependence on set pieces.
The alternative is to play for three draws. Abandoning possession to avoid humiliation is no way to approach a World Cup. Pauw knows this. She spoke last week about everyone wanting to play out “like Spain” but needing to evolve “gradually, step by step”.
Maybe so, but the amount of aimless balls, easily defended by the Chinese, exposes a side using a winger at centre forward (Payne), a quality midfielder struggling at centre half (Connolly) and Ireland’s lethal offensive weapon (McCabe) cutting a frustrated figure.
It begs the question: do the Republic of Ireland want to be ambitious or secure at their first World Cup? Because they cannot be both, not when it really matters.
Karen Duggan won 35 caps for Ireland between 2013-18. She currently captains Peamount United in the League of Ireland Premier Division.