Mick McCarthy needs to get Ireland firing to beat Denmark

After October’s disappointing 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, Ireland remained in first place in their Euro 2020 qualifying group, albeit having played one more game than Denmark and two more than the Swiss. Despite their strong position, with the team’s form seemingly on a downward spiral Ireland coach Mick McCarthy has a job on his hands if Ireland are to defeat Denmark and secure qualification for next summer’s European Championships.

Hitting the target

The ‘goals for’ column represents a massive worry for McCarthy, with just six goals to Ireland’s name in seven games. Only Gibraltar have scored fewer in the group, and Ireland’s lack of potency in front of goal presents a problem heading into their crucial qualification decider against Denmark this month.

Goals haven’t been Ireland’s strong point in recent years, under Martin O’Neill and now McCarthy. A lack of creative options in the forward areas has meant that both managers have struggled to find a winning combination up front. The gradual decline and eventual retirement of Robbie Keane left Ireland without a talisman at the point of attack. Shane Long’s goals have dried up at club level, while Daryl Murphy failed to deliver the goods before retiring in 2016.

A lack of attacking firepower

McCarthy has favoured David McGoldrick as Ireland’s first-choice striker, but September’s strike against Switzerland was the 31-year-old’s first goal for the Boys in Green. In McGoldrick’s absence in Ireland’s last two games against Georgia and Switzerland, Luton Town striker James Collins led the line but struggled to make an impact. The pressure to deliver on the international stage is huge, and Ireland’s strikers have failed to reproduce their club form for their country.

This lack of goal-scoring proficiency is not just down to the frontmen. A dearth of creativity in deeper areas means McCarthy’s side struggle to create clear-cut chances. Players who provide a midfield spark for their club sides – the likes of Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick – seem somewhat inhibited when they pull on the green shirt.

The two October qualifiers showcased Ireland’s attacking deficiencies. They were toothless going forward, unable to make a killer pass or create chances. Tbilisi is a notoriously difficult place to go, but Ireland made it all too easy for the Georgian defence, with little link-up play between Collins and the midfield. The same problems were evident against the Swiss, and Ireland were found out against the group’s top seeds in another display of insipid, uninspired football.

This is most likely down to the system McCarthy employs, where structure and organisation are the top priorities. It’s been hard to argue with his tactics, as they have helped Ireland defy Euro 2020 latest odds to get into a position where qualification is still in their hands. But now his side needs to go out and beat Denmark, McCarthy’s lack of tactical fluidity could ultimately cost Ireland dearly.

Looking forward

One cause for optimism is the emergence of Brighton & Hove Albion’s Aaron Connolly onto the international scene. The 19-year-old from Galway made headlines with a stellar two-goal display in a 3-0 Premier League win over Tottenham Hotspur in October, and McCarthy was quick to get him involved with the international side. This youthful exuberance could be just what Ireland need in the Denmark game – a creative spark, free from inhibitions and able to express himself. Whether McCarthy trusts Connolly enough to name him in the starting eleven remains to be seen.

The haunting images of Ireland’s 5-1 home defeat to the Danes in the World Cup 2018 play-offs still linger in the minds of many members of the squad, and you could forgive McCarthy for wanting to keep things tight. On that dismal night O’Neill went gung-ho to try and salvage the game but ultimately Ireland suffered humiliation in Dublin. Lessons must be learned, and the clash at the Aviva Stadium is a chance for Ireland to shake off that disappointment and get one over on the Danes.

It’s up to McCarthy to motivate his troops ahead of the match and to work hard to get Ireland’s forward players working in tandem and creating chances. It is his last chance to reach a major tournament in the Irish dugout, as Stephen Kenny will be taking the reins after Euro 2020. The lacklustre performances given against Georgia and Switzerland won’t cut the mustard if Ireland are to beat Denmark. They will need to find inspiration from somewhere.