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Ireland still trying to figure out their perfect blend

Down in the mixed zone of the Aviva Stadium, just after the Republic of Ireland had lost 2-0 against England, everybody looked drained.

Louise Quinn described the clash as “physically and mentally tough”; Eileen Gleeson said it was “a game of cat and mouse”; Denise O’Sullivan felt “exhausted”.

And little wonder. It’s been quite a week for the Girls in Green.

In the space of four days Ireland have taken on two of the top three-ranked teams in the world. Three goals conceded, no goals scored, zero points on the board but a tonne of lessons learned and enough positives to sustain morale ahead of May/June’s double-header against Sweden.

Last Friday, an effervescent France defeated Ireland 1-0, stretching Gleeson’s unit mercifully and relentlessly in front of a partisan crowd in Metz. Then came England, the reigning European champions, a star-studded squad supremely marshalled by Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman.

This is life at the top table for the Republic of Ireland. There’ll be no prisoners taken in a ridiculously tough Euro 2025 qualificiation group that at least offers the consolation prize of a guaranteed place in the play-offs, even if you finish bottom.

“This is the level that we’re at now,” O’Sullivan stressed. “We have to stay positive, we had a go at them but being without the ball for 90 minutes is mentally tiring. We’ll keep pushing on, we’ve a quick turnaround to camp in a few weeks.”

Ireland showed commendable spirit in both games having conceded soft early openers.

In France, they were one down after seven minutes and being absolutely bombarded by Herve Renard’s assortment of dynamic attackers. It looked like they’d collapse; but they hung tough.

Last night England were two to the good by 19 minutes and then missed a penalty to make it 3-0. Ireland staggered to half-time and slowly worked their way into the contest on the turnaround, enjoying some good moments in a rousing finish.

Now they need to figure out how to Frankenstein together all the good bits from the last two matches to create a performance good enough to get points on the board.

And this is where it might get tricky.

In the wake of Vera Pauw’s departure, a number of Ireland players spoke about their desire to play a more expansive, possession-based style of football. Pauw’s approach was extremely disciplined, rigid and defensive – particularly against stronger teams.

Gleeson got the job on a full-time basis off the back of swashbuckling UEFA Nations League campaign, with Ireland winning six games out of six, scoring 20 goals and conceding two.

But there’s a big difference between Albania and France; or England and Hungary.

The qualifiers were always going to require a pragmatic setup. Indeed Gleeson alluded to the difficulty she’s facing when it comes to finding the right balance when she said: “There’s consequences to everything that you do. If you drop off there’s consequences. You’re under a lot of pressure. If you push up, the ball in behind you might get you.”

Ireland did try to launch counters by playing through the French and the English. It largely didn’t work.

Gleeson opted for a five-player back line to keep things as tight as possible. That left four in the middle up against two fluid five-player midfields, loaded with technically excellent footballers. O’Sullivan covered enormous distances in both matches but struggled to get on the ball in the oppositions’ halves because they had more bodies in there. More often than not she got swallowed up and played around.

Ireland only started to trouble France, and particularly England, when they went direct – particularly once Megan Campbell came onto the pitch.

Campbell is a good defender, a capable player who offers a lot more than her long throw-in. But what a throw-in. It is a genuine game-changer for Ireland.

Within 20 seconds of her introduction against England she got the opportunity to fling one towards the visitors’ box. The hosts hadn’t really threatened at all up to that point, and then Campbell unleashed a missile that forced England into a panicked retreat. It instantly changed the energy inside the stadium; a sugar rush that got people off their seats.

Gleeson had tweaked a few things, bringing on the pacey Leanne Kiernan and encouraging her trio of centre-halves to play slightly higher up the pitch. But it was Campbell who had the biggest impact.

Ireland want to evolve and it’s important they do, but it would be foolish not to try and weave such an obvious strength into their style.

Wiegman unwittingly damned them with faint praise in the aftermath when she said: “I thought they played a little similar as they did at the World Cup.”

That’s probably not what Ireland want to hear right now, but it was not intended to be a sleight and it shouldn’t be interpreted as one. Gleeson’s team have huge heart. They’re extremely committed and – certainly against the stronger teams – look more comfortable when the game becomes a scrap, a battle for second balls and crosses into the box.

There’s a sweet spot between pragmatism and cuteness.

Campbell went long with her first three throw-ins. When she picked up the ball to take a fouth, England immediately dropped deep. Campbell sold them a pup, popping a short throw to Katie McCabe, who was ummarked in oceans of space. It was the only time all night that Ireland really caught England off guard.

There’s a way to be direct without being predictable, and Ireland look like they have the ingredients to be both. The challenge for Gleeson is to find the right blend.

Watch Shelbourne v Bohemians in the League of Ireland on Friday from 7.35pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow a live blog on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app


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