Republic of Ireland left-back selection dilemma

Enda Stevens picked up an early yellow card in The Republic of Ireland’s recent EURO 2020 qualifier vs Switzerland. This yellow card means that Stevens will be suspended for Ireland’s trip to Georgia next month. On one hand, it may prove a blessing in disguise that Stevens’ suspension will be served in the Georgia game.

Ireland’s following two games are likely to be the two most important games of the entire qualification campaign. The Boys in Green will travel to face the Swiss in Ireland’s penultimate qualification game, before Ireland’s familiar foe of late, Denmark, travel to the Aviva to contest what is likely to be a crucial EURO 2020 qualification decider. 


Regardless of the obvious importance of Ireland’s final two fixtures, Ireland can’t afford to look past the next game. Stevens has been one of the most impressive full-backs in the Premier League so far this season. It is an unfortunate truth that players of such quality are not in abundance in the Irish squad at present. His absence will undoubtedly be felt in the Irish backline. In an era when full-backs are becoming increasingly important in football, McCarthy will have some tough decisions to make about Stevens’ replacement for Ireland’s next competitive fixture. 


There is no shortage of viable options for Stevens’ potential replacement. There are a number of players who would jump at the first-team opportunity to start in the Georgia game. Matt Doherty is one glaring absentee in the current Ireland squad who could benefit from Stevens’ absence. 


Wolves’ Doherty was one of the best right-backs in the Premier League last season. Doherty has shone in Wolves’ wing-back system. It is unfortunate for Doherty, and for the Irish squad, that he and captain Seamus Coleman occupy the same position. On the bright side, they provide great depth at right-back. The negative, of course, is that manager Mick McCarthy is forced to leave one of the squad’s few real top quality players, out of the starting 11. 


Doherty is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s top 11 players at present. The Wolves wing-back’s form at club level should rightly be recognised with more international caps. With Ireland’s first choice left-back unavailable, this may be a great chance for Doherty to shine on the international stage. 


Though Doherty is a far better option on the right side of the pitch, he is not unaccustomed to playing on the left. One of Doherty’s few Ireland caps to date, came in the left-back position. Doherty’s experience at left-back goes beyond this, however. Between 2015 and 2017, he was Wolves’ first choice left-back, rather than right-back. Doherty accumulated 61 first team appearances at left-back in that time. He picked up an impressive 7 goals and 10 assists from left-back between the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons. With all of this experience, Doherty may not be such a mismatch for the position.


Ireland winger, and fan favourite, James McClean is another viable option which McCarthy will consider. Current Stoke City boss Nathan Jones has converted McClean to a full-back this season. The Potters currently sit at the bottom of the Championship, and are yet to pick up a win this season. As a result, this may not be the best advert for Jones’ experiments, or McClean’s quality at full-back. 


However, converting McClean to full-back has been one of the brightest aspects of Jones’ tenure in charge at Stoke. McClean’s performances have been up there with some of the best left-backs in the Championship this season. Especially in attack, McClean has been one of the few bright sparks in Stoke’s side. McClean is not a defender, and it will take time for him to become proficient in the position. However, aging wingers moving to full-back has been a trend in recent years. McClean may be the next winger to revitalise his career at full-back. 


There have been calls from pundits, along with many Irish fans, for McCarthy to utilise a system with 3 centre-backs. This system was successful vs Switzerland for the 10 minutes it was deployed. Ireland also have specialised players who are tailor made for this kind of system. Sheffield United’s John Egan is a specialised central defender in a back 3, who would thrive in this system. The suitability of such a system to the Irish squad also makes the argument for playing McClean in the position, in Stevens’ absence. McClean would have freedom to make use of his attacking quality with the security of three centre-backs. 


Another potential option for McCarthy to consider, is 23 year old Ryan Manning of QPR. A call-up for the Georgia fixture would give Manning his senior debut at international level. Despite his inexperience, the Galway man has been one of the Championship’s best left-backs, this season. Like McClean, Manning is naturally more of a winger than a full-back. However, he has been a revelation this season, picking up 2 assists from 6 games so far. 


Manning has been the more impressive Irish full-back in the Championship this season, performing in a QPR side who are currently sitting just outside the play-off places. If he keeps his form up for the next month, then Manning could very well, rightfully, be set to make his senior international debut in Georgia, next month. 


Another player, who is more of an outsider to start in the fixture, is Cyrus Christie. Christie has 23 international caps, and puts in a shift whenever he wears the green jersey. As well as that, Christie had a run of games at left-back for Coventry City in 2012. However, the right-back has not featured on the left since then. Given the other options available, it is unlikely that Christie will feature on the left vs Georgia. 


I don’t envy the Irish coaching staff on this occasion. With Enda Stevens, Ireland have a clear number one choice at left-back. After him, the position could be occupied by whoever is in form at present. McCarthy will undoubtedly have a tough decision to make next month. Ireland’s upcoming friendly vs Bulgaria this Tuesday may provide the boss with an opportunity to assess his options for the position before next month’s qualifier.


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