What next for Ireland after nightmare Nations League start?

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James Cox
It wasn't the start to his Republic of Ireland reign that Stephen Kenny was dreaming about.

However, change takes time and the big game is away to Slovakia in October, something which Kenny pointed out after the 1-0 loss to Finland at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

The result, coupled with the 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia, prompted outrage from some whereas others argued Kenny will need a lot more time to put his mark on the team.

One thing we all agree on is that these results were not good enough.

Here we take a look at where Ireland need to improve, and the games to come next month.

Better communication in defence

One consistent factor with Ireland in the past has been a solid defence. The back four of Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan and Enda Stevens is probably the most assured area in the team (in terms of selection).

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The goals for Bulgaria and Finland came after schoolboy errors though. The Irish defence also gave up far too many chances against Finland, and were probably lucky to just concede one.

Duffy and Egan have been solid together in the past but they have acknowledged that more work needs to be put in.

Duffy, who recently joined Celtic on loan from Brighton, has revealed that Kenny's assistant Keith Andrews will facilitate Zoom calls between himself and Egan where they will try to work on their defensive partnership.

Doherty and Stevens didn't match their usual standards in the opening games either. Both have achieved huge success going forward in the Premier League but they have failed to transfer this to international level so far.

At times, Ireland were left open on both the right and left flank so for Doherty and Stevens it's about getting the balancing act right. Like the central defenders, they have some work to do in finding that balance.

Ireland have plenty of work to do before October.

Midfield

In both games, Ireland's midfield was far too open. In fairness, this is an area that Irish managers have often struggled with.

While it didn't transfer to results, Kenny made sure he got to see his main options in action. These will improve too with fitness and more game time, James McCarthy played his first international since 2016 against Bulgaria while Jayson Molumby made his debut against Finland.

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Harry Arter also returned from injury, so it will be about picking the best midfield three with these players and more regular choices like Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady.

Attacking options

After the defeat to Finland, Kenny spoke of the need to "increase our attacking options".

There was some positive play from Aaron Connolly and while Adam Idah was often isolated up front, he held the ball up well when given the chance.

Ireland need to improve going forward though and it wasn't ideal that David McGoldrick was only fit for a bit-part role against Finland. He will be crucial while Kenny may also consider the likes of Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Shane Long (who didn't feature from the bench).

Goal-scoring has been an issue for Ireland since Robbie Keane's retirement so a big presence at the top like McGoldrick is important in bringing others in to play.

Idah and Connolly will only improve though and the experience of these games can only help them.

Positives

Some may argue that it's hard to find positives from results like that. However, we saw an improved passing game and plenty of possession (63 per cent against Bulgaria, 52 per cent against Finland).

Possession does not win games and it's pointless to play possession football without results to back it up, however, getting on the ball more is something that Ireland fans have been crying out for for years.

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It's a good sign that Ireland are already getting on the ball more under Kenny. As he will well know, the results must follow but this could be a sign of things to come.

What's next?

Slovakia v Ireland, October 8th

This is the big one and the first two results will be forgotten if Ireland can get a huge win in Bratislava.

That would set up a play-off final against Bosnia or Northern Ireland for a place at the European Championship. Slovakia will be very tough opponents.

Slovakia have been struggling for form lately, with two defeats, two draws and a loss in their last five, albeit against tough opposition including Wales and the Czech Republic.

They're 31st in the FIFA world rankings, two places above the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland v Wales, October 11th - Finland v Ireland October, 14th

As tough as it will be, six points must be the target from these games.

The Nations League can be a backdoor to European Championship qualification but after Ireland's poor start, the focus needs to be on Slovakia. In terms of the Nations League, avoiding relegation from League B will be the main priority and Kenny will be hoping that a much improved Ireland will have a chance of doing this.

At the moment this looks to be between Ireland and Bulgaria but a victory over Wales in Dublin would throw Group 4 wide open and even offer a chance of a more positive finish.

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