Johnson shackled by the burden of Bale?
In Adam Bate’s brilliant breakdown of why Tottenham have signed Brennan Johnson, he wrote: “The history of Johnson’s career to date suggests that when a new challenge is put in front of him, he soon makes the step up.”
Well, a big challenge that faces him for Wales is stepping out of the shadows to fill the void left by Gareth Bale. A daunting task but one that hasn’t gone well so far.
Since Bale retired, Johnson has played 240 minutes for Wales but has failed to add to his record of two goals from his 22 international caps.
Playing up front, through the middle on your own for your country away in Latvia when anything but a win will do certainly is not what Johnson is used to. This is a player has made his name at Nottingham Forest as a dynamic wide forward, who earns his crust running in behind and terrorising full-backs. Being a focal point up against two bulky centre-backs can be a lonesome and bruising experience but Johnson adapted his game with plenty of intelligence in Riga.
All that was missing was his finishing touch. Perhaps weighed down with the expectation of following in the footsteps of a sporting icon, he tightened up in front goal, snatching at chances, and cut a frustrated figure as Wales toiled for large parts of their 2-0 win in Latvia. Johnson had five shots to a backdrop of 0.49-worth of expected goals but fluffed his lines with some wayward finishing that saw four of those efforts miss the target.
It wasn’t his night.
But writing off someone possessing his level of talent would be a foolish move. Wales have to play Croatia (h), Armenia (a) and Turkey (h) across their final three games as it’s all to play for in Group D.
Johnson will need to rise to that challenge. His country needs him.
Wrong place, wrong time for Kenny’s philosophy
Stephen Kenny is under pressure and deservedly so, but he must be commended for his bravery with Republic of Ireland’s style of play.
Netherlands didn’t know what hit them under Ireland’s intense pressing during a first half of huge hope for those packed into the Aviva Stadium praying this was lift off for their Euro 2024 hopes. The football on show was progressive and energetic. It was enjoyable to watch for large parts. But it did, ultimately, fall very flat once again.
However, Kenny is at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta with his foot firmly to the throttle. Ireland just don’t have the power of a Lamborghini to make Kenny’s style a winning one.
It’s a squad lacking woefully in key areas of the pitch. On three occasions in the first half during the 2-1 defeat, Ireland pressed their way into great goalscoring opportunities but a lack of belief, quality and killer instinct from Adam Idah and Chiedozie Ogbene, whose endeavour couldn’t be faulted, meant Ireland couldn’t cash in on their brave attacking style.
At the other end Shane Duffy was at fault for both goals, struggling to cope with Kenny’s desire to play a high line that comes with this aggressive strategy of play. Netherlands were always just one pass away from marching through on the Ireland goal. It was too easy for a side packed with such quality. And that’s the issue, Ireland are too easy to play against – and that needs to change. And that leaves the manager vulnerable.
Where is the next Northern Irish talent coming from?
Northern Ireland have only qualified once for a European Championship, back in 2016. But the Green and White Army, still in fine fettle as their side went down in Astana on Sunday to a fifth straight loss, must wait to dance at Europe’s top table for at least another qualification campaign.
A last-16 exit in France has proven to be the pinnacle of Michael O’Neill’s time in the dug-out, with his second spell yet to get off the ground. He returned to the job in December after the dismissal of Ian Baraclough, and has faced injuries to a string of senior players, severely testing the depths of Northern Ireland’s resources.
Any remaining hope of qualifying for next summer’s finals in Germany was effectively killed off by Thursday’s 4-2 loss in Slovenia – but fingers are now being pointed elsewhere after they were beaten 1-0 by Kazakhstan.
The problems run deeper, says former striker David Healy, who blamed “the structural failings” of the Irish Football Association for contributing to the side’s struggles on the pitch.
Healy claims the Irish FA had not delivered on promises to invest in infrastructure after O’Neill’s relative success during his first spell in charge.
Emerging stars Isaac Price, Shea Charles and Dan Ballard had all been nurtured by clubs in England rather than the Irish FA JD Academy.
Former captain Aaron Hughes was appointed as technical director last November to oversee development structures across the IFA, as well as recent investment in elite youth science support and elite youth physiotherapy.
In addition, 16 members of the 23-man squad selected by new under-21s manager Tommy Wright at the end of last month came through the JD Elite Player Development Programme.
It will take time for the next generation to blossom. As O’Neill says himself, it feels like Groundhog Day, but fans can only look at the bigger picture while he tries to mould a new team.