It is almost 11 weeks since the 2022 season ended with Derry City lifting the FAI Cup, and teams across the country will be anxious to get going as they seek their own versions of success this year.
Just one side in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division will go into 2023 with a new manager and the transfer window has not seen major activity thus far.
While many teams may look similar to what we saw finish the season in November, there are always hopes and concerns about who may improve or decline when the League of Ireland gets going again.
We have gone through each team and asked one question of them that may be key in determining whether they can achieve their goals this season.
Who will score the goals for Bohs?
The top scorer for Bohs in 2022 was Dawson Devoy with eight. That's the lowest for a Bohs top scorer since Ryan McEvoy had five in 2013 for a Gypsies team that finished one place above the dreaded drop zone.
However, Devoy will be in Milton Keynes rather than Phibsborough in 2023 with the next highest scorers now in Tallaght [Liam Burt, 7] and Fleetwood [Promise Omochere, 5] while Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe  was released.
That leaves a big hole to fill for a Gypsies team who scored 25% fewer goals than the previous season as they failed to replace Georgie Kelly.
In has come Dean Williams, described by Declan Devine as a "real poacher who will score important goals for us". Bohs will require him to score more than the six he had for Drogheda United last season, which included two penalties, and a 13-game drought to end the season.
Do Cork City have enough to survive?
The financial realities of relegation in 2020 forced Cork City to rebuild with a young squad in the First Division drawn largely from their successful youth academy.
Thirteen players who made at least 10 starts in 2022 had an average age of 23.15. That is younger than any Premier Division team this year apart from the ever-youthful UCD.
Three players will bring some experience with them in defenders Kevin O’Connor, Aly Gilchrist and Cian Coleman but the other 10 players to make at least 10 starts have a combined 47 matches of top-level experience.
They started their off-season shopping by adding Tunde Owolabi and his 59 appearances in the Premier Division but novice manager Colin Healy may be looking for more to help his fresh-faced squad survive a First Division return.
The loss of teenage talent Mark O'Mahony to Brighton and Hove Albion will also blunt their attacking edge.
Can Derry get more Brandywell goals?
Although Derry City finished second overall, they had just the fourth best home record. That wasn’t because they struggled to beat the lesser teams, they defeated the bottom two [UCD and Finn Harps] 15-3 on aggregate. But in games against the rest, they scored significantly fewer goals than their rivals and less than half what Shamrock Rovers accomplished.
|Home goals||Against UCD & Finn Harps||Against teams 1st to 8th|
Potential solutions may be there. Key signing Michael Duffy was restricted to just five Brandywell starts due to injury, and he scored in three of those [though twice were against the bottom two].
Colm Whelan has come in from UCD as another option or compliment to Jamie McGonigle. Although only Aidan Keena and Eoin Doyle scored more times than McGonigle  he took easily the most shots in the league 118 [next was Keena 104 followed by Liam Burt 78] resulting in an underperformance from his xG of 16.6.
Additional help in the attacking areas may help them bridge the gap to Shamrock Rovers.
Can Drogheda get off to faster starts?
If games were played over 45 minutes, Finn Harps would have survived in eighth and Drogheda United would have had to face Waterford in the relegation play-off. Drogs allowed the league’s highest 16% of all their conceded goals in the first 15 minutes. In six of their 16 losses they were behind early.
They were fortunate that they were able to grow into other games and finish strong - 35% of their goals scored [well above the league average 24%] were in the final 15 minutes of games earning them eight points in game’s closing stages. Kevin Doherty may have to examine pre-match routines to get his team out of the blocks faster.
Can Dundalk take their home form on the road?
Although Dundalk finished level on points with Derry City, where they earned those points were completely opposite with the Lilywhites picking up 10 more points at home.
That doesn’t tell the full story for Dundalk though; they had won nine in a row at home before finishing with just two wins from six. They flipped things around on the road with four of their six away wins coming in the final third of the season.
At the end of July, 74% of the goals they had scored were at home which would have been the second most over a full season in the summer era [after UCD 81% in 2006].
Even the final league table doesn’t tell the full story as what had been a 2-0 loss against Sligo Rovers was awarded as a 3-0 Dundalk win due to the home team fielding an ineligible player. Without that, they would have ended with 15 away goals, fewer than even bottom-placed Finn Harps.
Can Shamrock Rovers keep winning close games?
While grinding out narrow wins in tight games is often considered a trademark of champions, statistics usually show that teams who can pile up big wins against inferior opposition are the ones who go on to have success.
Shamrock Rovers have defied that over the last four years. The below shows how there can be more similarities drawn to John Caulfield’s Cork City from the past decade than Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk in how they have accumulated wins - though Cork won the title just once in those four years while Shamrock Rovers have taken it three times.
|Team (years)||Games||One-goal wins||1-0 wins|
|Shamrock Rovers (19-22)||126||39||26|
|Cork City (14-17)||132||41||25|
As a result of so many narrow wins, their goals scored per game compares unfavourably to other champions.
Last year’s 1.64 and 2022’s 1.69 are the lowest since the 2010 Shamrock Rovers champion team took the title scoring just 1.58 per game.
Over Dundalk’s five title wins they averaged 2.24. This was manifested mostly away from home last year where they registered the third-fewest away goals per game [1.22] and lowest away points per game total [1.61] of any summer era champion.
Can Shelbourne create more chances?
Shelbourne relied on spot-kicks for 23% of their league goals scored in 2022. That is the highest proportion since UCD had 28% in 2012.
Opponents might not be so generous with fouls in the box in 2023 so Damien Duff will want his team to create more chances for themselves. They enjoyed a decent share of possession [47.6%] for a bottom half team but didn’t convert that into shots with the league’s second lowest xG of 35.31 from the second-fewest shots taken .
Their passing accuracy [79.5%] was the league’s third best, so they perhaps weren’t willing or able enough to progress the ball forward. They were only ahead of UCD for passes into the final third and touches in the penalty box.
Shane Farrell had six assists, but no other Shels player had more than two. More help will be needed to supply Sean Boyd and his fellow strikers with the chances they deserve.
Can Sligo Rovers maintain a good start?
One of the big changes when the League of Ireland resumed after the Covid break in 2020 was the form of Sligo Rovers. They went from losing all four games at the start of the season to winning five of the first six after the resumption.
Similarly, they came out of the blocks with four wins and two draws to start 2021 top of the league. They kept that up to lead the table with 14 games played at the end of May by a point. But after a short mid-season break, they would only win seven of 22 games and had the seventh-best record over that period.
Again, in the most recent season they were unbeaten through the first six games giving them the league’s second-best record.
Following a late-March international break, it all fell apart again. In the next 11 games they took nine points, only better than UCD and Finn Harps, which saw Liam Buckley lose his job.
With champions Shamrock Rovers on week one in 2023, they may not be able to rely on a strong start to prop up their season this time.
|Team||February & March points in 20211 and 2022|
Can St Pat’s beat the big boys?
St Pat’s were very predictable in 2022. They beat the teams below them but struggled to turn over any of the top teams. After taking an early win against Shamrock Rovers, they didn’t win any of the next nine against the top three sides, losing six.
Purely on games against the rest, they would’ve been competing for the title, but they fell well short when facing a rival.
|Team||Points against the top four||Points against the rest|
The main cause for alarm will be in their inability to score goals in these 12 games. Their goals conceded per game did double but their goals scored for game went from 2.08 to 0.58.
They failed to score more than once until the 11th of the 12 games. Just two of Eoin Doyle’s 14 goals came against a team above them in the table.
How do UCD replace lost talent?
It is not an unfamiliar position for UCD to be in to have to find a way to dip into their pool of young talent to find a replacement for players taken away by the bigger clubs.
But if Cork City can do as well as Shelbourne after their promotion and avoid a relegation fight, there will be a big challenge for UCD. The Students chiefly survived due to their head-to-head record against relegation rivals Finn Harps where they took 10 from a possible 12 points.
Looking at those wins, the winning goals were scored by Liam Kerrigan, Evan Caffrey along with a double from Thomas Lonergan in a 3-1 away win to seal survival in late October. All three are no longer at the UCD Bowl and while there may be more young talent to fill their places, can they score critical goals in the key games of the season?
Will we see a title race?
Five seasons have been played since the change was made from a 12-team league to a 10-team structure with the intention of having a more professional and competitive league.
Despite the 2020 season being cut in half, enough time has passed to assess if it has achieved its aims. There are some metrics we can use to evaluate the competitiveness.
The percentage of drawn games has steadily increased over the last five years and for the last two has been above the average from the last five years with a 12-team league.
Just 37% of games have been won by more than a single goal across the last four seasons. It was higher than that for each of the six priors. Finally, the gap in points from the first-placed team to the tenth has been steadily on the decline.
|Year||Percentage of games drawn||Percentage of games won by +1 goal||Points gap from 1st to 10th|
|2020||21||41||37 (18-game season)|
This hasn’t led to closer races at the top or bottom of the table, with the average number of games left when the title has been won going up from 1.8 to 3.2 and the number of games when relegation was confirmed going from 1.2 to 2.4.
But the number of games remaining when Shamrock Rovers have clinched their three titles has gone from four to three to two.
Last year, Derry City and Dundalk with 1.83 points per game were much closer than 2021’s runners-up St Pat’s who had 1.72. The 1.83 of Dundalk in third place was the most for a team finishing in the bronze medal position since 2016, indicating there are two teams poised to make the jump into genuine title contention.
The FAI Cup also saw Shelbourne become the first team from below the top half of the league reach the final since 2014.
This will be just the fifth time we go into a league season with a three-time defending champion and only once before has three become four. But if Derry, Dundalk or anyone else want to be the ones to end the streak, they will have to provide good answers to the many questions this league will put to them along the way.