Northern Ireland’s home friendly matches are notoriously boring. Therefore last night’s 3-3 draw against Finland, which not only saw plenty of goalmouth action but was also played at a reasonable tempo, is attracting descriptions like ‘thriller’ and ‘classic’.
Hardly - but in new manager Michael O’Neill’s 3rd game, it was nice to see his players finally score some goals. Their previous two outings were 3-0 and 6-0 defeats against Norway and Holland.
Michael’s positive approach to the game, his openness with the press and his easy manner with players, are a refreshing change from his negative predecessor, Nigel Worthington. Although O’Neill must already be acutely aware that he faces a difficult task to produce respectable results. The Northern Ireland team he has inherited is rather short on quality, morale or ideas.
The new young manager wants to implement a fashionable, flexible tactical system nonetheless. To dip into technical jargon, it is best described as 4-3-3, although, when the team is being forced to defend, it can look more like a 4-5-1.
The key aspects are that it doesn’t include conventional wingers or a traditional pairing of centre-forwards up front. It does require the players to remain in a compact formation rather than being strung out loosely across the pitch, and it depends upon swift, accurate passing and quick, instinctive movement to break down opposition defences.
It would be wonderful to think that O’Neill can coach Northern Ireland to play this way, and it may even be fun watching him try (as it was for the first 20 minutes last night when his players gave it a darned good attempt). I wonder, though, whether there are not already signs that he’ll eventually be forced to abandon his favoured tactics.
For a start, the shape the team is currently adopting is anything but compact. Three crooked, incoherent lines of defenders, midfielders and attackers are ungracefully splayed out, with yawning gaps in between them.
Secondly, if a team is to maintain any width at all playing this system it needs its full-backs to be willing to push on up past the midfield on occasion. Last night Lee Hodson looked desperately reluctant to adopt this style, even though one foray saw him create a good opportunity for Kyle Lafferty to score, and Ryan McGivern was simply not prepared to give it a try at all.
Despite a good opening period for Northern Ireland, the football was not particularly pretty.
Any possession which was retained went sideways across the three unlovely lines (particularly the defence) and tended to break down when an attempt was made to advance, or interplay the ball between them. The team didn’t look like a tight unit. Yet there was also very little width, because the midfield and forward players were unwilling to go too far out unto the wings and Hodson and McGivern were reluctant to overlap and provide their midfielders with an extra option.
The outcome? Possession was often lost with some very hopeful and unrealistic straight balls over Kyle Lafferty’s head, which he was supposed to chase, but had no realistic chance of retrieving.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this lack of shape for Northern Ireland was that the defence was desperately exposed. Hence Finland, an average side, managed to add three goals to Holland’s 6 and Norway’s 3.
That defensive record is extremely worrying as Northern Ireland prepares to face Russia in Moscow in the first World Cup qualifier. Although we eventually claimed a draw last night, after a doubtful penalty, if Finland had won 6-2 it would not have been an unfair reflection of the balance of play.
The team simply has to be set up in a more compact fashion, if it is to avoid an embarrassing scoreline at Lokomotiv stadium. Then, of course, an away tie looms with Portugal. Terrifying.
Michael O’Neill did perform miracles at Shamrock Rovers, getting a limited set of players playing a tricky technical system and achieving excellent results. Who’s to say he can’t do the same at international level?
Unfortunately he won’t have the luxury of working daily with Northern Ireland, or even selecting the same personnel for each squad, so his opportunities to coach players in the intricacies of his strategy will be more limited.
Whoever was appointed Northern Ireland’s manager quickly had to come to terms with the limited available resources. Many of the players who contributed to memorable results during the Lawrie Sanchez era have retired, struggled with injuries or simply didn’t reach their full potential.
The international team is moving into one of those natural slumps which all countries as small as Northern Ireland are forced to suffer from time to time. Michael O’Neill’s job is either to manage that decline or deliver creditable results in spite of it.
He’ll need to be hard headed and pragmatic to do either. I wonder whether the first compromise may be to change his team’s tactics.