On Saturday, Michael O’Neill announced his Northern Ireland squad for the finals of a major football tournament. Not a sentence I thought I’d ever have reason to write, which makes it even pettier that I’m going to have a (very minor) gripe at his selection.
While I have the utmost faith in O’Neill to organise and motivate his team at Euro 2016, in my opinion he has a slightly lop-sided panel from which to choose. Northern Ireland aren’t taking with them a recognised left full-back and the midfield looks rather threadbare too.
Throughout most of the qualifying matches, O’Neill deployed a conventional back four in defence, with re-purposed midfielder, Chris Brunt, on the left side. Unfortunately, the West Brom regular picked up a serious knee injury in March, which ruled him out of the finals tournament.
When Northern Ireland played Slovenia in a friendly, the manager picked Michael Smith, from Peterborough United, who can play in either full-back slot. The former Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United player showed promise, defending stoutly and displaying a willingness to get forward. Previously, Daniel Lafferty had a spell playing reasonably regularly at left-back for Northern Ireland.
Neither man has made O’Neill’s squad, yet, curiously, Lee Hodson, who plays almost exclusively at right-back, will travel to France.
It looks likely that Northern Ireland will line up against Poland, the Ukraine and Germany with a back three, rather than a back four. By opting for this formation, O’Neill solves the problem of accommodating three Premier League centre-backs, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, in his team. He can also, in theory, make do without dedicated full-backs, as the defence will be flanked by more forward thinking players.
In warm-up games, while Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair played on the right hand-side, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson, more commonly regarded as midfielders, started on the left. The results were good, culminating in a comfortable 3-0 win against Belarus on Friday night, but top level opposition could target the flanks as weak-spots for Northern Ireland.
Successful, settled teams rarely play three centre-backs nowadays. More frequently, the formation is used by managers trying to solve a particular tactical problem. O’Neill’s conundrum is that he has three or four quality central defenders, but less to choose from at full-back.
However, with this squad, his options will be rather limited if he decides to revert to a back four, or even to stifle a team like Germany by choosing five defenders. Realistically, a central player, like Jonny Evans or Craig Cathcart, would have to become a make-shift full-back.
Likewise, if Northern Ireland suffers an injury to a midfielder like Steven Davis or Oliver Norwood,
O’Neill will have less room for manoeuvre. Ben Reeves has played little football this season, but he would’ve been a natural back-up for those players. As it stands, Corry Evans excepted, the other squad members capable of playing centre-midfield are more defensively minded.
These quibbles aside, what a pleasure to be discussing a squad of Northern Ireland players bound for Euro 2016. Michael O’Neill knows better than anyone else who he needs in his team and how they should play. Still, in football, half the fun is in the discussion.
Come on Northern Ireland!