With a squad of players picked largely from the English Football League, Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 as group winners. Now the manager has his heart set on escaping Group C in France.
Ladbrokes make the Green and White Army 2/1 outsiders to reach the knockout stages of the competition. Considering they’ve upset far bigger odds than that just to be taking part this summer, that price shouldn’t be too daunting.
What is scary about their trip across the Channel is their mini-league opponents. World champions Germany, Robert Lewandowski’s Polish prowess and an unknown quantity in Ukraine pose quite the threat to O’Neill’s men, but the 46-year-old seems unfazed.
“We will be looking to go into the final game against Germany with something to play for. I believe we can qualify for the second round,” the manager has said ahead of the tournament.
It’s a bold statement, but then those appear to be Northern Ireland’s way. Just look at how they announced their squad:
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) May 28, 2016
Cut through the motivational videos and the grand qualifying campaigns though and achieving summer ambitions will come down to the little things. What some might call the 1%-ers.
In that regard, O’Neill’s tactical decisions could well be key and, if the warm-up games are anything to go by, it seems the Portadown man is leaving no stone unturned.
If you can find clues from six different formations, then you’ve read too much Sherlock Holmes.
Having readily flicked between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 systems during qualifying, O’Neill donned his lab coat once France was booked, experimenting with another three formations.
Against both Wales and Slovenia in March, Northern Ireland set up in a 3-5-2, with Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans forming the back line.
Paddy McNair was pushed into central midfield with Oliver Norwood and Steven Davis, while Conor Washington, Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Ward rotated up front.
After going unbeaten in those matches, O’Neill then rolled out a 4-3-1-2 system in a 3-0 win over Belarus, before revealing 5-3-2 as another string to his bow in a goalless draw with Slovakia last time out.
No matter how Norn Iron set up to try and nullify their opponents, two men will be vital to the tactics.
Lafferty and Davis both played nine of the 10 games in the qualifying campaign and combined to score nine of the team’s 16 goals.
Lafferty bagged seven of those and has unsurprisingly been anointed Ladbrokes’ 7/2 favourite to be the side’s top scorer at the Euros.
However, he has been desperately short of game time away from international duty, logging just 369 minutes of first-team action at Norwich and in an end-of-season loan spell with Birmingham.
The support act Davis provides was vital before but, with Lafferty so ring rusty, the Southampton man’s importance will be dialled up further.
Of Northern Ireland’s 16 qualifying goals, six were headers.
When you factor in that centre-back McAuley scored three times during the campaign and Cathcart notched once, it becomes clear that dead-ball situations will be central to the Green and White Army’s attacking plans.
Scoring opportunities from open play against the likes of Germany and Poland are expected to be in short supply. Couple that with Lafferty’s lack of match practice and backing a defender in the country’s top scorer stakes looks a smart move.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.