Northern Ireland host Germany in Belfast on Thursday night, with the hosts still having high hopes of a spot at World Cup 2018. Having reached the knockout stages at Euro 2016, they could well reach consecutive major tournaments for the first time in their history.
That’s impressive on its own, but it’s worth noting what dire straits they were in when Michael O’Neill arrived as manager in November 2011.
When he took the post, Norn Iron had won just once in the previous year. Along the way, they’d lost 4-1 to Estonia, 5-0 to the Republic of Ireland and finished second-bottom of their Euro 2012 Qualification group.
Their resurgence has been a gradual one, but right now, Northern Ireland look to have perhaps the best team unit they’ve ever had. There isn’t a ‘star name’ in the squad, but O’Neill has built something very special.
No longer over-reliant on Lafferty
Despite a largely impressive Qualification campaign to reach the last Euros, there was one concern around the future of Northern Ireland’s success.
That lay in their reliance on Kyle Lafferty for goals. The striker netted almost half of their goals over the 10 games, with several more coming from then-35-year-old Gareth McAuley. However, that issue has been well and truly rectified during their World Cup bid.
Ten different players have found the net for the Green and White Army this term, with the likes of Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis and Conor Washington emerging as genuine difference-makers in attacking areas.
Lafferty has continued to find the net, with a brace against San Marino and one in the 4-0 defeat of Azerbaijan. The difference now is that when he’s not firing on all cylinders, there’s plenty of others ready to step up and make the difference.
Defensive stalwarts building amazing sequence
If there’s any sort of clean sheet bonus for this Northern Ireland side, they’re likely to be raking it in right now. The Boys in Green have chalked up seven shutouts in their eight WCQ games, with only Die Mannschaft managing to breach their backline.
While O’Neill has changed his side around tactically (more on that later), his use of canny, experienced defensive campaigners like Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes has been the one constant.
The conversion of Chris Brunt as an auxiliary left-back has also worked well for O’Neill. His backline may not be the quickest in Europe, but their blend of class, pedigree and organisation more than makes up for that. As it stands, they have the joint-best defensive record in the entire of UEFA in this campaign.
Tactical nous has proved key
While the talented gaffer has received plenty of praise for bringing the very best out of workmanlike players, his tactical astuteness has flown under the radar.
Norn Iron have changed their set-up in virtually every WCQ game so far, to great effect. At home to the likes of Norway (4-2-3-1) and Czech Republic (4-3-3), their expansive, attacking style paid off against two decent sides with defensive weaknesses.
When they’ve faced a more physical test, such as away to Azerbaijan, they’ve tended to pack the centre of the park, with five midfielders deployed to win the battle. O’Neill knows when to get his side playing exciting, expansive football, as well as when to dig in and scrap for a victory.
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