EURO 2016: Five things we learned from Northern Ireland v Poland
Michael O'Neill began pondering possible Northern Irish changes after seeing them lose 1-0 to Poland in their Euro 2016 opener on Sunday.
While his team withstood most of the Polish pressure, Arkadiusz Milik’s winner left O’Neill heading back to Lyon contemplating what he needs to alter for the clash with Ukraine on Thursday.
Here are five things we learned from their first finals contest in 30 years at the Stade de Nice.
1. The system did not work
Rather than deploy a 5-3-2 or a 4-3-3, Northern Ireland shape-shifted again with a midfield diamond ahead of a back five and Kyle Lafferty in attack on his own. The hope was that skipper Steven Davis could restrict Grzegorz Krychowiak’s influence but too often early on they were exposed out wide. Paddy McNair, shuffled from the right side of the four to a number 10 role, never looked comfortable and was taken off at half-time and Oliver Norwood and Shane Ferguson lost Jakub Blaszczykowski between them for the goal. Meanwhile, Lafferty was starved of support and could not offer any outlet.
2. O’Neill’s men must cope with the grand stage
It was understandable that O’Neill’s side struggled to settle early on. The sense of occasion, three decades in the making for the country, would have been like nothing some of his XI had experienced. Conor McLaughlin’s last competitive game prior to this came against Crewe in front of just over 3,000 fans at Fleetwood. The Green and White Army now head from a 35,000-capacity stadium to an arena that houses 59,000. O’Neill’s team would be wise remove the environment from their minds and ignore the hype.
3. Steven Davis is key to their fortunes
While Lafferty’s seven goals in qualification were pivotal, and the three centre-backs represent a strong unit, captain Davis is the man who makes his country tick. He is an under-rated cog in Southampton’s midfield and his importance to his country is even greater. They ceded 60 per cent of possession to the Poles and failed to muster a single shot on target over the 90 minutes, mainly due to their poor ball retention. If those statistics are to improve in Lyon on Thursday, Davis must be heavily involved.
4. Conor Washington should be considered for the Ukraine game
Washington, a raw, bustling, pacy striker, has taken to international football like a duck to water. He bullied Slovenia’s defence for a brilliant solo goal on his home international debut in March and there was a hint of those qualities which frighten defenders when he almost conjured up an equaliser as a substitute against the Poles. The fear is he does not gel with Lafferty when the two are in tandem but Washington’s directness can be a crucial weapon for a side which may have to rely on counter-attacking football in Lyon.
5. Poland are more than just the Robert Lewandowski show
With a record-equalling 13 goals in qualifying and a haul of 48 in his past 56 games, Northern Ireland’s chief concern was stopping Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski. And they did; Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart ensured he did not get a sniff. However, the Poles were able to prove they are more than a one-man band and it is that which makes them a possible dark horse in France. Milik got the winner, Krychowiak ran the game from midfield and teenager Bartosz Kapustka dazzled out wide.