It is fair to say many more serious political and military events have occurred in Sarajevo and Vienna down the years than the forthcoming European Nations’ League confrontations between Northern Ireland, Austria and Bosnia. The Austro – Hungarian Empire held some sway and Gavrilo Princip certainly upset the applecart somewhat in 1914 shooting the nearest Archduke at hand.
Whilst Vienna, like its image and ambience has had a more subtle and reserved aura primarily through its post-war espionage era, Sarajevo’s has been more overt and violent especially in 1914 and more recently the nineties. Just how the cities will deal with Northern Ireland’s new green fury should be interesting. Archduke Michael O’Neill brings his post – Euro green and white hussars determined to knock a few Lippizaners out of their stride.
Northern Ireland fans will be very interested watching their team play again primarily to see if the football they served up in September against Bosnia and Israel was not some sort of mirage. As front – foot and creative as many had ever seen them play, it was not what anyone expected from a Northern Ireland side. Yet again it showed that in manager Michael O’Neill, the team and fans have a manager that is permanently thinking on his feet and never wasting a minute to maintain upward motion. The juggernaut has been rumbling for a while now. Four years ago this month the team were winning away to Greece and beating the Faroes at home to maintain a 100% start to the Euro ‘16 qualifiers. The party hasn’t stopped.
More recently the big questions were would that be it as the players slowly dropped off. Not only has the manager unearthed and incorporated new players into the side he now has them throwing NI international footballing culture on its head by constructive, high – tempo power football. Heavy metal football? It is certainly Alternative Ulster. It will be fascinating to see how long we run with this. This is not the usual Northern Irish ‘hassle and hope for a set- piece’ stuff we have been weaned on. For me it shows a manager apart who has the balls to look at what he has at his disposal, believe in them to execute a plan and give them the freedom to do it.
Northern Ireland for once is ‘offensive – heavy’ in its international footballing personnel. Instead of being packed with defenders and harrying, functional midfielders the team has a plethora of front six players on and off the pitch who are capable of moving the ball forward…in various different ways. Up front, there are five players fighting for the probable lone striker slot each with different qualities to offer. The team is certainly not some free-flowing goal machine but in the last two games, they played like they were.
The integration of George Saville into midfield has allowed this transformation more than anything else. Ultra – fit and comfortable on the ball he is the burning coal that has allowed Davis and Norwood to play with more freedom and confidence. An absolute powerhouse he has lit a few fuses. Stuart Dallas put in two performance lung- burners that earned him two man of the match awards. Yes, in the Bosnia game a few crosses were a bit inaccurate but the problems he gave the opposition through running and outlet had people rubbing their eyes. McGinn likewise played in a way we hadn’t seen for a while and when you throw in other options there like Gavin Whyte and Josh Magennis you can see how power and pace are being maximised in the Northern Ireland team.
It can be reasonably argued this is modern British football but I would say many nuances of British football have bypassed the Northern Ireland side over the years – the brute long ball to Derek Dougan, Iain Dowie, Billy Hamilton, James/Jimmy Quinn and Kyle Lafferty remaining defiantly aloof to all that. Pick any decade you like. The team has the players now and in the light of technical deficiencies, physical and athletic domination is not something we can dismiss. The full-back situation illustrates this well. Chris Brunt and Conor McGlaughlin were and are decent fullbacks but you can see why O’Neill is looking at the Lewis / McNair combination.
Lewis, still young is one very comfortable hombre on the ball and he shows huge athletic ability to get up and down the left flank. McNair likewise though to my mind is not a natural fullback but is also comfortable on the ball but provides a height and physical presence that probably we cannot do without. Whilst he dived in a few times and was lucky not to be booked, he ripped a few trees up in the Israel game and at times it was a fairly threadbare Garden of Gethsemane once he got going down the right flank. It is, however, the full-back area that fans and even the manager will have to be patient with as this is where I feel we are vulnerable. The pressing of the team further up the pitch puts huge mental and physical pressure on them. The goals in the Bosnia game highlighted this.
For a while now I have felt the full-backs have been too narrow. Last year against Germany Brunt was always moving a tad late out to threats from the wing. Last month I remember alarm at the ease with which the ball was moved out to the Bosnian left for their first goal never mind the inability to prevent the ball coming in. In the box, Lewis needed to cover the run of his man better or at least alert his colleagues from his position. Yes, the second goal was a howler between Cathcart and Peacock-Farrell but it had a lot to do with playing further up the pitch and the subsequent greater gaps behind. Still, that is what these games are for.
Austria might be a difficult nut to crack having had some very respectable victories this year against Sweden, Russia and Germany but the defeat to Bosnia was a dampener. O’Neill has picked a large squad as with three days in between the matches and a few not playing regularly for their clubs, skilled management will be required for player game-time. Austria’s Arnautovic certainly is a consideration if he plays as he again is a very modern type of threat. Speed, power and finishing he has in abundance but then again if Northern Ireland prevent him getting any decent ball he should be well maintained.
Our own lapses in concentration against Bosnia caused our downfall but they could well be a different beast in Sarajevo. As mentioned it will be very interesting to see how O’Neill sets up against both teams but I would remain hopeful that Northern Ireland should gain something from the two games. It is hoped that the last game next month v Austria does not become a dead rubber. He and the team should have enough confidence gleaned from the last two games to achieve this.