One of the ‘must visits’ of Sarajevo is the tunnel built under the airport which was the only way out of the city during the four – year siege in the nineties. Northern Ireland may feel they are in a bit of a tunnel at the moment as they search for a way out of a barren land in search of goals and a dimmed fluency. This is perhaps a little on the unfair side as the manager slowly builds confidence and fluidity into a new Northern Ireland team girding its loins for 2020’s Euro Qualifying campaign which starts in six months.
Prior to this Central European joust, onlookers were shaken by a high tempo Northern Ireland side creating but not taking chances against Bosnia and doing the same with a better return against Israel. The question would be how this would shape up against Austria and Bosnia in their own lairs. It would be a big ask and indeed it surely was. I do believe Michael O’Neill when he says that he sees these games as his chance to bed these players in and work out what team will lead the charge in March. The team might be taking a few flesh wounds at the minute but the mainframe is still steady…..for the moment.
What have we learned? In Michael we trust but there were a few things that had fans talking? Jordan Jones was expected to at least get on the pitch at some point and Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson were in ahead of him at various points with Dallas on the right against Austria. He had an average outing in September and may not have shown up well in training. Through both games it seems Michael was very keen on providing a midfield that permitted full – backs McNair and Lewis to get forward. To a degree this worked. McNair especially against Austria showed up well offensively and likewise Lewis who provided Savage with one of his best Bosnian chances.
However I feel they absolutely need to nail down their defensive duties in this team. McNair can provide good delivery but not generally at speed. McNair, Lewis and Peacock – Farrell are the trio who are on the steepest learning curve in the team at the moment. All have been culpable in some of the goals conceded but now is really the time for them to erase all this from their game. ‘Now’ is a year’s worth of nine games and for that reason none should panic. You can feel some of the media getting a little strained as they try to keep a curb on getting excitable. Perhaps the liabilities of Lafferty have created a diversion.
Both Lewis and McNair are athletes and are ball – players. Both are young and are learning. Positional discipline and concentration need to be worked on however. The defence as a whole is just not as steady. Even before Jamal’s stumble for the first Bosnian goal Jonny Evans’ hesitation and wrong decision allowed the header to go behind him and he was slow to react to the building danger that followed. Likewise the mess in the middle of the pitch prior to the Austrian goal amongst two midfield players. However Arnautovic and Dzeko both were very cute in coming in from the left to inflict damage in both games. The goalkeeper is a tad pedestrian when he has the ball at his feet. He needs to work on his right foot and not draw attackers on to him when he dithers on his left. A poor clearance against Bosnia was very unnecessary.
Manager, team – mates and fans accept all this at the moment but it will be good to eradicate come the New Year. The team are certainly not enjoying much luck and that is before we mention the diminishing forward options on this trip. Nevertheless these last two games have cleared the air a bit as to where we stand. Hitting the post four times can be construed as bad luck or creating chances. If any of those had gone in there is a completely different narrative. They didn’t so there isn’t and indeed highlighted what real and instant quality is via the finishing of Dzeko and Arnautovic. The team’s shooting this year has been poor. Quality arguments aside it really needs to be better.
So many debates can rage about formations, tactics and team selection but so many things remain generally true in football and also with the Northern Ireland team. Sometimes you feel players not getting enough club time is not a problem as we have always had that issue though the eagerness they have to get playing for NI negates that. It is a concern at the minute. Steve Davis is not carrying the ball forward with the same aplomb and our reduced threat from set – pieces closes another offensive door. The team as well really must avoid dwelling on the ball in their own half. The team needs to be in absolute synchronicity with regard to mental outlook and ball movement. They simply cannot afford to be a bit off the pace as seemed against Austria in the first – half though I do think the power and physicality of Austria rattled the team a bit. Nevertheless, the slow and sloppy passing was grim.
Questions remain very much as to what works best up front and again, these games are perhaps sorting that out. It is generally felt that Lafferty is perhaps still our best outlet, present shenanigans and reduced recent output notwithstanding. Grigg certainly looks to be the sharpest tool in the box but the service to him has to be on the ground, accurate and in the box. Boyce had a very impressive time against Bosnia with his tidy feet and ability to make hay most of the time. As someone who can receive with his back to goal and Grigg offering the alternative there is a feeling that these two could well work together.
Our wide men are not famed for their accurate crossing ability and if we are not in a position to play two up front centrally, Dallas and Whyte have the fitness and speed to get in there beside the front man. O’Neill feels Gavin Whyte is not ready to start yet but I feel his pace and ability to get in the box is something we need urgently. Ollie Norwood’s suspension next month offers a chance to widen the midfield. Some have suggested trying Boyce in a withdrawn number ten role but this would be at the cost of width. He lacks speed but has strength and is holding the ball better further up the pitch.
Overall there should not be cause for undue concern. We have been here before but with much less resource, options or plan. The team still has belief in themselves and their manager and is a far cry from some Northern Ireland teams I have seen. Likewise the fans, who can see that gradual evolution has its moments and whose buoyancy was reflected in a twenty – five minute sing-song long after the final whistle in Sarajevo. David Byrne from the ‘Talking Heads’ famously and gloomily sang ‘same as it ever was’ from ‘Once in a Lifetime’.
You can’t really say that about this Northern Ireland team right now.