Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 heroics 'built on team spirit'
Northern Ireland showed a 'strong team ethic, commitment to the cause, discipline and mental strength' during the Euro 2016 finals, according to a new Uefa technical report published by European football's governing body.
Focusing on the game plans of manager Michael O'Neill, the section on Northern Ireland detailed the tactics and strategies of the team, praising the side's set-pieces and the work-rate of captain Steven Davis and Corry Evans in midfield.
O'Neill's (below) men and the Green and White Army had the time of their lives in France during the summer when they qualified for the knockout stages of the tournament. In their group, Northern Ireland narrowly lost 1-0 to Poland and World champions Germany, but a famous 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Lyon saw them through to the knockout stages, where they were unfortunate to lose by a single goal to Wales.
The Uefa report, compiled by technical observers including former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Sunderland boss David Moyes, ex-Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner and French midfield great Alain Giresse, stated that O'Neill's default formation was 4-1-4-1, although against Poland and Wales it pointed out the manager used a 5-3-2 system.
It added there was an 'emphasis on compact defending and direct counter-attacking', 'good second ball support by central midfielders Davis and Evans' and 'very dangerous set-plays in attack based on aerial power' which led to Northern Ireland's first goal of the tournament versus Ukraine when Gareth McAuley powered home a header from Oliver Norwood's free-kick.
The report also stated that, when the ball was lost, there was 'immediate high pressing by middle to front players', 'conservative full-backs careful to deny counter-attacking players' and, when the ball was won in defence, there were 'frequent early passes to Davis and Evans'.
O'Neill and his players will be happy with the overall summary which read that Northern Ireland displayed a 'strong team ethic, commitment to the cause, discipline and mental strength'.
It won't surprise that skipper Davis was Northern Ireland's top passer with 104 during the tournament. Defender Jonny Evans, superb in France, was next on 93 with Norwood on 86. The most frequent pass came from Norwood to Davis, on 21 occasions.
Intriguingly, Northern Ireland had the highest percentage (28%) of long passes in the finals with Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland third on 21%.
Northern Ireland were second bottom of the 24 competing nations in terms of possession on 37%. Only Iceland, who reached the last eight by conquering England, were lower on 36%. Top of this particular table were Germany, who O'Neill's men face next month in the World Cup qualifiers, on 63%.
Northern Ireland were eighth in average distance covered per game with the Republic surprisingly bottom of the heap in this area. Portugal, winners of the tournament, were 11th.
In summarising Martin O'Neill's men, who like Northern Ireland reached the last 16 before losing to hosts France, Uefa's technical team described the Republic as having an 'outstanding work ethic, team spirit and never-say-die-attitude'.
The report added that key features of the Republic's tactics were a 'non-possession game with direct attacking rather than build-up from the back' and a 'strong, compact defensive block and aerial power in defence and attack'.
There was individual praise for full-back Seamus Coleman plus midfielders Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick.
There were, as you would expect, compliments from Uefa for Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales, who were considered a 'well organised unit built on resolute defence, endeavour and team spirit'.
More surprising was the positive report given to England, who were described as a 'youthful, committed, energetic team with technique in all departments'.
Those qualities certainly weren't on show in their shock loss to Iceland in the first knockout phase, which led to the resignation of boss Roy Hodgson.
Northern Ireland had the highest percentage of long passes out of every team at Euro 2016