Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

The recovery has to start now: 6 things Northern Ireland must do to turn it around

Ups and downs: Martin Paterson's winner against the Russians was the highlight of a grim campaign.
Ups and downs: Martin Paterson's winner against the Russians was the highlight of a grim campaign.
Ups and downs: But it was heartbreak for Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan
Ups and downs: But it was heartbreak for Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan

As Michael O'Neill reflects on the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, he will stare at the Group F table and ask himself: Why?

Why is it that Northern Ireland can beat Russia at Windsor Park and draw in Portugal and in Israel yet fail to defeat both Azerbaijan and Luxembourg on home turf and lose to the pair of them on the road?

He must provide answers before the 2016 European Championship games get under way next year.

Northern Ireland bosses before him have tried and failed to come up with solutions to this ongoing problem – even the most successful of them all Billy Bingham had some poor results when his side were expected to win, though more often than not he got it right.

Now O'Neill has to do the same.

One awful result in a campaign may be acceptable, but not FOUR, as was the case this time around, which led to the team finishing in fifth spot.

Those 1-1 draws at Windsor against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan were dreadful, though the defeats in the reverse fixtures were even worse, especially because O'Neill's team are capable of so much better.

They proved it by defeating Russia and earning a point in Portugal earlier in the campaign.

You wonder if the contrast in performances was because the teams that played on the glory nights were dramatically different to those which took to the field when it all ended miserably.

Well, while there were switches to the starting line-ups, and a degree of transition as the campaign wore on, there weren't enough changes to say that the sides that played against Russia and Portugal were far superior to those who kicked-off in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

It is worth pointing out though that Aaron Hughes was the only man who played in both heroic displays and did not feature in the two shocking defeats.

Under O'Neill, Hughes has played mostly at right-back since reversing his decision to retire from international football. Though better suited to central defence these days, wherever he plays he is a calming influence on those around him.

That was missed in Luxembourg and Baku as the team lost control, shape and discipline.

There are suggestions that Fulham defender Hughes, 34 next month, may retire again. O'Neill should try to keep him interested for the Euro qualifiers because his experience remains vital.

The same goes for Gareth McAuley. The 33-year-old WBA hero has been Northern Ireland's best player in the World Cup fixtures.

One

Step One then for O'Neill – persuade McAuley and Hughes to stay on.

In turn that will hopefully help improve the team's defensive record.

In 10 qualifiers, Northern Ireland conceded 17 goals and kept only ONE clean sheet. That's surprising given the Premier League quality of Hughes, McAuley and Jonny Evans, but the defence was an area which rarely had a settled line-up.

So many of the goals conceded in this campaign were down to basic errors and a failure to track opposition players. Azerbaijan's first goal in Baku was a perfect example. Four Azerbaijan players were involved in a move that lasted 14 seconds from their penalty box to ours, yet no challenge was made by a Northern Ireland player!

It's not only the back four – or back three as it was then – at fault for these goals. The midfielders and strikers must do their bit and work harder when they don't have the ball.

Another telling element to the woes of the side is the number of goals shipped in the final quarter of games. Out of 17 opposition goals, amazingly 11 came from the 68th minute on.

That suggests as time ticks by, concentration levels decrease and possibly even fitness.

Two

Step Two for O'Neill – ensure all players are focused on their defensive responsibilities from the first minute to the last.

At the other end of the pitch, Northern Ireland scored nine goals.

They must aim higher and it's not as if they haven't created the chances to do so.

All the players have to deliver on this score, in particular strikers.

Martin Paterson has improved in this campaign, but he still needs to be more clinical.

Ditto Kyle Lafferty, when he plays. Lafferty, who is supposed to be our top forward, did not score in the World Cup qualifiers.

Three

Step Three for O'Neill – get the strikers firing on all cylinders.

It would be wrong to call Northern Ireland a dirty team – and the fact they conceded the fewest fouls in the group bears that out – but there is clearly indiscipline in the ranks because they collected more bookings in this campaign than all their opponents plus three needless red cards with Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans the guilty parties.

O'Neill has talked about his limited numbers to choose from. That's not helped when so many players are suspended.

Four

Step Four for O'Neill – crack the whip on discipline.

And now we're back where we started with Northern Ireland able to perform against top sides but failing when faced with the lesser lights. Mentally the players have to be stronger, and although some may be against the idea, O'Neill should seriously consider bringing in a psychologist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's easy to shine as an underdog with no pressure, but make us favourites and we wilt. If that attitude changes, so will results.

Five

Step five for O'Neill – get inside the players' heads and motivate them to have the same positive attitude in every game.

Six

Last but not least Step Six is for Michael, with the IFA intent on extending his contract, to analyse his own performance over the campaign.

He wants his team to play attractive football, which is laudable, but on occasion getting the ball into the box as quickly as possible a la Lawrie Sanchez can work too.

Tactically O'Neill excelled against Russia, Portugal and in Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Israel, so there is ability there but like it or not he's made mistakes too. He'll learn from the last two years and will be better for the experience. The hope is the Northern Ireland team will benefit from that.

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