Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Slovenia: O'Neill's sharp tactical brain key to Euro finals joy

By Steven Beacom

Formations, systems, selections and tactics. All will occupy the sharp mind of manager Michael O'Neill between now and June 12 when Northern Ireland play the first European Championship match in the country's history.

Poland will be the opposition then in Nice. Rest assured O'Neill will have done his homework on Robert Lewandowski and co as well as Ukraine and World champions Germany, who Northern Ireland will also meet in the group stages in France.

To that end O'Neill will travel to Germany for their friendly at home to Italy tomorrow night.

International friendlies can often be about as exciting as sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed flight, but ahead of a tournament they are a means to an end.

Read more: Northern Ireland v Slovenia: Captain Steven Davis out to tear up record books

O'Neill was content with what he learned from Northern Ireland's first match of four this year before the real fun and games begin.

The 1-1 draw with Wales in Cardiff last Thursday was a fair result even if the home side's late equaliser from a penalty was contentious. While important to keep Northern Ireland's unbeaten run going, what mattered more to O'Neill was seeing how his players adapted to his gameplan or in the case of Cardiff, his gameplans.

The team started the friendly in a 3-5-2 formation and ended it with what the Northern Ireland boss labels 4-3-3, though when his team are defending it becomes 4-5-1.

Read more: Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill: England showed us how to beat Germans at Euro 2016

The second-half system was what O'Neill operated throughout a brilliant Euro qualifying campaign. The players looked more comfortable with it in Cardiff than the alternative, both in an attacking and defensive sense.

Debutant Conor Washington worked hard alongside Kyle Lafferty up front in the opening 45 minutes, but it wasn't until Jamie Ward had replaced the new man and was providing his usual energy on the right flank that Northern Ireland and their top goalscorer in qualifying started to look dangerous.

And when Lafferty is in the game, Northern Ireland are a different proposition for the opposition. Captain Steven Davis also became more prominent going forward after the break.

It was no coincidence that Craig Cathcart opened the scoring during a spell where the confidence and control of the visitors had noticeably increased.

Defensively there appeared greater solidity in the second period with a back four, though in fairness Wales didn't threaten too much in the first-half with Jonny Evans, alongside reliable duo Cathcart and Gareth McAuley, in defence and Paddy McNair in a holding midfield role impressing. When Evans is in form he reads the game so well. McNair, although not as experienced, has the same talent.

Canny O'Neill will have analysed Thursday's game and put it in the memory bank ahead of this evening's friendly at home to Slovenia.

In the build-up to France so far it is 1-0 to 4-3-3 (or 4-5-1) but if O'Neill thinks 3-5-2 is the way to go by the time the Euro finals come around, he'll find a way to use it. And the players will buy into whatever he proposes.

His formations, systems, selections and tactics have taken the team to the promised land already.

Nobody is going to start doubting him now.

Belfast Telegraph