Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill hails his flexible friends

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill was satisfied with his players after they finished the year on a high with a 1-0 victory over Latvia at Windsor Park...doing so with a new formation.

Looking ahead to Euro 2016 O'Neill opted to play a three man defence of Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in last night's friendly with Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas in wing- back roles.

From a defensive point of view it worked with the home side rarely troubled, though they will face much sterner opposition in France, and going forward McLaughlin and Dallas provided options in attack.

It was also interesting to note that the system allowed Evans and Cathcart time to move into opposition territory, with the latter providing a brilliant cross for captain Steven Davis to score the winner in the second half.

Another to enjoy the 3-5-2 formation was Jamie Ward, playing behind Kyle Lafferty. He was a constant threat up front.

O'Neill said: "I was pleased with a lot of aspects of the performance. We changed the system and I thought the players adapted really well.

"Our final ball in the first half could have been better and we should have had more shots on target than we did.

"But I thought we controlled the game and it was good to be able to make the six changes and give minutes to players who haven't had more opportunities.

"The only thing was I thought the winning margin should have been greater than it was. I thought Dallas at left wing-back was excellent again, and McLaughlin at right wing-back was good. Jamie Ward was excellent in a central role too.

"In terms of playing three defenders at the back Jonny has had some experience playing in that system at Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal.

"Craig has probably played it more than any in his time at Watford. They played it quite a bit last season and toyed with it this season. Gareth to be honest hasn't. He has played in a traditional back four.

"I thought we looked really strong across the back three and the pleasing aspect was that the two wing-backs knew their roles. They were both strong defensively and gave us an outlet in the attacking sense.

"If it was a qualifier, I wouldn't have played the system, but it was a chance to experiment. Against the really top teams the extra defender does give you an extra bit of security.

"What it also allows you is two strikers up the pitch and be a real threat from a counter attacking point of view.

"We're at our best when we are counter attacking and when we go into the finals and we're playing the Pot 1 or Pot 2 teams, we may need to have that type of approach to take something from the game.

"We spent three days working on it and the focus of the players was excellent. In the attacking sense, we saw a lot of what we worked on during the week, so it is credit to the players that they were able to exercise that after only three days work."

When Northern Ireland fans reflect on 2015, they will think about it as the year that the team finally reached the promised land - a first major tournament since 1986.

It was important for the manager and the players to send the supporters away from Windsor with an even bigger spring in their step, having witnessed another win taking their unbeaten run in EIGHT games.

The last time Northern Ireland lost was in March against Scotland at Hampden.

It seems like a lifetime ago given all the heroics performed by O'Neill and his players since.

"The main thing was to win the game and get a level of performance.

"We have had a great year with some great results, and a great campaign. This is the last time we will see each other as a group until March and it is a good for everyone to go back to their clubs with a win.

"This is the same group of players that have tasted success.

"The players have to recognise what has got them here to this point, and the work rate and energy they have put in, and the belief and confidence they have as a team. It was important we maintained that and didn't let our performance dip."

There was also praise for goalscorer Davis.

O'Neill said: "His attitude to the game is the key, in terms of his work rate off the ball and his quality on the ball. It was a great ball from Craig and Steven is making a habit of popping up in the box. He's in a rich vein of form for his club so long may it continue for us."

Belfast Telegraph