Belfast Telegraph

Versatility giving Northern Ireland an edge in World Cup bid, says Jonny Evans


By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Jonny Evans believes that the team's flexibility with formations can prove a defining factor in the quest to make it to next year's World Cup finals.

In the successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, manager Michael O'Neill favoured four at the back but in the bid to reach Russia he has switched to a 3-5-2 system.

That was the case in Friday night's 1-0 friendly win over New Zealand when Evans played alongside veteran Aaron Hughes and rookie Tom Flanagan as Northern Ireland prepared for this weekend's vital World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan.

Evans is convinced that having the versatility to change things up can help maintain Northern Ireland's strong position in Group C. They are currently second and should they stay there, a play-off spot is virtually guaranteed.

"It's good that we have got that flexibility because sometimes it's needed at the highest level," said West Brom ace Evans.

"Playing four at the back or three as we did against New Zealand, Michael can change it quickly in a game to whatever suits us. It's only a little tweak in the formation.

"I enjoy playing in the three. Sometimes as one of the defenders at the side in a three it's quite a hard shift, there's a lot more running.

"When you're just playing as one of two centre-backs you get your full-backs to do the running for you.

"Sometimes you're involved in the game a lot more and can step higher up the pitch and I like being able to do that. The three allows me to push on a wee bit and have that little bit of responsibility playing higher up the pitch which I enjoy."

Evans is poised to play alongside Baggies team-mate Gareth McAuley in Baku on Saturday. With Watford's Craig Cathcart out, O'Neill must decide to revert to a back four or add 37-year-old Hughes or Flanagan to a three-man backline.

Former Manchester United star Evans insists either could step in for what is such an important match.

"You look at Hughesy winning his 105th cap against New Zealand. I don't think there will ever be an issue where Aaron can't come in and play," stated Evans.

"He's a bit like Gareth, he's very fit and he's got a great physique about him, great athleticism which is not really seen in people at that age.

"He's maintained that, works very hard and is one of the first players in the gym every day we go to training. He sets a good example to everyone else.

"As for Tom, I've been really impressed with him. He shows good composure on the ball and doesn't really panic which I like to see in defenders.

"On Friday he competed well because New Zealand's Chris Wood is a big lad and Tom is probably built a little bit more like myself on the skinny side.

"He had to be clever in his defending and I thought he did that really well, pushed in at the right times, passed the ball well and put in a really good performance."

Evans, captain for Friday night until Steven Davis came on in the second half, added that he was impressed by goalscorer Liam Boyce at the other end.

"A clean sheet is always nice but it was more important that we won the game. It was nice to see Boycey get his goal," said the 29-year-old defender.

"He's been looking really sharp in training. He's a very good finisher and we always know he's got that technical ability.

"He gives us that bit of composure up front when the ball goes to him.

"It would not have been nice to go into the Azerbaijan game on the back of a defeat so it was good to win against New Zealand.

"There were a few changes and it's difficult to get that rhythm but the application was there from the lads and hard work which is sometimes the most important thing.

"I'm sure we will sit down and analyse it and see where there are areas we can improve," added Evans, who admitted that his red card in Azerbaijan in the previous World Cup campaign proved to be a turning point for him at international level.

He is now one of Northern Ireland's most influential performers. The same could be said for Darren Fletcher and Scotland, who host England on Saturday.

Evans admitted he was disappointed that Fletcher moved on to Stoke City from West Brom on a free transfer in a two-year deal, but wished his old Manchester United team-mate well.

"I'm obviously disappointed from a personal level and also it's sad to see one of your best players leave. He's our captain as well. I wish him all the best," said Evans.

"I spoke to Darren quite a bit about the situation and I think it all boiled down to a fresh challenge for him and it was a football decision in the end. A lot of people will be talking about contracts and length of contracts but I don't think that was ever an issue for Darren. I think he just wanted to try something new and give it one last shot, a new challenge for him.

"I think he's very under-rated. He's only 33. He was a hugely important player for us, a real leader. I think Stoke fans will really appreciate him and I'm sure all the players will as well."

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