Throughout their opening Euro 2016 game against Poland, Northern Ireland defended like they attacked: Bodies in the box, like a pack of wildebeest migrating from one side to another, irrespective of whether they were taking on Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, or trying to feed one of their own attackers. Long balls were the norm, and barely half of them found their targets. Add to this the narrowness of the Northern Irish formation, and Poland’s full-backs and wingers had far greater freedom to move into dangerous positions in the final third.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s strategies were successful enough in getting them to the Euro championships, but they did have the good fortune of a weak group for their qualifying matches. On Sunday, O’Neill’s plan of holding fort, looking for the counter-attack and capitalising on dead ball situations came a cropper.
Aside from having an able midfield that feeds a lethal strike force, Poland have, in Kamil Glik and Michal Pazdan, a solid defensive pairing at their centre. And they got out of jail every time without even breaking a sweat, while Northern Ireland’s back three ended up losing possession frequently, especially for the better part of the second half.
That they ended up with zero shots on target after 90 minutes tells half the story. The other half of it can be explained by a key change in the Polish mindset that occurred at the half-time break. In the first 45 minutes, Poland’s wingers and full-backs fired in 23 crosses, getting just 3 past the first Northern Irish defender. Clearly, against a tall back three and at least five other bodies in the box, aerial balls were never going to work. The second half began with Jakub Blaszczykowski gently rolling a ball along the carpet, finding Arkadiusz Milik, who comfortably fired one home.
Common sense prevailed, and the second half saw just four more crosses drilled in by their wide men, and working the ball patiently into the box paid instant dividends.
Northern Ireland’s barricading approach meant that until after the 70th minute, they had forgotten how they got into the tournament — Kyle Lafferty, joint fourth highest goal scorer in the continent in qualifying, got close to no time on the ball. He ended up with just 15 touches, against Poland’s duo getting an average of 47 each. Aerial balls floated about pointlessly, most often into grateful Polish chests, and until Jonny Evans decided to take it upon himself late in the day, there was no inkling of adventure in their ranks.
Such gritty, defensive approaches often succeed, but come with the caveat that there is very little margin for error. Cathcart and McAuley, who were partnering Jonny Evans in the back three, gave away the ball far too often, and the scoreline was the result of Poland’s profligacy more than anything else. It is an aspect they must correct, if they are to threaten Germany again. More meaningful balls to Lewandowski, who ended a rare off-day without a shot, would be a start.