World Cup 2018: Northern Ireland rising under O’Neill’s Management

The rise of Northern Ireland since Michael O’Neill’s appointment in December 2011 has been remarkable. He inherited a team from his predecessor Nigel Worthington which ended the qualification campaign for Euro 2012 with four successive defeats.

As well as being beaten twice by Estonia, defeats to Italy and Serbia combined to leave Northern Ireland fifth in a six-team group. Thus, Worthington’s reign ended in disappointment, but that of Neill did not begin well either. He led his team to just a single victory from the 10 World Cup 2014 qualifying matches, as the Northern Irish once again ended a qualification campaign in fifth place.

michael oneill northern ireland

Despite the negative results, there were positives for O’Neill. Away draws against Portugal [1-1] and Israel [1-1], along with a 1-0 home victory over Russia, provided some hope and indicated there is potential for Northern Ireland’s fortunes to improve.

Although they amassed just seven points during their bid to reach World Cup 2014, Northern Ireland were given a rather decent draw for the Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Not required to face any of the strongest teams, such as France, Germany, Portugal or Spain, they took advantage of being placed in a winnable albeit competitive group.

By winning their first three qualifiers – as many as they had done in the two previous qualification campaigns – O’Neill’s side put themselves in a strong position to qualify for the finals.

After responding well to a 2-0 defeat to Romania by beating Finland 2-1 and avoiding defeat in their five remaining fixtures, Northern Ireland topped Group F to qualify automatically for Euro 2016.

The goals – seven in nine appearances – of Kyle Lafferty, were vital in helping them reach the ultimate objective of making Euro 2016. The great commitment of the players combined with the collective approach and team spirit, promoted by O’Neill, formed the foundation behind this team’s accomplishment. Each one of the attributes was again on display evidence in France during Euro 2016.

A 2-0 victory over Ukraine, courtesy of goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, sufficed to secure a place in the last 16. Unfortunately, the end was marked in the Round of 16 following a 1-0 to Wales.

Despite the defeat, O’Neill kept faith in the squad and decided to regroup. He firmly believed the players were dedicated and competitive enough to help the Northern Irish compete for a spot in World Cup 2018.

That decision is proving to be the correct one so far. With their fine Euro 2016 journey fresh in the memory, O’Neill’s players comfortably secured second place behind Germany, in a group also featuring the Czech Republic and Norway. Most of the key players ply their trade in the English Premier League or the English Football League Championship.

Northern Ireland

A defensively solid unit, with key members such as Michael McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, West Bromwich Albion duo Jonathan Evans and Gareth McAuley, has been instrumental in Northern Ireland keeping clean sheets in all but two matches in their qualifiers – both defeats world champions Germany.  On the attacking front, the responsibility of scoring goals was shared by several players, with Chris Brunt, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis and Jamie Ward, all having scored more than one goal.

Under O’Neill’s guidance, Northern Ireland have developed a good habit of defending well, whilst exploiting opportunities to score from set pieces. Their transition from the team which struggled badly in the Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 qualifying campaigns, into a team to be reckoned with has steadily evolved leading up to participating in Euro 2016.

Credit must be shared between the manager’s intelligent approach to focus on his squad’s best attributes while the players themselves have given their best on the pitch. The commitment of the players cannot be questioned. Will this be enough for Northern Ireland to overcome Switzerland and qualify for Russia 2018?

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Louis van Gaal outfoxed by old-fashioned counter-attacking football from West Brom

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Manchester United suffered their eighth defeat of the season this weekend at the hands of West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, and were forced to play an hour with 10 men too. Manager Louis van Gaal was beat by Albion head coach Tony Pulis and his standard counter attacking tactics.

By no means revolutionary, but nevertheless incredibly effective on the day, West Brom got the ball from defence to attack in quick fashion to catch the United defence off-guard, and the one time Albion got their passes right it paid off. Stretching the visitors on the break, West Brom got the ball wide, whipped in a firm ball to their target man Salomon Rondon, and the Albion striker took one touch before burying his chance on the volley.

The Baggies set up in a very typical 4-4-2 shape, defending deep and compact when not in possession, but getting their creative players on the ball as quickly as possible on the turnovers. United suffered a setback less than 30 minutes into the game after playmaker Juan Mata was sent off for two yellow cards minutes apart, and their rigid structure hampered their creativity against an organised Albion side.

With the strength and intelligence of target man Rondon, coupled with the pace of Saido Berahino, the Midlands side had two strikers perfectly complimenting each other. And with the trickery of Stephane Sessegnon out wide, the three attackers should have been giving the United defence a torrid time. However, Rondon was the only one making an impact which meant he was bearing the brunt of the work without much support.

He did get rewarded for his man-of-the-match display in the second-half with the winning goal, but Van Gaal was left to rue a poor performance from his side, as well as the man deficit. After the game, the Dutchman spoke a lot about Juan Mata’s dismissal, but he must also be disappointed with how his men struggled to break Albion down. Clear-cut chances came at a premium, and when Albion went ahead few though they would spurn the lead at home.

And while West Bromwich Albion have now all but secured their safety in the Premier League, the result could be catastrophic for Manchester United’s hopes of a top-four finish. Having played a game more than 4th-placed Manchester City, who are three points ahead of them, the Red Devils may well now have to settle for a Europa League spot.

Where did it all go wrong for Manchester United against West Brom on the weekend?