Northern Ireland must abandon fears

Taglines and hashtags are all the rage at this tournament.

Stadiums, buses, billboards and media guides have all been suitably adorned in the hope that these bon mots can be drilled into the collective subconscious and Northern Ireland’s ‘Dare to Dream’ offering is probably among the more easily digestible.

As catch-all marketing phrases go, it summarises well enough the task facing Michael O’Neill’s side and the bravura approach that everyone felt would be needed to build on an extraordinary qualifying campaign.

The reality last Monday against Poland was very different.

Far from grasping the moment in Nice, the North let it slip through their fingers. O’Neill overloaded on defence by fielding a back five and sentenced Kyle Lafferty, their chief attacking threat, to a night of loneliness and on his own.

They simply didn’t dare at all.

L’Equipe joked that a team with players including Michael McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, Gareth Macauley and Paddy McNair had simply ‘parked the McBus’. The dominant emotion among the players through the week has been regret.

“We pretty much froze on the spot,” said Lafferty.

Lafferty was speaking about the players but it was the manager’s responsibility to formulate the tactics, formation and team spirit required to optimise their chances. O’Neill set the tone and it was miles off-key.

With the world champions waiting in Paris next week, O’Neill has to take on board the lessons learned and land on a formula that can frustrate a Ukraine side that gave the Germans plenty to ponder.

In fairness, O’Neill did attempt to switch things around against the Poles and he has demonstrated time and again as Northern Ireland manager a willingness to switch formations.

“If you need to make a quick change or something is not going right, you can maybe jump from one to the other,” says veteran Aaron Hughes.

“It is about being adaptable. With Michael, one of his strengths and one of the reasons he is so good is that he is not afraid to make changes.

“He is very intelligent in that respect. We could set up and have the best preparation in the world and, 30-35 minutes in, it is just not going your way and something has to give. To be able to change a formation is quite a good thing to have for a team.”

Monday evening’s defeat demonstrated that the constant tinkering with a team’s DNA doesn’t always work and it wasn’t the first time that O’Neill got it wrong when one of his teams stepped up to a grand stage for the first time.

Five years ago, he erred tactically for Shamrock Rovers’ opening Europa League game against Rubin Kazan in Tallaght, setting up his team to face a Russian side whose expected approach proved markedly different on the night, and he paid the price with a 3-0 defeat.

O’Neill places great faith in the education he received managing Rovers against the likes of Kazan, Juventus, and Tottenham Hotspur in European competition. He once described it as the equivalent of 10 years of management experience in the UK.

And he has acknowledged that change is required in Lyon today. Players and tactics will likely be tweaked. More punch will be required up front and plans made for the expected threat out wide from the eastern Europeans.

It may be that he reverts to the 4-3-3 system that proved so fruitful in qualifying, but mentality will be equally important and O’Neill could do worse than prime his players to play as they did in qualifying and, indeed, as he did in his own playing career.

“He stood up and he was commanding,” said Roy Carroll, who played with him at Wigan. “He worked hard and that’s what he wants for his players with their performances. I don’t think we have the best possession in games, but we work hard and that’s what he was like as a player.”

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