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Rishad Bharucha provides us with a detailed tactical breakdown in the Euro 2016 Round of 16 fixture that ended Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.
Wales (3-5-2): Hennessey; Davies, A. Williams, Chester; N. Taylor, Ramsey, Ledley, Allen, Gunter; Bale, Vokes
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): McGovern; J. Evans, Cathcart, McAuley, Hughes; Dallas, Norwood, C. Evans, S. Davis, Ward; Lafferty
The work begun by John Toshack was pushed forward by the late Gary Speed, and now Chris Coleman seems to be putting the final touches on a talented group of players. Wales have looked a calm and confident team so far, with two very good results for them against Slovakia and Russia sandwiched between a blip against England. Coleman said he felt that this blip would certainly not end the “journey” Wales were on, and when one observes the togetherness of the players on the field, it would take a difficult result to send them home.
Northern Ireland managed to concede a single goal to Wales and were looking to improve on a solid defensive but toothless offensive showing against the world champions Germany. This 1-0 defeat was enough to put them through to the last 16, but there were question marks over how they would fare against a hungry, young Welsh side.
The Welsh players stretched the field completely, with the full backs and wingers occupying the side lines like there was no other place they would rather be. When Wayne Hennessey played shorter goal kicks to his center backs and full backs, the Northern Ireland pressing certainly pushed them back. On occasions when they were able to move the ball back infield quickly enough, they managed to get the ball to one of Aaron Ramsey or Joe Allen who dropped deep to pull the strings.
Wales relied on crosses from the wingers, and early long cross field passes from the fullbacks at the edge of the final third. There was no constant switch of play and the quality of passing from Wales let them down for most of the game. There were direct long pass attempts to free Gareth Bale behind the striker, but he spent most of the game dropping back in his own half to receive the ball. Ramsey had a few good diagonal passes, including one in the second half to Sam Vokes which was a bit difficult to control in the time and space at his disposal.
There was a distinct change in approach from Northern Ireland in terms of their basic defensive organization. They pressed much more than they did against Germany, filled with belief that there was an opportunity to snatch in the final third. Lafferty led the line both in terms of offense and defense, as he and Ward pressed the Welsh back three to force mistakes when they dwelled on the ball too long. There were several occasions where the overall pressure was successful enough to force the ball back to Hennessey in goal.
The midfielders pressed Ramsey and Allen, denying them space and the opportunity to play forward. If a pass was played square, that was acceptable to Northern Ireland, but any passes directed forward were contained. This approach restricted the service from the back to Allen and Ramsey only had more of the ball than his teammate because he dropped back more often between the lines. From these positions Ramsey played long passes that were often intercepted by the Northern Ireland back four, with little to no pressure.
The Welsh occupied good spaces off the ball and struck a balance between pressing and dropping off. They did not press as high up as Northern Ireland, but were solid when it mattered. James Chester put in another solid display at the back and was at the right place at the right time for most of the game. Most of the midfielders dropped deep off the ball, to reduce the space for Northern Ireland when they were in possession. Gareth Bale often found himself back in his own half defending deep as well.
In midfield, the pressure was not high, but was primarily timed to ensure that the opposition offensive midfielders had less time on the ball. Northern Ireland posed some threat from the flanks, but the Welsh often had their fullbacks and wingers working together to contain this threat. With the lack of a mercurial talent on the wings for Northern Ireland, the Welsh often had the upperhand in this area of the field.
The lack of mercurial wingers did not, however, stop Northern Ireland from mixing up directness on the wings with combinations before attempting to find Lafferty in the middle. Ward floated inside from the right wing on many occasions to play behind Lafferty, and his shot in the second half to force a finger tip save off Hennessey was amongst Northern Ireland’s best chances of the game.
Another stark contrast from the game against Germany, was their composure on the ball in their own defensive half. Wales did not press with great intensity, but Northern Ireland were able to move the ball around and keep possession even with the pressure Wales were willing to apply. They were calm in these areas and were able to get the ball to the wings, which is where most of their attacks ultimately fell through.
The pressure of the occasion certainly contributed to a cagey game, and aside from the single own goal in the second half, the game was largely underwhelming in terms of technical quality. For the quality of personnel, Wales did not do enough with the ball and Northern Ireland looked the better team for large spells in the game. One moment of quality from Bale to put in a cross caused a cruel deflection off Gareth McAuley for the only goal, something Northern Ireland will certainly feel hard done by.
Written by Rishad Bharucha