Poland v Northern Ireland Match Analysis

It's been thirty years to the day since Northern Ireland limped out of their last international football tournament, thanks to a three nil drubbing at the hands of Brazil in Guadalajara during Mexico '86. The road back to prominence in world football for this tiny nation has been long and arduous, largely due to a lack of real quality footballers to build a team around. Michael O'Neill has found a way to deal with this problem by instilling a tireless work ethic into his team of solid, dependable footballers, and it's this willingness to work hard that makes the team in green so hard to beat.
United fans were pleasantly surprised to see Paddy McNair in the starting eleven, and it's always good to see ex-reds and academy graduates gracing the stage at elite level.

 The pattern of the first half was set in the first minute, with Northern Ireland surrendering possession and allowing Poland to spread the ball around, testing their defensive resolve. The gulf in class between the two teams was obvious, and forced Northern Ireland into playing an ultra defensive formation, which made for an absorbing contest, albeit low on goal scoring opportunities.

The best moments for Poland came when their full backs went on the overlap and got in behind, although some strong tackling and good closing down kept the clear cut chances to a minimum. One particularly stern challenge by Jonny Evans on Blaszczykowski epitomized the level of commitment by the Northern Irish defence to extend their 12 game unbeaten run.
The focus on stifling Poland's top scorer, Robert Lewandowski, meant that he had to spend more time dropping off and moving into wide areas than he perhaps is used to, which gave his strike partner, Arkadiusz Milik, more space in which to operate. This resulted in Poland's best opportunity of the half, when a cutback from Piszczek found the Ajax striker, but off balance and under pressure he blasted wide.

As the game wore on, Poland became more frustrated and Northern Ireland seemed to grow in confidence, however the few hopeful punts downfield to a completely isolated Kyle Lafferty offered no attacking threat, so the half ended all square. 

O'Neill made a tactical change at half time, with Dallas replacing McNair (who had been ineffective in an unfamiliar role) and switching from a back five to a back four in an attempt to bolster the midfield and offer some support to his lone striker. Naturally, this trade off left a little bit more space in which the Polish forwards could operate, and after five minutes of the half they found a way through Northern Ireland's previously resolute defence.

When the ball broke to Maczynski, ten yards from the Northern Ireland box, he threaded a lovely pass to Blaszczykowski down the outside right channel, the winger then played a simple ball to the on rushing Milik who beat the keeper with a fine left foot finish from just inside the area. With forty minutes left on the clock, and now a goal down, Michael O'Neill had little option but to make changes and try to force a way back into the game. So he brought on two more attack minded substitutes, reshuffled his defence, and tried to take the game to the Poles.

Unfortunately, the lack of quality attacking players at his disposal meant that, despite pressing further forward and pressurizing the Polish defence, none of the substitutions he made caused any real threat to the Szczesny's goal. Poland, sensing that the game was already won, took their foot off the pedal and saw out the game without taking any risks. With two more group games against classier opponents, you can't blame the Poles for not trying to press the advantage, and in the end, three points is what they came for, and three points is what they got.

The results puts Poland in command in group C, and leaves Northern Ireland in a very precarious position indeed. I'm sure that this was the game that O'Neill had targeted as their best opportunity to gain at least a point, due to Poland's previous struggles at major tournaments. However, this Polish team look far better balanced than in the past, with good players in every position, and they play a simple 4 4 2 system that perfectly suits their strengths. Also, their best player today was a nineteen year old midfielder called Bartosz Kapustka, who controlled the game superbly, spraying pinpoint diagonal passes and making threatening runs that had the Northern Irish defence at sixes and sevens.
So, with a good blend of established and emerging talent, Poland have, for the first time in a long time, a real chance of progressing in a major tournament.

Alas, poor Northern Ireland unfortunately have a real chance of going home without even registering a shot on target.


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