Former World Cup defender John O’Neill believes Northern Ireland reaped the rewards of adopting a more direct style of play in their 2-0 win over Denmark.
O’Neill, who was part of the NI squad at both the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, says the tactic should have been used earlier in a disappointing Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
NI finished fifth in Group H with just nine points from their 10 matches.
“For me the big, big thing was the way we approached the game,” said O’Neill.
“We were not messing about trying to play from the back and taking our time.
“We were getting the ball straight into their box and playing in their final third, and to me that changed it.
“I’ve been saying this for a long, long time. I don’t know why we haven’t been playing like that before,” O’Neill reflected in his post-match analysis for Sportsound on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sounds.
Going into Monday’s match with the group-topping Danes in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s only points of the campaign had come courtesy of home and away victories over minnows San Marino.
Five of the seven losses Michael O’Neill’s men had suffered had come by virtue of 1-0 scorelines.
“I think we should play longer. We’ve been playing the same way in almost every game since the start of this campaign and this is the first time we’ve said, ‘we’re not going to play out from the back, we’re going to play in the final third’, and to me that was the reason for the result,” added O’Neill.
“You look at those games we lost 1-0. If we had put those teams under that kind of pressure it would have been a totally different story.
“There have been a lot of questions asked and answered tonight in terms of the players and the way we should be playing,” he argued.
‘Deserved win gives NI a lift’
Isaac Price opened the scoring with a clinical finish on the hour mark, with Dion Charles doubling his side’s advantage with nine minutes remaining of the second half.
“They [Northern Ireland] deserved the win. Denmark had most of the possession but at the end of the day it was Northern Ireland who scored the goals, two cracking goals they were and possibly should have had a third if you look at the chance Charles had in the first half which came off the post.
“We scored two of the best goals and for a side of such inexperience you’ve got to be so pleased for them.
“The supporters have been waiting for this for a long time and we finished the campaign on a high note.
“It’s given us a little bit of a lift and some of those players out there have had the best games they have had in a green jersey.”
Former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie agreed that a more direct approach had helped Northern Ireland past the Danes, who had already booked their place at next summer’s Euro 2024 tournament.
“There’s too much of it happens [playing from the back] and you just end up losing the ball outside of your own box.
“If you kick the ball up and you fight for that second ball you’re 50 or 60 yards from your own goal, you’re not going to concede from there.
“We don’t see it too often anymore, the way it used to be, everybody get up the pitch and fight for that second ball.”
‘Playing off second ball’
Another of BBC Sport NI’s analysts, 52-times capped midfielder and former elite performance director with the Irish FA, Jim Magilton, concurred that a change of tactics had helped NI to victory.
“We started that way [playing more from the back] and then we realised that they were setting traps, so the moment that ball went square they just pressed.
“It was giving the opposition the opportunity to steal it 20 yards from goal so we decided we’re not going to do that, we’re going to play in their half, we’re going to play off the second ball.
“You could see confidence rise after the first goal was scored and there was an intensity not only with the ball, but without the ball, which they had to have all night because they were starved of possession.
“The first goal is a magnificent counter-attacking goal and then you bring on Conor McMenamin and Paul Smyth, that’s pace high up the pitch.
“George Saville produces a fantastic ball, McMenamin provides an outstanding cross and Dion Charles, who worked so hard, his eyes must have lit up at that one coming across.”
‘First team club football essential’
The success provided a significant boost to a young squad which only three days before had gone down 4-0 to Finland in Helsinki.
Northern Ireland must now wait four months for their next scheduled fixtures in the form of yet to be confirmed friendlies at the end of March.
“If you lose 4-0 and then come back a few days later and win it says something about people’s character and resilience, and it says a lot about the manager too,” added Magilton.
“I think Michael O’Neill realises it’s a very tough job, a rebuild job, but this win should give the younger players in the group a taste of what it’s like.
“They need to be playing games at club level. You can’t turn up for international football not having played football.
“It’s so difficult to replicate the levels you need for international football, and to concentrate, if you’re not playing games it’s an impossibility.
“These guys have got to force their way into the first team. They’ve got to be playing regularly and put under that intense pressure. Anything less is miles behind what you encounter in international football.”