Northern Ireland stifled Wales’ build up in a clash of two unusual formations at Euro 2016, although it was Wales who eventually progressed to the quarter-finals.
While Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill has utilised unorthodox systems of play, his general tactical approach has been typical of the tournament – focusing on a defensive medium block to prevent the opposition from building up easily through the middle third.
Here, he used a 5-3-2 formation that could also be termed an asymmetrical 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2. The key distinction was in the different roles of the two nominal wide players, Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas. Ward, on the right, stayed higher up the pitch and supported Kyle Lafferty in the first line of pressure, while Dallas, on the left, was positioned deeper as he tracked the advanced positioning of Welsh wing-back Chris Gunter. While Neil Taylor, the left wing-back, was similarly advanced, he was occupied by Northern Ireland’s right-sided defender, Aaron Hughes, allowing Ward to push higher up.
In the midfield, both Steve Davis and Oliver Norwood went man-to-man whenever their direct opponents, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen, received passes in the build up, with Northern Ireland demonstrably keen to prevent any progression of the ball through the middle third. This was further illustrated by the occasional movement of Kyle Lafferty, the central striker, to block passes into the midfield using his cover shadow.
Wales are very flexible and fluid with their system of play, however, with the two #10s in their 3-4-2-1 formation, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, given freedom to drift across the pitch. Sometimes in the build up, both Ramsey and Bale dropped into the same receiving line as Ledley and Allen, receiving passes from the Welsh back three in front of Northern Ireland’s first pressing line.
When this occurred, Corry Evans, the third Northern Ireland midfielder, maintained the man-orientation and prevented his direct opponent from being able to receive facing forward in the build up. As the movement of Ramsey and Bale towards the ball was complemented by Ledley or Allen moving forward to maintain depth in possession and create a receiving line higher up the pitch, Jonny Evans sometimes moved forward from his left centre-back position to again ensure Wales could not play penetrating passes through the midfield in build up. At one point, Evans was tracking Bale into the opposition half.
This man-oriented structure in midfield meant that the Welsh back three generally had time and space to circulate the ball across the back third in the build up phase, but were unable to play penetrating passes into the middle third. Ward ensured there was still some pressure on the ball-carrier by pressing high up the pitch alongside Lafferty, with Ward keen to press Ben Davies into playing a long forward pass whenever the Welsh left-centre-back had possession.
By contrast, with Dallas positioned deeper on the opposite side, Welsh right-centre-back James Chester had more time on the ball and sometimes drove forward in possession to try and create space. A particularly promising route to goal was when Chester played lofted balls towards central striker Sam Vokes, who moved into the channels upfront and looked to lay balls down into the feet of a supporting attacker. An example of this is when he chested it down for Bale, who was able to receive facing forward and drive towards goal.
While Wales eventually progressed courtesy of an own goal, Northern Ireland probably edged the tactical battle. They successfully disrupted Wales’ build-up and thus reduced the influence of key attackers Bale and Ramsey. Defensive football is a valid but not particularly innovative approach for underdogs, yet the sophisticated system of play utilised by O’Neill was certainly unique. It suited his players and nullified the opposition’s biggest strength.