Northern Ireland lost their self-belief in defeat - Steven Davis
Euro 2016 Group C: Northern Ireland 0-1 Poland
NORTHERN Ireland didn’t just lose their opening match at the Euros - they lost belief in themselves, according to captain Steven Davis.
A well-worked 51st minute goal from Ajax forward Arkadiusz Milik brought Poland their first victory at the Euros at the seventh attempt. It was a deserved win, but Davis suggested that his side didn’t feel they deserved to be in this tournament, saying: “I am disappointed and frustrated. It is always hard to reflect straight after a game but we know we can play better and have to realise we are here on merit and we deserve to be playing on this stage.
“It's strange to say but we lacked belief today. It felt like that at times. Obviously there are positives to take with our work-rate and desire as always, and I think we did defend well for the majority of the game, but we know we can do a lot better in terms of with the ball.”
Seeking set piece salvation to snatch a point, it almost arrived when the otherwise out-of-sorts Olly Norwood slid a free kick smartly for the run of Davis with five minutes of normal time remaining, but - although he appeared to get close enough - the skipper failed to make any connection.
“It was a good ball from Olly,” he recalled, “it was something we worked on in training. I was in two minds whether to take a touch or not. I glanced over my shoulder and as soon as I did that the ball skipped away from me.”
That left the men in green without a single shot on target compared to four - from 18 efforts - by Poland. The first goal conceded from open play in six matches, since last October in Finland in the last Euro qualifier, was enough to defeat Michael O’Neill’s men.
They could not extend their unbeaten run to 13, but there was nothing unlucky about this loss: “The biggest thing for us is that we disappointed the fans who were behind us the whole game, which was great - but we didn't really give them much to cheer about today,” admitted the Southampton midfielder.
“It was a tough game and Poland are a very good side. They started the better of the two teams and sometimes when you don't start as fast as you would like it is difficult to get it back. We will obviously look at that and see if we can get a little bit more pressure on the opposition early on and cause them some more problems moving forward.”
Manager O’Neill contributed to that lack of pressure up-field. He sprang a pre-match surprise, with no second striker close to Kyle Lafferty – or even on the pitch. Instead Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair both started, the former at right wing-back, the latter on the right of a midfield three.
The boss is a deep thinker but perhaps he over-thought this time, deploying an unfamiliar formation. Having excelled in qualifying with 4-3-3, 5-3-2 has been the experiment in recent friendlies, but this was more defensive still, a 5-3-1-1, with first Davis, then McNair trying to support lone front-man Lafferty, rather than having wide attackers.
Apparently the intention was for a midfield ‘diamond’, but the upshot – if that’s not a completely inappropriate word in the circumstances - led to a lack of cutting edge for much of this match. Sadly that lack of another attacker, or at least players getting further forward, showed badly until Conor Washington came on 20 minutes into the second half. In contrast, although an ankle problem prevented Poland left-winger Kamil Grosicki from starting, teenager Bartosz Kapustka came in to the side and initially advanced so much they looked like a 4-3-3.
The Poles began brightly, with ‘man of the match’ Milik looking lively, although he had an air shot with his weaker right foot when their first opening came to him. Northern Ireland, seeming nervous, sat back and Poland accepted the invitation to set up camp in the opposing half, with their full backs pushing right up.
McLaughlin was wobbling, and was exposed even when the clearest opportunity came from the other flank, Lukasz Piszczek one-twoing with Jakub B?aszczykowski to speed past McAuley, then cutting back to Milik. He floated to the left, skipping away from the Fleetwood Town man, but then drilled his effort wide.
Poland at last forced Michael McGovern into proper action in the 39th minute, following a corner controversially awarded after Lewandowski had appeared not to keep the ball in. Further controversy swiftly followed when Milik’s cross bounced up off Lafferty’s thigh onto his hand but Poland didn’t appeal greatly and Kapustka quickly drilled a fierce rising drive that McGovern flew to tip over.
Poland left-back Artur J?drzejczyk had two snatched shots in the scramble that followed the subsequent corner but the tournament debutants made it to the break still level. That fortunate situation did not last long. An Evans header was allowed to reach B?aszczykowski, getting the ball in the inside right channel. He rolled it to Milik, who took a low touch before despatching a low left-footed shot in despite McGovern getting some glove on it.
That obviously changed the game, the north knowing they had to attack much more, but Poland were still controlling possession. Northern Ireland had to nick it, and they did for couple of counter-attacks, one ending with Baird cynically fouled, the other when Szcz?sny slid out to grab the ball after Washington had headed the ball on following a McLaughlin interception.
The right wing-back then supplied Lafferty for his only real effort, an ambitious over-head kick, but spaces were opening up at the other end too and substitute Grosicki should have tested McGovern rather than slicing wide.
Then came Davis’s opportunity, quickly followed by a fierce shot inches wide from Krychowiak, but the game rightly ended with a setback that felt like a throwback, as centre half Gareth McAuley acknowledged:
“It’s not how we’ve played in recent times and to be honest it felt a bit like a game from four or five years ago when it was just backs to the wall the whole time," he said.
“We possibly made them look better than they were. Looking back, we could have been a bit more aggressive in our approach and that’s the disappointing thing”.
Northern Ireland (5-3-1-1): McGovern; McLaughlin, Cathcart, McAuley, J Evans, Ferguson (Washington, 66); McNair (Dallas, h-t), Baird (Ward, 76), Norwood; Davis; Lafferty.
Poland (4-4-2): Szcz?sny; Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, J?drzejczyk; B?aszczykowski (Grosicki, 80), Krychowiak (Jodlowiec, 78), M?czy?ski, Kapustka (Peszko, 88); Milik, Lewandowski.
Referee: O Hategan (Romania).