Football/Soccer

Kenny Archer: Poor conversion rate costs Northern Ireland dearly on their travels

Northern Ireland's Gavin Whyte (centre) comes close to scoring in Sarajevo - but no cigar.

TIME and relative dimensions in space. Doctor Who may be complex – so she is – but football (soccer) is very simple.

It can be made very complicated, with detailed discussion about positioning and movement, formations and tactics, but the ‘magic formula’ for winning boils down to this: score more than your opponents (or concede less than them, depending on your outlook on life).

Find the time and space within the dimensions of the pitch and posts to get the ball over the line.

In such a low-scoring code, goals are hugely important, especially as the game has become increasingly defensive, albeit that the wheel is turning back towards more attacking approaches.

There was some sneering at Pep Guardiola recently when he suggested, ahead of his side’s trip to Anfield, that to win they’d probably need ‘to score goals’.

Yet the Manchester City manager’s grasp of English was actually better than the scribes who poked fun at him for ‘stating the bleeding obvious.’

Pep’s expectation was that Liverpool would, more likely than not, score – so City would need to score at least twice in order to win. In other words, ‘score goals’.

As it turns out, the Catalan was wrong in his prediction, but remained right in his approach.

It’s a basic truth of soccer that, no matter how well you play, if you don’t score, you won’t win.

You can keep all the clean sheets you want, but without registering on the scoresheet yourselves, you won’t win.

Simples.

And yet very difficults.

Many teams are set up largely to prevent their opponents scoring. Even if they don’t think especially much about scoring themselves, they’re still capable of doing so.

All it takes is a split-second of time, a few inches of space and – Whoosh! – a goal.

The levels of concentration required in top level football are incredible.

We match reporters may moan that ‘we only get one chance to see the action’ to explain any errors in our copy – but that is, er, fake news (and, for once, that actually means that what has been said is untrue).

If there aren’t screens near your seat showing replays, there are online clips to view soon after the incident (Wi-fi permitting).

Failing those options, there’s also the traditional fall-back position of asking a colleague ‘WTF happened there? I was making notes/ eating a sandwich/ looking at the scenery around the stadium/ doing all three of those things.’

Sportspeople don’t have such safety nets.

At the highest levels, the punishment rates for even slight mistakes are very high.

Michael O’Neill and his match analysts could probably trace the genesis of Bosnia’s opening goal and Monday night back even further but in my view it started with a mere moment of hesitation from the normally decisive and brilliant Jonny Evans. He thought about going forward but instead, very briefly, stood off the advancing Haris Duljevic, allowing him to get to the bouncing ball first, and head it onwards.

Then NI left-back Jamal Lewis was also caught in two minds, whether to stay or go towards the ball, contributing to his slip and stumble. Young Jamal is perhaps too quick for his own good; you’re much less likely to fall over going at my speed than at his.

Yet had he stayed, marking Edin Visca, it still might not have prevented a goal, as Duljevic would then definitely have had the room to press on and perhaps pick out eventual scorer Edin Dzeko too.

The post-mortem might also consider why the other defenders weren’t tighter to the Bosnian dangerman, or why a midfielder didn’t close down Duljevic…

A game of inches and split-seconds, especially in decision-making.

The slightest space and time allowed to dangerous opponents gives them the required room to manoeuvre the ball.

Deciding to foul an opponent can also be a double-edged sword. Midfielder Olly Norwood took a booking, ‘took one for the team’, by dragging down Elvis Saric after a swivel of his hips took him away from Steven Davis and towards the Northern Ireland penalty area.

Miralem Pjanic still came very close to scoring, dipping his free kick onto the roof of the net (something that you don’t see too often) but Norwood’s gamble had paid off, at least for his team - albeit at the expense of earning him a suspension which rules him out of the home game against Austria.

Time can also move strangely quickly off the pitch too.

Almost in the blink of an eye, NI have gone seven competitive games without a win. Arguably they only deserved to lose two of those, based on performances, at home to Germany and Switzerland latter – and the latter match was actually only decided in the visitors’ favour by a ridiculous penalty decision.

In the other four losses, the adverse outcomes have been due to a daft own goal (in Norway) but mostly by much more clinical finishing from the opposition (Bosnia-Herzegovina – twice - and Austria).

At the other end, over those seven matches, Michael O’Neill’s men have netted just twice – and both of those came in added time when the game was effectively over (at home to Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina).

It’s often said of a team that’s struggled to score despite dominating and creating chances they ‘they couldn’t buy a goal’.

Well, as O’Neill has pointed out, you can’t buy an international striker (not unless you’re an ambitious oil-rich state or a big name team).

When The Irish News crew were not so old and creaky, we had a soccer side. Some colleagues used to complain about a certain team member, making the ridiculous remark that ‘All he does is score goals’.

As I repeatedly pointed out, that’s the aim of the game.

Northern Ireland don’t have a striker playing at the highest level like Dzeko, or an attacker of the ability of Austria’s Marko Arnautovic, and those two made the difference in the Nations League matches, as much as mistakes and misses from O’Neill’s players.

Midfielder George Saville played very well, and could have had a hat-trick in Sarajevo – but is still seeking to break his international scoring duck.

Gavin Whyte has already done that (in the friendly against Israel), but hit the woodwork twice in the Grbavica stadium.

Without the injured Will Grigg and the absent Conor Washington and Kyle Lafferty, NI lacked a cutting edge – and so Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina were able to put them to the sword.

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