Michael O’Neill admits ‘quality’ Spain were too good for Northern Ireland

Daniel Ballard had headed Northern Ireland into a shock lead with 70 seconds on the clock in Palma.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Michael O’Neill admitted Spain’s class told in a humbling 5-1 defeat for Northern Ireland but he believes his young players will benefit from having taken on a world-class team.

Daniel Ballard headed Northern Ireland into a shock lead with 70 seconds on the clock in Palma, but once Pedri had levelled 10 minutes later, Euro 2024-bound Spain showed their calibre with Alvaro Morata and Fabian Ruiz scoring either side of Pedri’s second to make it 4-1 by the break.

Substitute Mikel Oyarzabal added a fifth just before the hour before the game tailed off with the customary array of substitutes in an international – although Isaac Price did have a late chance to get one back for the visitors.

“We couldn’t have got off to a better start than we did but I think we met a team that was highly motivated, a team that is going to the finals, and probably with their strongest line-up or very close to it bar one or two players,” O’Neill said.

“From that period between the 10th minute and the 35th minute it was very difficult to contain Spain with the quality of their players, the speed of their play. They have some brilliant individuals and Pedri was terrific tonight, he took his two goals extremely well, Morata’s finish as well.

“The disappointing thing for us is we worked quite hard, we knew we would have to defend crosses, that they would switch play. We tried to block up the middle and other than the first goal we did that quite well, but then unfortunately you have to defend crosses.

“We probably felt having three centre backs we would do that better, that’s the disappointing thing.”

Shape and discipline had been O’Neill’s watchwords coming into the fixture, but he admitted they could only get you so far against the very best teams in the world.

Spain’s Mikel Oyarzabal celebrates scoring his side’s fifth goal (Francisco Ubilla/AP)
Spain’s Mikel Oyarzabal celebrates scoring his side’s fifth goal (Francisco Ubilla/AP) (Francisco Ubilla/AP)

This fixture was arranged with an eye on next year’s World Cup qualifiers, and those are the lessons the manager wants his young side to take from it.

“Shape and discipline is very important but you have to match quality,” he said. “Our shape and structure was designed to try to limit the space for the opposition, but they used the space extremely well, with switches of play, particularly (Jesus) Navas in the first half.”

“You have to deal with another situation, you have to defend the box better. We were a little bit passive, a little bit inexperienced.

“Maybe when you look at the first goal where Pedri received the ball we could get better pressure on him but you see the quality of a world-class player with the finish.

“So I don’t think when we look back at the game we’ll see a lot we would change in terms of the structure to start the game, that’s the system we’ve played and it’s worked for us. Tonight we met a team that knew how to deal with that and punished us with brilliant individual quality.”