It is early days yet. But there is unlikely to be a more swashbuckling example of managerial dexterity at Euro 2016 than Michael O’Neill’s decision to drop half his outfield players for Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over Ukraine.
Thoughts of career prospects won’t rank high in the manager’s mind as he prepares for a date with world champions Germany in Paris on Tuesday. But with teams such as Southampton managerless in the English Premier League, tactical manoeuvres to outfox a wily manager in Ukraine’s Mykhalo Fomenko can’t have passed unnoticed.
It was a gamble that could have led to Northern Ireland all but exiting the competition in the rain and hail of Lyon.
No manager in the world would now consider putting a brolly up in the technical area after those pictures of Steve McClaren staring out from under one defined the end of his England career.
O’Neill resisted calling for an umbrella, instead letting his smart dark blue suit become drenched, but there was still the potential for him to look nearly as hapless; drookit and miserable.
No manager at this tournament has made such a big call as to drop half of his team. Roy Hodgson was hailed as brave for sending on two strikers at half-time against Wales but, really, the England manager had no choice.
O’Neill had everything to lose by making such swingeing changes. He was dropping his first-choice striker, one who scored seven of Northern Ireland’s 16 goals in qualifying. Kyle Lafferty never even made it on to the pitch.
O’Neill explained that the inspiration behind picking the more mobile Conor Washington struck while he was watching Germany play Ukraine. He observed how uncomfortable Mario Gotze, playing as a false nine, made things for the Ukraine centre halves
Besides, they surely expected to play against a big gangly maverick in Lafferty, one of only two players in the Northern Ireland team – skipper Steven Davis is the other – who top class European internationals would recognise. But Ukraine now know all about the strong running of Washington, the threat of Gareth McAuley at set-pieces and Niall McGinn’s sure finishing.
The Aberdeen player later enthused about scoring his side’s second goal but was sorry his family had not been there to see it – his mother left France after the Poland game to attend his sister’s hen do. His father also returned.
But after only the second game, O’Neill has gone deep into his squad. Of 20 outfield players, only four have still to see action. And who’s to say O’Neill won’t have something else up his sleeve on Tuesday at the Parc des Princes?
“You do question yourself a little bit,” said O’Neill later. “I did watch the [Poland] game from various camera angles – Uefa give you the benefit of that. It was hugely beneficial. I just felt we needed to get more running power into the team in middle of park and get the ball more in wide areas.”
But there was no surprise their first goal should come from a set-piece – Fomenko later grumbled they were well warned since ten of Northern Ireland’s goals in qualifying were from this source. It’s clear Northern Ireland seek to use such opportunities to their full advantage. They have to.
“We do actually genuinely work a lot on set pieces,” said O’Neill. “We know it is a big part of the game. There’s no reason why we cant be as good at set-pieces as the best teams in the world.”
He has an opportunity to test this theory on Tuesday when they play the reigning world champions, now with more to play for than self-respect.