Northern Ireland face two of the biggest games in their history over the international break as they look to beat Switzerland over their playoff, with the victor gaining a place at the ultimate showpiece event: the World Cup.
Northern Ireland progressed from one of the tougher groups in Europe this campaign and they have looked like a very good side. Germany coasted through to the finals as they took maximum points, while Northern Ireland ended relatively comfortably in second-place with 19 points.
Considering the group also contained the Czech Republic and Norway, the fact that Ireland managed to take the playoff place with a four-point gap between themselves and third-place is impressive.
Indeed, six wins, one draw and three defeats is a very good record, while two of their three defeats came in their final two games, with the nation already through to a playoff.
However, their game with Switzerland will be in a pressure cooker of an atmosphere as the players and fans will be all too aware of what one goal, one save, or one mistake can mean for either of the teams.
What formation should Northern Ireland use?
People would be forgiven for thinking that Michael O’Neill will look to be very defensive in the opening encounter of this two-legged playoff. After all, Switzerland looked good in qualifying, taking 27 points from a possible 30, and were only usurped by Portugal’s superior goal difference. However, Irish fans will know that being purposefully defensive does not always make a side solid at the back.
The best example of this came when Ireland played against the world champions Germany. They gave the Germans far too much respect as they sat very deep, with O’Neill choosing to utilise a 5-3-2 formation.
Germany pounced on this overly-defensive display and scored twice in the opening 20 minutes. Despite playing with five at the back and a solid midfield, Ireland were already on the backfoot despite setting up not to be beaten.
A less proactive manager might have looked to maintain the formation and style, hoping that things would get better as the game went on. However, O’Neill, the pragmatic manager that he is, decided to bring on Stuart Dallas for Lee Hodson as they switched to a 4-3-3 system.
Josh Magennis scored for the far more offensively brave Irish as confidence grew in a far more attacking-inclined formation.
Therefore, while many would warn against O’Neill throwing too much forward too soon, it may benefit them massively to try to get on the front-foot early and attack the Swiss, with their tried and tested 4-3-3.
How should Northern Ireland play?
As with their game against Germany taught them, Ireland cannot afford to be too defensive. Of course, Switzerland are not in the same league as the Germans, but if they are given an invitation, then they will look to score goals, with the 23 netted in qualifying testament to that.
When Ireland attacked Germany they looked far more comfortable, while they were on the rocks when they looked to defend. However, they should not be too gung-ho, as there is another game to come in Switzerland.
Therefore, while they should be positive in their style, they should not overlook their defensive duties. The 4-3-3 system gives a lot of width and attacking intent, but it does not provide a massive amount of cover in midfield, which means that the midfielders will have to supplement their attacking intent with diligent defensive running.
Interestingly, a goal for Ireland would force the Swiss forward, whether it is in the first leg or the second, giving the Irish a chance to hit their opponents on the break as they leave gaps across the pitch.
Which Swiss players must Ireland stifle?
Switzerland are not really packed full of the superstar names of Italy for example. Granit Xhaka of Arsenal is a regular in the midfield, but it is Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri that is the most recognisable in the side.
The former-Bayern Munich man is a real livewire when he is on his game, with his free-kicks and long-range strikers particularly effective. O’Neill will know that it is vital that his side get close to him and shut down his options, while they must stop him from cutting in on his favoured left foot.
It may benefit them to look to double up on the winger, as he is tricky enough to ghost past a single defender, while he is also a quick and strong player, meaning that his opponent can never be sure how Shaqiri will look to go at him.
For these Irish players, they are just two good performances away from booking their place at the next World Cup. Many fans will not know what it feels like to see their side at the world’s biggest event, and those lucky enough to have a ticket will create an atmosphere that is second to none.
O’Neill’s men are on the edge of history, and with Switzerland standing in their way, now is not the time to leave anything to chance.