Northern Ireland certainly made the most of being drawn in one of Euro 2016’s weakest qualifying groups, with Michael O’Neill’s side putting together an effective campaign to finish top and make it to their first-ever European Championships. It will be their first major tournament appearance since they were dumped out of the 1986 World Cup without having won a single game, and little more is expected of them this time around. Just having made it this far is an impressive feat.
Unlike many of Euro 2016’s weaker sides, Northern Ireland’s recent success hasn’t actually been the result of a dramatic shakeup in personnel. Instead of gambling on youth, O’Neill has largely stuck with with a tried-and-tested formula. Their recent success is testament to O’Neill’s coaching acumen, and the good fortune they had in Greece’s now infamous qualifying capitulation. Only two players in Northern Ireland’s entire squad are under the age of 24; in contrast, their oldest goalkeeping option is 38, and three of their regular defenders over 34.
But Northern Ireland’s experience cannot mask the fact that they will arrive in France as one of the weakest teams in the entire tournament. Greece’s shock tournament success at Euro 2004 in Portugal showed that organization can get a small team surprisingly far, and O’Neill’s certainly managed to bring tactical discipline to a team that drops into a compact and regimented 4-5-1 without possession. But lightning is unlikely to strike twice, and O’Neill’s side lack a creative spark that will ultimately separate them from the better teams in their group.
Throughout qualifying, they were heavily reliant on a series of uncharacteristically efficacious performances from lone striker Kyle Lafferty, who scored more goals in Northern Ireland’s campaign than he’s done at any of his last three domestic sides combined. Lafferty is a gangling target man, reliant on his physicality as much as technique to beat defenders. He’s not normally a prolific goalscorer, with arguably his most impressive campaign coming with Palermo in Italy's second division in 2013-14. He netted 11 times en route to promotion and cult hero status, and Northern Ireland are likely to have a section of Sicilian support this summer as a result.
Unfortunately, Lafferty’s Palermo career met a sticky end, with club president Maurizio Zamparini lambasting him as an "out-of-control womanizer" on his exit from the club. It’s just as plausible that things will go sour for Lafferty in France this summer, particularly due to the dearth of creativity in the Northern Ireland team. In the absence of versatile dead-ball specialist Chris Brunt, who has been ruled out of the tournament through injury, Lafferty will find service even harder to come by than usual. He’s not the kind of player who is capable of fashioning chances for himself, and there’s the real risk that he’ll be left plowing a lonely furrow in attack.
However, not all hope is lost, with Southampton’s industrious playmaker Steven Davis tasked with ensuring Lafferty isn’t left completely isolated up top. Davis is an extraordinarily hard-working player, who is as defensively diligent as just about any playmaker in the tournament. He’ll have to scramble back to offer Oliver Norwood some assistance, with the diminutive Reading midfielder in the side for his ability to trigger attacking moves from deep. His vision and long-range passing is perhaps the best in this Northern Ireland team, though his size means he could potentially struggle to shield his center backs when out of possession. Out wide will likely be Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas, who also play their domestic soccer in England’s second tier; and while Wigan Athletic striker Will Grigg may be on fire, he’s unlikely to be on Northern Ireland’s teamsheet for their tournament opener.
In sum, Northern Ireland have a team with bags of experience and plenty of enthusiasm, but they’re a team that will be banking on defensive organization and attacking good fortune for success in France. Making it back to a major tournament for the first time in over three decades is an outstanding achievement for a set of veterans who would likely have written off all hopes of such an opportunity. But having been drawn in a group with the reigning World Cup winners and two battle-hardened regulars in Germany, Ukraine and Poland, O’Neill’s men would do well to pick up any points at all.