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Northern Ireland had the right plan, but Gareth Bale was just too good for them

Wales has made the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, thanks to one great moment from their best player.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

Despite conceding only two goals throughout the group stage, Northern Ireland do not boast too much defensive talent or depth. That has not been much of a problem for head coach Michael O'Neill, who sent out four center backs in front of goalkeeper Michael McGovern against Wales in their Round of 16 match.

It wasn't a bad plan, either. Against a team that has the world's most expensive player and current tournament top goal scorer, Gareth Bale, Northern Ireland were expected to do mostly defending. Their opponents took shot after shot, and the back four of Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart, and Jonny Evans managed a combined 13 clearances from their opponents' attempts. McGovern only needed to make one save throughout the match.

What benefited Northern Ireland was the fact that they went up against a Wales team that did not really set up to attack the defenders on the wings. The most likely Welsh candidate to terrorize from a wide position was the speedy Bale, who instead was placed centrally in Chris Coleman's starting lineup. His teammates were not tasked to do much else on the wing, and so Northern Ireland kept their opposition at bay for 75 minutes.

Unfortunately for O'Neill's team, Wales were able to switch their strategy, if only for a moment. As good as Northern Ireland had been defensively throughout the tournament, his four center back lineup has one clear weakness: the two makeshift fullbacks are very slow.

Bale found himself on the wing as the match was approaching the last 15 minutes. Once 36-year-old Aaron Hughes lost him for a split second, he had no chance to recover. Bale sent the ball across the face of goal, with teammate Hal Robson-Kanu waiting. However, Robson-Kanu didn't need to finish the opportunity. McAuley, in an attempt to clear the pass from Bale, instead sent it past his own goalkeeper, scoring the only goal of the match in Wales' 1-0 victory.

Credit: user fredsports on r/soccer

As hard as Northern Ireland worked to keep the match scoreless, their lack of talent in the back was exposed by one of the greatest talents not just at Euro 2016, but in the world. Though they had their opportunities to score, managing five shots, three of which were on target, they were undone by just one move.

Northern Ireland enjoyed a wonderful tournament in which they were part of the group of teams that proved the shift from 16 to 24 teams in the European Championships may not have been such a bad idea, as typical underdogs succeeded and made it to the knockout stages. However, they leave because their excellent tactical plan could not overcome their lack of talent.