Tuesday 23 December 2014

O'Neill targets set-piece success

Published 03/06/2014 | 15:37

Michael O'Neill is attempting to solve his side's goalscoring problems
Michael O'Neill is attempting to solve his side's goalscoring problems

Michael O'Neill believes set-pieces could hold the key to improving Northern Ireland's dismal goalscoring record.

O'Neill's side managed less than a goal a game in their first qualifying campaign under O'Neill, scoring nine times in 10 matches as they finished fifth in their World Cup group.

They have hardly looked more potent in friendly outings and go into Wednesday night's friendly in Chile on the back of three successive blanks against Turkey, Cyprus and Uruguay.

The latter performance, a creditable 1-0 defeat in Montevideo last week, was encouraging in many ways but a forward line of Inverness' Billy McKay and Aberdeen's Niall McGinn never looked likely to trouble La Celeste.

O'Neill does not hide from the challenge facing his side, one that has existed for Northern Ireland ever since David Healy's remarkable scoring streak dried up, and believes free-kicks and corners are part of the solution.

"The reason it's difficult for us to win games at this moment in time is pure and simple: we struggle to put the ball in the net," said O'Neill.

"It's not a tactical issue, it's a personnel issue. When you have that scenario it's going to be hard to win games, simple as that.

"Northern Ireland need to start scoring more off set-pieces and that's based on two things: quality of delivery and attacking the ball.

"Look at our game against Portugal last year, 4-2, our goals were both from set-pieces and three of theirs were. The Champions League final, Atletico Madrid versus Real Madrid, both scored from set-pieces.

"It's a huge, huge part of the game."

O'Neill has spent plenty of time with his players attempting to increase their threat from dead balls and will continue to do so as Euro 2016 qualification hovers into view.

But despite his best intentions, he accepts his side are not naturally given to wreaking havoc in the opposition area.

"We're not the biggest team, we don't have many of those players," he said.

"When we're missing Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley it's difficult for us at both ends of the pitch at set-pieces.

"We don't really have a defensive player who scores a lot of goals for their club from set-pieces, at the minute it's just not in the make-up of the squad.

"But it's definitely an area we can improve. Anything in the final third of the pitch we need to get better at and maximise. If you only have a certain percentage of ball in that area of the pitch you need to do more with it.

"We're going to need 1-0s, 1-1s. Greece won their group and scored 12 goals for the World Cup. They won eight games and drew one scoring 12 goals.

"That's the kind of template we'll look to."

With Evans, McAuley, Alex Bruce, Craig Cathcart and Rory McArdle all absent from the trip, O'Neill was forced to blood Doncaster defender Luke McCullough against Uruguay.

He performed well but O'Neill is crossing his fingers he does not have to throw in another rookie against Chile.

Veteran Chris Baird is struggling with tonsillitis and, if he fails to make it, the manager faces a straight choice between two-cap Conor McLaughlin and untried 18-year-old Liam Donnelly.

"We haven't ruled Bairdy out, we'll leave that until the last minute, but he's a serious doubt," said O'Neill.

"He had it before the first game but played extremely well and that maybe knocked him out a bit, what he put into that game.

"To be fair to Chris, many players probably would have asked to go home and he hasn't done that. He wanted to stay and give himself the best chance to play.

"For a senior player in particular that's encouraging. that's the type of example we want.

"He could get a flight home any time he wanted and he's chosen not to do that.

"Bairdy knows we need him to play so he's going to do everything possible."

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