Sunday 25 September 2016

Who will surprise and who will disappoint in Euro 2016?

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty. Photo: PA
Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty. Photo: PA

Wales

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The tactics

Wales chopped and changed during qualification but the favoured system is 3-4-2-1, which helped pick up victories in key matches, notably away in Cyprus and Israel and at home against Belgium. Chris Coleman had been keen to move away from 4-3-3 and decided to go with three central defenders, which suits the players at his disposal. They reverted to a flat back four for a couple of matches early in the campaign but everything clicked when Israel were beaten 3-0 in Haifa.

As well as going with a three-man defence that day, Coleman set Wales up with two No 10s (Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey) and it worked spectacularly well. The width was provided by the wing-backs, with two holding midfielders - Joe Allen and Joe Ledley - giving the back-three protection and dictating play when Wales had possession. Further forward Hal Robson-Kanu's selfless running stretched the Israel defence and opened up space for Bale and Ramsey to exploit. Ramsey put Wales ahead and Bale scored twice in a complete team performance.

It seems likely that Wales will play exactly the same way in France. The system makes them hard to break down and gives their most influential players, Bale and Ramsey, a platform to attack without being isolated. Playing Bale up front is not on the cards for Coleman. He tried it in November 2014 in Belgium and Bale had 18 touches all evening. The glaring weakness is the absence of a proven centre-forward.

Which player will surprise everyone?

Unless Robson-Kanu turns into a world-beater it is hard to see anyone unheralded emerging. But if Ledley fails to make it because of injury, Andy King has the potential to be a more than able deputy for the Palace midfielder. He is underrated outside his club and country.

Who is going to disappoint?

There is so much expectation on Bale and you could almost hear the gasps when he went down in the Champions League final with what turned out to be cramp.

What is the realistic aim?

Bale mentioned trying to win the Euros in the immediate aftermath of the Champions League final and we are now living in an era when anything seems possible on the back of what Leicester achieved. Realistically, Wales will look to reach the knockouts. Getting through is no formality - so much hinges on the first game against Slovakia.

Stuart James

Northern Ireland

The tactics

Manager Michael O'Neill deployed a variety of lineups during qualifying to stifle the opposition. He used 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-2-1 in guiding the team to the top of Group F, but has also tried 3-5-2 in friendlies. The shift to a three-man central defence was dictated by the loss of left-back Chris Brunt to a cruciate ligament injury, and the lack of established alternatives. Solving the left-back problem represents one of O'Neill's biggest challenges. His options, should he persist with a back four, include Shane Ferguson - who played in League One for Millwall last season - and Lee Hodson, who went on loan to Kilmarnock to play more regular first team football.

Whatever side is selected, Northern Ireland will be hard to break down and supremely well organised. "Without wanting to use the word," O'Neill has said, "we are going to have to be 'horrible' to play against." That means disciplined defending by every player, a focus on set pieces, accepting the opposition will have the lion's share of possession and having to work tirelessly without the ball, plus being ruthless when chances do arise in the final third.

O'Neill likes to protect his defence with a five-man midfield regardless of the formation he starts with - wide men Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas, for example, will drop back alongside a three-man midfield whenever possession is lost. The pair are also crucial to supplying leading scorer and talisman Kyle Lafferty and picking out the midfield runs of Steven Davis.

Which player will surprise everyone?

Paddy McNair, providing he can dislodge Chris Baird as holding midfielder. Louis van Gaal saw the United youngster as a central defender. O'Neill disagrees, believing the 21-year-old is a natural defensive midfielder who has years ahead of him at this level.

Who is going to disappoint?

There is no pressure on these players, there is no room for disappointment. The team have already exceeded all expectations by qualifying. The disappointment is more likely to be a position rather than a player given the team lacks a top level left-back.

What is the realistic aim?

The target is simply to get out of a very difficult group. Germany, Ukraine and Poland represent formidable opposition. All hopes are pinned on a shock result against Poland or Ukraine and qualifying as one of the four best third-placed teams. It can be done.

Andy Hunter

Republic of Ireland

The tactics

The key difference between this Ireland team and the one that lost all three of its matches at Euro 2012 relates to attitude. Four years ago Giovanni Trapattoni probably had a better bunch of players but definitely stifled the side due to his conviction that Ireland were not good enough to aspire to being anything other than plucky sucker punchers.

Martin O'Neill has slightly more faith in the players' ability to fight on the front foot even if he, too, occasionally lapses into excessive caution or even slovenliness, as during the 1-0 defeat to Scotland in the group phase. Generally O'Neill's team have been enterprising, especially when he deploys Robbie Brady as a left-back. The Norwich player is defensively vulnerable but his menace going forward - and his set-pieces - make him as dangerous as Seamus Coleman is on the right. The width provided by those full-backs, in particular, often enables Ireland to beef up central midfield.

Trapattoni's decision not to take Coleman four years ago was decried at the time, as was the Italian's neglect of Wes Hoolahan, who has since become the team's chief creator. At 34, the Norwich schemer finds it hard to last 90 minutes - and including him makes a 4-4-2 formation impossible, which is why O'Neill usually favours a 4-2-3-1 - but when he is on the pitch he give the team an element of surprise that they otherwise lack.

Shane Long's speed and aerial power are also crucial and give Ireland an essential threat against teams who have more possession, which could be everyone.

O'Neill's greatest concern is central defence, where it is difficult to predict which two players he will select and even more difficult to feel safe with whichever pairing he goes for. John O'Shea played every group game until being sent off in the last one. In his absence, Ciaran Clark played well alongside Richard Keogh, but neither is in form.

Which player will surprise everyone?

Jeff Hendrick was the biggest revelation of the qualifying campaign. He was not even a regular starter for Derby when he made a decisive impact off the bench in Germany. He has a lovely understanding with Brady, with whom he has been playing since the pair were 10-year-olds at St Kevin's Boys.

Who is going to disappoint?

James McCarthy. In a team with plenty of limitations but generally admirable spirit, the Everton midfielder is the one player who sometimes leaves onlookers wondering whether he could have done more.

What is the realistic aim?

Defensive weakness and a relative flair deficit make elimination in the group stage probable but progress beyond that is not unimaginable, as the team have inexhaustible energy and, in Long and Jonathan Walters, forwards who can deck any rival who is not up for a fight, especially when Hoolahan is at his mischievous best.

Paul Doyle

England

The tactics

The days have gone since Roy Hodgson set up his team in a rigid 4-4-2 with so little fluidity running through the side that Gary Lineker questioned whether England were playing football "from the dark ages". Four years into his reign, England can play an adventurous 4-3-3 or go for the midfield diamond that was so effective when they came from 2-0 behind to win 3-2 in Germany. The team showed that night there is certainly the potential for a side featuring Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli to worry defences.Finding the right position for Wayne Rooney is perhaps the biggest dilemma for Hodgson. Rooney started England's last warm-up game at the front tip of the diamond but that is the position where Alli does his best work.

England still look strong in attack, but defensively they may be much more vulnerable. Hodgson must have concerns about his centre-backs. Chris Smalling is improved but accident-prone. Gary Cahill has had an erratic season and John Stones, as back-up, is going into the tournament on the back of a personal slump. It is perplexing that Hodgson has taken a calculated gamble by including only three centre-backs, with Eric Dier as emergency cover.

Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are the favourites to take the full-back roles in a side that will have a distinct Tottenham flavour. Dier has strong credentials to be the holding midfielder, but Hodgson is a staunch admirer of Jack Wilshere.

Which player will surprise everyone?

Dier has excelled this season in defensive midfield and, if England have problems at the back, his shielding could be vital.

Who is going to disappoint?

Raheem Sterling is going into the tournament with brittle confidence after losing his form for Manchester City since the turn of the year. He established himself in England's starting XI at the World Cup but is no longer terrorising defenders in the same way.

What is the realistic aim?

England coasted through their qualification group and the 3-2 win in Germany in March should encourage them to think positively. They should certainly be confident of reaching the quarter-finals and, after that, it is not utterly ludicrous to think they can go further. A lot depends on how they defend because that is clearly their weakness when it comes to facing the top opponents.

Daniel Taylor

Sunday Independent

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