Ukraine entered the European Championship 2016 contest having won all of their preparation matches. They proved their capability with an entertaining opening performance against Germany, creating enough chances to draw the game. However, they conceded late, the result of a counter-attack losing the game 2-0. Northern Ireland arrived at the tournament boasting the longest current unbeaten streak in Europe. However, they failed to register a shot on goal against Poland. As a result they suffered a 1-0 loss.
With both teams losing their respective openers the squads looked to bounce back with a win, keeping their dreams of qualification alive. This tactical analysis will examine the match and explain what tactics made the difference.
Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, changed shape from 5-3-2 to 4-1-4-1, making five changes. Most notably the tactical shift to press high, swapping their leading goal scorer Kyle Lafferty for a tenacious Conor Washington. O’Neill swapped the wide players, replacing Shane Ferguson and Conor Lafferty for Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward. Corry Evans replaced the experienced Chris Baird in midfield and Aaron Hughes replaced Conor McLaughlin at right back.
Mykhailo Fomenko, the Ukrainian manager, made one change going into the contest. The small but extremely technical centre forward Roman Zozulya made way for the more imposing presence of Yevhen Seleznyov.
|N.I in Possession||Ukraine in Possession|
|Shots from outside box||5||12|
|Average Shot Distance||17.98yrds||23.51yrds|
|Corners & Freekicks||7||6|
|With a Shot||4||2|
|Final Third Entries||37||74|
|Penalty Area Entries||15||27|
|Touches in Penalty Area||13||13|
|N.I. in Defence||Ukraine in Defence|
Reflection of statistics
Firstly, N.I. had a higher goal expectancy stat and a closer average shot distance. This tells us that N.I. created the better goalscoring opportunities. Despite N.I. having fewer chances in the final third, they hit the target more often than Ukraine and equalled the amount of touches in the penalty area. This shows the clinical nature of N.I.’s attack in this game.
PPDA shows how N.I. allowed Ukraine to dominate possession. The average shot distance for Ukraine suggests N.I. dropped deep and forced Ukraine to shot from range. As a result, Ukraine have a low goal expectancy. N.I. minimised Ukraine’s opportunities to enter the penalty area.
Informative, yes, but not the full story. How can a team with so little possession create more effective chances? N.I. dropped off and defended the space but how did they prevent Ukraine, a country known for its high quality forwards, from entering the penalty area, in turn reducing their goalscoring opportunities? Let’s analyse the tactics employed by both teams.
Northern Ireland’s defensive tactics
Northern Ireland dropped 5 yards behind the halfway line and formed two midfield layers. As a result, Ukraine controlled the majority of possession. However, Northern Ireland’s front line pressed and dictated play, the deeper line acted as cover and showed Ukraine wide. This prevented Ukraine attacking through the middle but allowed Northern Ireland to tightly defend the space in their own half.
The picture above shows Northern Ireland’s shape in midfield when they dropped off. Conor Washington stayed high, the right central midfielder and left central midfielder stepped in front to apply pressure on the ball, as well as denying Ukraine space’ to play through the middle. N.I.’s wide players dropped deep and held a line with the central midfielder, Corey Evans.
As a team they took up narrow positions, encouraging Ukraine to play into the wide areas. The furthest wide player dropped even deeper to prevent an overload situation at the back post. Evans occupied the space in front of the Ukraine forward, pressing or intercepting any of the play through this part of the pitch.
This worked and play was switched wide. As they closed down the player on the ball, they arched their run and forced Ukraine to move the ball into the wide areas. This tactic continued to work throughout the game because of Northern Ireland’s organised positioning around their penalty area.
Ukraine’s wide attacking entries
Forced wide, Konoplyanka, former Liverpool transfer target, looked to cross and drive inward from the left hand side. See the picture below.
The picture above shows N.I.’s successful attempt to force play wide to the fullback. Circled is Konoplyanka, Ukraine’s talisman. Notice how he takes up a high and wide position, looking to take advantage of a 1v1 duel against N.I.’s right back Aaron Hughes. N.I.’s wide midfielder, Jamie Ward, allows the opposition fullback to receive the pass. Ward cuts off the central pass, forcing play wide.
As a result, N.I. shuffled across to the right hand side. However, a space opened between right back and centre back as Hughes pressed Konoplyanka. As the gap between the right back and centre back opened, circled above, Corry Evans, made the run to occupy the space. Here, he can cover Hughes if Konoplyanka wins the duel or he can fill the space, intercepting a potential cross.
It’s clear Northern Ireland looked to utilise their Aerial capability at the back. Hughes, showed Konoplyanka the line. Had he let Konoplyanka drive inside, an N.I. defender would’ve been pulled out of position, creating an opportunity in the penalty area for Ukraine to exploit. Instead, Hughes allowed a cross which the N.I. defenders are prepared to deal with. Notice, Gareth McAuley, the nearest centre back to the ball, and Evans positioned in front of their man ready to intercept the cross. The left sided fullback and wide midfielder positioned themselves inside of the Ukrainian winger. Denying him space and time should the ball fall to him. Northern Ireland win the possession in the box below.
Ukraine were quick to pick up on Northern Ireland’s low block approach. They looked to lure N.I. players out of position. The next scenario is an example of this. Konoplyanka, circled, Ukraine’s left winger, dropped into midfield and the full back stepped up into the high and wide position.
In the picture above Ukraine’s playmaking midfielder has dropped deep to collect the ball. N.I. have denied him the space to play through the middle, instead, he opted to play wide. Konoplyanka’s position created a potential problem for Jamie Ward. Ward’s position means the Ukrainian full back can collect the ball and run at the back line. Unless, Ward decides to leave Konoplyanka and press the full back. However, this would leave Konoplyanka free to receive a pass and play through the middle without pressure because the N.I midfielders are too high up the pitch.
As the ball travels towards the left side of the pitch, N.I.’s wide midfielder, Jamie Ward, sticks with Konoplyanka instead of closing the full back. As a result, he stops Ukraine playing through the middle. However, he is no longer in a position to press the fullback. Therefore, the N.I. full back must apply pressure. If Hughes, loses the 1 v 1 battle, Ukraine will have an overload in N.I.’s penalty area. The picture below shows how this attack continues.
Above, Aaron Hughes, presses the Ukrainian left back whilst Jamie Ward tries to stick with Konoplyanka’s run. The N.I. centre back, Gareth McAuley sees Konoplyanka getting ahead of Ward and starts to anticipate where the play is heading. McAuley successfully reads the situation, intercepting the ball intended for Konoplyanka in the picture below. Northern Ireland’s tactical organisation is impressive early on, they stay tight and compact, winning the loose ball and limiting Ukraine’s time in the final third.
Northern Ireland drops deep
Their tactics shifted after going a goal up. Instead of pressing the ball carriers wide in the middle third, Northern Ireland’s midfield dropped an extra 10 yards closer to their own goal. As a result, Ukraine delivered balls into the box from a closer range. See below.
In the previous half, the Ukrainian player on the ball wouldn’t have had the time or space to receive the ball and pass from this position. However, N.I.’s midfielders have dropped off, reducing the space between the lines. By doing so, they create an overload around their own box. As a result, N.I. are more likely to clear any danger in and around this area.
Above, Ukraine’s left back, Shevchuk, remains high and wide and controls a pass closer to Northern Ireland’s goal because of how deep N.I. are defending. Konoplyanka wanted to exploit the 2 v 1 situation by making a run in behind. Stepanenko, the left central midfielder pulled McAuley out, allowing more space for Ukraine to exploit. In addition, Ukraine’s striker, Seleznyov cuts across the N.I. centre back, Craig Cathcart, opening up space for Kovalenko to exploit at the far post.
Shevchuk didn’t move the ball quick enough. As a result, Ward sprinted back into position to delay the full back from passing down the line. This provided sufficient time for Evans to mark Stepanenko, which in turn, allowed McAuley to drop off into a central position in front of goal. Steven Davis joins the defensive line at the edge of the penalty area. This is because of Kovalenkos forward run. By doing so, he has given N.I. a numerical advantage in the box should a ball be crossed in.
Above, N.I.’s marking could be better as Kovalenko has an opportunity for a free header. This is because Cathcart and Davis have switched off and allowed the run in front. However, Ukraine over hit the pass. Jonny Evans, ex-Manchester United players narrow positioning allows him to clear the danger. Shown below.
To recap, Northern Ireland stuck to their defensive tactic. Force play wide, stay tight and compact and apply sharp pressure in the final third. N.I.’s communication, anticipation and discipline disrupted Ukraine’s patterns of play because the Northern Ireland players would not move out from their positions frequently enough. When they did move the N.I. players out of position, Ukraine weren’t quick or clinical enough to exploit it. Despite little success from the left hand side, they continued to force play down it, looking to cross the ball into Seleznyov. When they managed to complete a cross, Seleznyov often headed the ball down for an on coming midfielder. Northern Ireland tightly marked this midfielder, applying serious pressure when it fell to him. As a result, the long-range attempts rarely troubled Michael McGovern, N.I.’s goalkeeper.
Northern Ireland’s attacking threat
Northern Ireland looked to exploit the direct pass into the corner and feed off the second ball. This is because of the danger they carried at set pieces. By playing in these areas, they are more likely to win throw ins, corners and free kicks.
The pictures below illustrates Northern Ireland’s direct approach.
The analysis shows when N.I. had time in possession, McAuley or Cathcart would transfer the ball to one another. Once the centre back stepped into the forward space, the wide midfielder nearest the ball would drop into the middle, bringing the Ukrainian full back with him. The full back close to the ball would come short, sucking the Ukraine winger out of his defensive half. Evans and the far side central midfielder would support the ball carrier, looking to maintain possession. Whilst the, central midfielder nearest the ball would fill the space occupied by Washington.
This rotation lured Ukraine’s players out into isolated spaces. Their centre back nearest the ball went with Washington, creating a potential 1 v 1 situation on the edge of their penalty area.
Wards movement allowed Washington to run of the shoulder of Khacheridi, sucking him out wide and creating a 1 v 1 opportunity for Oliver Norwood at in the middle. Ward supported the pass, providing a lateral pass option, as Stuart Dallas stayed wide right, keeping Shevchuk, out with him. Jonny Evans, the N.I. full back, moved forward to give the ball carrier a backwards pass option.
The picture above shows how effective this rotation was at creating space for N.I. in the attacking third. Washington can take his defender on and drive around the back of the penalty area. He can also play a pass into Ward or Evans, whom in turn, have time to play into the middle of the pitch.
To recap, Northern Ireland’s tactics on the ball were to utilise Washington’s pace in behind. The supply came from the centre backs. If N.I. won the long ball, the midfielders would provide the carrier with three options if N.I. lost the long ball, the midfielders would intensely press to win the second ball. After establishing possession of the ball in the final third, Northern Ireland would get a cross or shot away as quick as possible. They played for set pieces. Their organised set piece routines, combined with their aerial threat made N.I. a constant danger. Ukraine made matters worse, fouling N.I. 14 times despite having the majority of possession.
As the PPDA statistic tells us, Northern Ireland made little attempt to establish control of the ball in this game. Instead, they dropped deep and defended the space in front of goal. This forced Ukraine wide which favoured Northern Ireland. N.I.’s organised defence enabled them to win the majority of balls that entered their attacking third. Ukraine’s defence was poor. They allowed themselves to be dragged out of position throughout the match by the Northern Irish forwards. As a result, N.I. managed to create the better chances. They retained 16 of 20 set pieces in the first 65 minutes, shooting four times and scoring once. Ukraine made this all too easy for them as they committed unnecessary fouls in dangerous positions resulting in a goal three minutes into the second half.