2016 could be Northern Ireland’s best ever chance of qualifying for the European Championships. Often perceived as the weakest of the United Kingdom’s national teams, their best showing on the world stage was a Round of 16 finish at the 1982 World Cup with a team featuring Manchester United’s then teenage prodigy Norman Whiteside.
However, football is currently back on the lips of people on the streets of Belfast as they sit on top of Group F with a maximum 9 points, having racked up impressive wins against Finland, Greece and Hungary. This magical run of form encouraged us to check what statistical patterns we could see from their Euro 2016 qualification matches, ahead of their next challenge against second place Romania.
Firstly their defence has been impeccable, with only one goal conceded from three games, and looks like only improving with the introduction of Manchester United centre-back Paddy McNair into the squad for the upcoming match at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland’s backline has limited their opponents to an impressively low average of 1.7 ‘high scoring’ chances per match.
They average less ‘live ball possession’ than their opponents (45%) and employ counter-attacking tactics – 15 ‘counter-attack style’ build-up moves per game compared to their opponents’ average of 6. The quality of Northern Ireland’s passing, as exemplified by the fantastic team move which set up Niall McGinn’s equaliser in Hungary, is evident in their 46% ‘high quality’ ratio, taken from their all their ‘passing-style’ build-up moves. This is only 3% less than the ratio recorded by reigning champions and ‘tika-taka’ kings Spain.
Group B is another collection of teams that look evenly matched, with at least 4 teams seemingly capable of taking top spot. Leaders Wales face a big test against World Cup quarter-finalists Belgium this weekend. If we compare the two teams’ performances against underdogs Andorra as an indicator, we might assume Belgium have the edge.
Belgium, featuring Premier League stars including Thibault Courtois, Divock Origi and Nacer Chadli, brushed aside the minnows 6-0, creating 25 ‘good scoring chances from 71 passages of ‘advanced possession’. Wales, who had to come from behind to grab a 2-1 win, only managed 12 ‘good scoring chances from their 50 passages of ‘advanced possession’ against the same opponents.
Another team which has taken everyone by surprise is Iceland. Inspired by a brace from Swansea City playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, they achieved a historic 2-0 win over Holland, and can boast a perfect record at the top of Group A. While not conceding a single goal in their matches, the Nordic side have created themselves a healthy average of 12.4 medium-high scoring chances per game, proving their worth at either end of the field.
An international friendly at Old Trafford sees Carlos Tevez return to the Argentina team after an absence of over three years, as they face off against Portugal. Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo are both returning to the home of their former club Manchester United, and Portugal’s defence should be on guard against an Argentina team that has scored 13 goals in their last 3 games.
The brilliance of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria is evident in Argentina’s 52% ‘high quality’ ratio from their average of 11 ‘individual style’ build-up moves per game, similarly the sublime skills of Ronaldo and Nani are reflected in Portugal’s 46% from 13.