If ever there was a competition to find the most unfortunate manager in world football, Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough would surely storm to the title.
Baraclough succeeded Northern Ireland hero Michael O’Neill in June 2020. That was his first issue. It was like David Moyes replacing the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and the succession of managers that have followed at Old Trafford since then. Big boots needed to be filled, with O’Neill leaving his post as an all-time legend.
But unlike that long list of bosses at the Theatre of Dreams, Baraclough has managed to grind out some battling displays and has done just about enough to stay in the dugout over these past couple of years.
Early struggles for Baraclough
Much of his initial misfortune came thanks to the retirement of many key figures within the squad. Not only had Northern Ireland lost their boss shortly after their unforgettable Euro 2016 journey, but they had also lost several key players.
Legendary centre-backs Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley called it a day, as did Chris Brunt, Chris Baird, Jamie Ward and Roy Carroll.
To pile on the misery, talented midfielder Oliver Norwood decided it was time to focus on his club career, leaving the boss with an unwanted gap in the middle of the pitch.
Add to that the lengthy injury list that Northern Ireland have had over recent times – particularly involving key player Jonny Evans – and Baraclough hasn’t had it easy at all.
Equally frustrating, however, has been the absence of fans from the iconic National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. The Covid-19 pandemic has coincided with the manager’s tenure, and he has yet to fully witness just what it is like to play under the lights in Belfast surrounded by a stadium filled with noise and colours as the Green and White Army cheer on their country.
All of the above saw Baraclough struggle to win matches in his early stages as boss.
To make matters more complicated for the manager, he is also the man set to be tasked with gradually replacing even more crucial players all over the pitch.
That begins with captain fantastic Steven Davis, who recently turned 37. The midfielder could soon hang up his boots on the international stage.
The much-adored Kyle Lafferty is 34, as is Jonny Evans. Other key players over the years approaching retirement age at international level include Craig Cathcart (33) and Niall McGinn (34).
Luckily, if anyone is well-versed in the country’s youth setup, it is the man currently in the dugout. He spent three years as manager of the Northern Ireland Under-21 side. And like the boss, many youngsters have made the step up to the senior side.
Youngsters key to Baraclough’s approach
Several young players have slowly but surely earned their stripes within the Northern Ireland international setup under Baraclough. At the back, goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and centre-back Daniel Ballard are two prime examples. The pair have put in countless impressive shifts in green and white in recent times, with the goalkeeper in particular proving many supporters wrong.
And going forward, 23-year-old Blackpool striker Shayne Lavery looks set to partner Josh Magennis, or even lead the line himself in the coming years.
But perhaps the most excitement is reserved for midfield. Many supporters are fearing for a future without Davis. But exciting midfield trio Ali McCann, George Saville and Jordan Thompson have helped ease those fears.
Particularly exciting is the bright start that Preston youngster McCann has made to his international career. The 22-year-old’s displays in the heart of midfield have been hugely impressive, notably against several top-class midfielders.
More exciting still, he could soon be joined by fellow youngsters Ethan Galbraith (20) and Alfie McCalmont (21). Both are currently plying their trade in League One at Doncaster Rovers and Morecambe respectively, on loan from Manchester United and Leeds respectively.
While there is much room for youth to flourish, their progression wouldn’t be possible without the crucial, older heads in the setup. Captain Davis typifies this leadership, followed by essential players Stuart Dallas, Magennis, Patrick McNair, and Corry Evans, among others.
Tight defensive system mirrors O’Neill’s approach
Baraclough has slightly chopped and changed his system throughout his tenure, sometimes due to his opponents, but more often than not due to the players he has had at his disposal.
But it is always a tight defensive approach that he has utilised, much like his predecessor O’Neill. It usually involves a back five, with three in midfield and two upfront. That 5-3-2 formation normally consists of three central defenders playing in close proximity to one another, with two hard-working wing-backs on either side.
The midfield three then operate as a unit, acting as the link between attack and defence. Possession doesn’t come easy for Northern Ireland, particularly against world-class nations, so Baraclough relies heavily on players who have the ability to keep the ball well.
Two forwards then occupy the top two spots and are always forced into putting in a tireless performance, chasing down long through balls from the defence, or pressing the opposition defenders. Holding up the play is another feat they are often tasked with, while pace on the counter-attack is a regular strategy going forward.
Naturally, this has at times become a similar 3-5-2. Regardless of formation, the starting XI has always involved a combination of youth and experience.
Recent success and future aims
The approach has worked very well for Baraclough on many occasions, not least so in the latest encounter against Italy in November 2021, when the countries met in the group stages of the World Cup qualifiers.
The mixture of youth and experience more than held their own against the European champions, who failed to break down the home side’s block and could only leave Belfast with a point in the 0-0 stalemate.
The draw gave the manager much-needed confidence, and that confidence was shared throughout the Irish Football Association board, who handed him a new two-year contract just one month later.
He will remain in charge for the upcoming Nations League, as well as the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. But fans will most certainly want to see the country challenge like they did under O’Neill, or Baraclough’s time in the dugout will more than likely be brought to an abrupt halt.
For the time being though, supporters are excited for what awaits, beginning with friendlies against Luxembourg and Hungary this month.