Northern Ireland were beaten 1-0 by Poland in their first appearance at a European Championship on Sunday when Arkadiusz Milik’s second-half goal brought their 12-game unbeaten run to a deserved end. With the world champions, Germany, awaiting Michael O’Neill’s team in their final game in Group C, there is heightened pressure on Northern Ireland to avoid defeat against Ukraine in Lyon on Thursday.
O’Neill opted for an ultra-defensive approach in Nice, where his team failed to have one shot on target against Wojciech Szczesny, the Poland goalkeeper. Although not going so far as to question his manager’s tactics, the experienced Evans admitted a different approach will be necessary to threaten Mykhaylo Fomenko’s team, who are bottom of the group, having lost 2-0 to Germany.
The West Bromwich Albion defender said: “Michael has hinted that we might try different things against different teams, especially Ukraine who are very good from the wide areas. [Andriy] Yarmolenko is probably their most dangerous player. He plays off the right side and that’s something Michael has talked about, so we’ll analyse the Poland game and see if we can take any positives from aspects of our game.
“There were times in the first half where they had a lot of possession and I thought we defended quite well but on the flip side we found it hard to get out.
“We had a lot of men behind the ball. I think we’ll learn from the fact that maybe at times we need to try to play a bit more. We rushed things a bit. Especially in that heat and against that quality of opposition, you know if you keep giving the ball back to them that it’s going to be a long night. I thought we showed good endeavour and we worked our socks off, which we’re always going to do, but maybe we need to play a bit better. It would have been nice to take something from the game but we know we can’t lose, especially with going to Paris against Germany in the last game who are going to dominate better than anyone. It might be a make-or-break for us against Ukraine.”
Northern Ireland won their qualifying group thanks in part to supreme defensive organisation and that was in evidence in Nice, where Evans and Gareth McAuley excelled as part of a three-man central defence. O’Neill’s selection against Poland, however, was more defensive, with Shane Ferguson a surprise inclusion at left wing-back having featured rarely in qualifying. Evans may be given the left-back role in a flat four against Dynamo Kyiv’s Yarmolenko.
“Michael said to me before the tournament started that he might need me to play left-back and I told him that wouldn’t be an issue,” Evans said. “I’ve played there for West Brom this season. Shane Ferguson was in the League One play-off with Millwall and I thought he played well against Poland. He’s another who can step in there, so the manager has a few different options to try.”
Northern Ireland finished above their fellow Euro 2016 qualifiers Romania and Hungary in reaching their first major tournament for 30 years but Evans admitted Poland were a step up in class.
The former Manchester United defender said: “You can play teams like that and get them on an off night in tough conditions in Windsor Park but out here, as much as it’s the biggest game of our careers, it was a massive game for Poland, too, and you could see the quality they had. We don’t see it in the Premier League a lot but European teams are very good at controlling the game.
“You could see what a great understanding they have of the game. They know when to play possession football and when to attack. They were 1-0 up and made us run and took the game away from us by doing it. Your legs are heavy, you’re exhausted and, when you do get the ball back, it’s very difficult then to produce that bit of quality because you’re almost dizzy.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010