Michael O’Neill was left to rue to the lack of Premier League experience in his side after Northern Ireland’s spirited display was not enough in Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifying defeat to Germany.
O’Neill could only look on with envious eyes at the resources available to his opponents, who triumphed 2-0 thanks to Marcel Halstenberg’s thunderbolt early in the second half and a stoppage-time second from Serge Gnabry.
This may be a new-look Germany side, featuring only two survivors from the team that beat Northern Ireland 3-1 in Belfast two years ago, but 10 of the 11 players in Joachim Low’s starting XI are playing Champions League football this season.
In contrast, O’Neill had only four Premier League players in his side – three if Bailey Peacock-Farrell, yet to feature for Burnley since his summer move from Leeds, is discounted.
All three of those players – Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Jamal Lewis – lined up in defence, but it is in attack that Northern Ireland could use an injection of quality.
“Any international manager wants their players playing at the top level,” O’Neill said. “That’s more difficult for the smaller nations – Scotland, Wales, ourselves – but that’s a consequence of the Premier League and I don’t see that changing.
“It’s great that we’ve got Jamal in the Premier League with Jonny and Craig but I think that’s something we’re continually going to be fighting against.
“Realistically, it’s hard to see how players can get to that level and get above the Championship level.
“That’s fine when you’re playing in the middle tier of European football and we are in that middle tier, but when you come up against the big countries it’s a different level.
“That’s mostly in the final third. Our three Premier League players play in the back four and that’s the challenge we face.”
Peacock-Farrell may be struggling for playing time at club level but he was arguably Northern Ireland’s best player as he made a string of saves to keep his side in the game.
“He played very well,” O’Neill said of the 22-year-old. “He’s a young goalkeeper with not a lot of experience either at international level or in first-team football. He’s not had any first-team minutes for six months so I was pleased with him.
“He knows himself his kicking could have been better but it was a big night with some big saves at an important part of the game.
“He’s going to be a big goalkeeper going forward and hopefully we see him playing first-team football soon. It’s difficult to come in and play games of this nature consistently when you’re not playing first-team football.”
Northern Ireland had matched the four-time World Cup winners for most of the first half, even having the better of the opening exchanges, but once left chasing the game O’Neill did not have the strength-in-depth on his bench to call on.
While Low introduced the highly-rated Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Kai Havertz and Juventus’ Emre Can to close the game out, O’Neill turned to 20-year-old Linfield striker Shayne Lavery and Gavin Whyte, who was himself playing in the Irish League only 18 months ago with Crusaders.
Finding that cutting edge will be key to Northern Ireland’s hopes of beating either Germany or Holland to a qualifying place out of Group C.
“It’s an area where we have to do better,” O’Neill said. “We were able to win the ball and create opportunities and did extremely well but ultimately we didn’t take them.
“We can pat ourselves on the back and say we gave it everything or look at it and say we wasted opportunities. That’s certainly how I feel about it and most if not all of the players in the dressing room feel that way about it too.”
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