Dallas in midfield? More pace out wide? Boyce up top? NI boss Baraclough's options if he wants a refresh

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Ian Baraclough
Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying opener away to Italy will be Baraclough's ninth game in charge

It started with a young prospect defecting to the Republic of Ireland and finished with Nations League relegation being confirmed just hours before a ball was kicked in the final match.

With the agony of the back-to-back Euros dream being crushed along the way, Ian Baraclough's start to life as Northern Ireland manager was certainly challenging.

Having stepped up from his role as under-21 boss, the former Motherwell manager failed to get a win during 90 minutes or extra time in his first eight matches.

Five defeats and three draws - one of which was the Euro play-off semi-final against Bosnia-Herzegovina which NI won on penalties - were played out across three camps last autumn as the new dynamic of the Covid 19-affected international calendar began to take shape.

While far from a free hit - that Euro play-off final loss to Slovakia was a cruel blow for supporters - the pressure on Baraclough to deliver better results will no doubt increase when World Cup qualification swings into action next week.

The trip to Italy on 25 March is an undeniably difficult start, but the visit to Windsor Park six days later of Bulgaria - a team ranked 23 places below Baraclough's men - represents an opportunity to register an early qualifying victory.

Baraclough's starting teams, for the two play-off matches in particular, did not drift far from predecessor Michael O'Neill's blueprint. Indeed, the lack of depth in the player pool means the list of options is not extensive.

However, ahead of a new campaign, BBC Sport NI identifies a few changes that the 50-year-old could make if he wants to refresh the look and feel of his side.

Move Dallas into midfield

Stuart Dallas
Dallas has been a mainstay of the Leeds United team on their return to the Premier League

Leeds United's promotion has allowed the Premier League audience to discover what the Green and White Army have known for a long time - that Stuart Dallas is a stellar player.

However, one thing both audiences have probably learnt together this season is the former Crusaders and Brentford man's ability to operate so effectively at the highest level in midfield.

Versatility has always been a key trait for Dallas and Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa has made use of this by playing him in both full-back berths or in a wide role, but his performances in the centre of the park have certainly been an eye-opener.

While he will have moved into midfield during matches, the 29-year-old has never really been a starter in that position for his country. However, it is difficult to imagine Baraclough will not be at least considering deploying him in his engine room in this campaign, with Michael Smith or Conor McLaughlin able to fill in at right-back.

Assuming Steven Davis will occupy his now customary role at the base of a three-man midfield, Dallas could take the place of the underperforming George Saville to the captain's left, with Paddy McNair offering a driving force from the right.

Alternatively, of course, Dallas could sit deeper alongside Davis - he has displayed his defensive nous at full-back often enough - and allow McNair perhaps even more licence to run beyond the striker from an advanced position in front of the pair.

Give pace a chance

Jordan Jones
Jordan Jones was unavailable for NI's play-off final after breaching Covid-19 regulations while at Rangers

Corry Evans was a go-to man in important matches for O'Neill, who regularly deployed him in a wide-right role - with Dallas often on the other side - in a formation that was flexible between 4-3-3 and 4-5-1, depending on the opposition.

The Blackburn Rovers midfielder's aggression and tactical discipline have made him a key asset for Northern Ireland, and Baraclough clearly recognised that by playing him wide on the right in Sarajevo before being robbed of his services for the play-off final.

With Dallas having moved to full-back, Niall McGinn played on the left in both play-off games. He, along with Jordan Jones and Gavin Whyte, offers real pace for Northern Ireland on the flanks, but only once did Baraclough start a match with two of these three - when Whyte and Jones played in the 1-0 Nations League defeat at home to Norway.

Neither pulled up many trees that night in what was a flat team performance, but they have gone on loan since then - Whyte to Hull City and Jones to Sunderland - and, while admittedly in League One, both will join up with the Northern Ireland squad in good form and in a much more positive frame of mind than in the autumn.

Baraclough is likely to opt for the solidity and work-rate offered by Evans for the trip to Italy, and understandably so. But if he feels a statement selection could be the jolt his team needs for the visit of Bulgaria, then sending for the cavalry on both flanks could be an option.

Time for Boyce to get a start in qualifiers?

Liam Boyce
Liam Boyce has scored two goals in 27 international appearances

Northern Ireland's strikers are all in decent goalscoring form for their clubs - something that is rarely the case going into an international window.

In League One, Josh Magennis has 12 goals in 35 games for Hull City while Conor Washington's goal on Saturday made it 10 in 33 for him for Charlton Athletic. North of the border, Kyle Lafferty bagged a double on his first Scottish Premiership start for Kilmarnock recently and, in the Championship, Liam Boyce has 13 goals in 21 appearances this campaign.

Looking further down the striker pecking order, Linfield's Shayne Lavery - well known to Baraclough during his time with the U21s - has netted 17 times in 23 outings while the uncapped Dion Charles has scored 17 goals in 37 games for Accrington Stanley.

While Boyce started Northern Ireland's last two Nations League matches, scoring in the 1-1 draw with Romania last time out, he only got on the pitch for a few seconds across the two play-offs. And a look back across the last two qualifying campaigns reveals just a single start - away to Azerbaijan in June 2017 - in 22 games.

After narrowly missing out on the Euro 2016 squad, the former Cliftonville forward's international career has had a stop-start feel to it, but his natural ability and finishing prowess have been admired by supporters at every club he has played for.

He is the least mobile of the striking options and that has never helped his cause, especially given that it is often a lone striking role for Northern Ireland that carries a big responsibility for pressing defenders and running the channels.

However, Boyce being among the goals this season - and the fact that nobody else has made the number nine role their own - could persuade Baraclough to consider giving him more of a chance in the games that matter most.

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