The most anticipated game of the early rounds takes place this Sunday as Donegal host Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster Championship. Emmet Ryan breaks down the tactical factors that will decide this game.
The known and the unknown
First to the known, which is Aidan Cassidy or rather his absence from the Tyrone starting line-up. While not as high profile a name through the spring campaign as some of his colleagues, Cassidy’s role for Tyrone in the middle third is huge. A useful ball-handler, Cassidy adds bulk and control to Tyrone’s game. His play helps release Sean Cavanagh, Joe McMahon, and, to an admittedly lesser extent, Peter Harte into more advanced roles. Losing him hurts Tyrone in multiple departments. The attack will require more players to withdraw, most likely McMahon, and Tyrone’s ability to stymie Donegal’s control of midfield will be limited. This naturally has a knock-on effect for Tyrone’s defence which will likely see more ball coming their way. With Cassidy likely to be available off the bench, he could offer some stability late in the game and his use, if he does come in, will be worth monitoring.
The unknown is Karl Lacey. Anyone who tells you they know what shape Lacey is in is either in Jim McGuinness’ camp and necessarily a liar (because if anyone there told the truth they would be an idiot and McGuinness wouldn’t tolerate one) or guessing based on no evidence. This makes assessing his role on Sunday difficult. The equation isn’t quite as simple as Donegal with Lacey in any condition > Donegal without Lacey, but it’s not all that removed from it either. If Lacey can contribute to controlling possession in Donegal’s own territory, even without adding his moves forward, he could play a big role in deciding the outcome.
How and where Michael Murphy plays will depend heavily on how well Colm McFadden plays on Sunday. I expect Murphy to start out in his combo-role, operating in front of midfield and moving in to provide a twin-target threat with McFadden. While Murphy’s scoring ability is well-established, if McFadden finds success inside there will be plenty of cause for Donegal to increasingly use him in his more creative role in the middle third. If McFadden repeats his league struggles, which is should be added he had before last summer’s All Star season, then McGuinness will have to move players around to facilitate Murphy in a more advanced role as the game progresses.
Accuracy and quality of chances
Donegal’s success in their clash with Tyrone last summer was built heavily on their ability to restrict Mickey Harte’s charges to long range efforts from dead balls. With Niall Morgan now in the set-up, fresh off a 5 of 6 performance from 45 metres or more against Dublin, a direct repeat of this approach won’t suffice. Donegal must force play out to the flanks, so that if they must foul they can increase the difficulty for the Tyrone goalkeeper. Tyrone of course face a challenge of their own in this regard. Donegal’s shots in the 2012 encounter mostly came from favourable positions as their twin-targets of Murphy and McFadden won a series of dead balls from 20 metres of closer. If Donegal can get their wing backs and sweepers into attack, Tyrone will have great difficulty shutting this door again.
The summer campaign always brings the issue of depth to the forefront and this game is likely to be won and lost by use of the bench. Donegal have a decisive advantage in this regard as Tyrone’s, while superior to a year ago, is still a work in progress when match up with the elite in the game. McGuinness has the options available to him to allow Donegal to push a hard tempo with heavy emphasis on ball-control from the start. Tyrone’s attacking efficiency needs to be of the highest standard to withstand this. They have a chance but on balance I can’t see it being enough. Donegal to win.
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