Tactics not Passion: Highlights of the Season

Friday, September 30th, 2011

We are taking a rather liberal definition of the season here, using the All Ireland Football Final as the definitive end and thus everything between said finals as the season. If there is anything left out that you really wanted included, please say so in the comments and we’ll do our best to address them. For now let’s break down some of the tactical highlights of the year.

The dual roles of Brian Kavanagh

The most notable element as the club championship progressed was the importance of strength in depth, as deep benches aided most of the contenders. Tactically however there wasn’t anything particularly dynamic to this, no single change of pace that proved outstanding. Instead let’s look at how one tactic affected a single player.

For both Kilmacud Crokes and Longford, Brian Kavanagh was a clear target man. His height and strength make him a natural fit but he was deployed in different manners at club and county level. For Crokes, Kavanagh played as a true 14, a natural threat directly in front of goal giving him position to either turn and score in one-on-one situations or, as often occurred, win frees.

By contrast he was moved further out, around 30-35m from goal, and to the flank with Longford. This resulted in Kavanagh playing the role of creator rather than scorer, disrupting the Laois defence to present opportunities for his team mates.

Patience is often but not always a virtue
In Dublin’s lucky escape against Mayo, Cork’s win in the league final, and Dublin’s victory over Tyrone, amongst others I found myself focusing around one central theme. The importance of patience in attack. Dublin’s lack of patience eventually cost them the league title. The obsession of Pat Gilroy’s team with delivering a non-existent killer blow initially allowed Mayo to come back while Cork stayed true to their game plan to lift the first piece of national silverware of the year.

The turnaround for Dublin was slow, as their sloppy display against Wexford showed, but the break between that Leinster Final win and the quarter final with Tyrone was enough to make critical adjustments. The team that played against Mickey Harte’s three-time champions, and subsequently in the semi-final and final, showed that same ability to stay with the plan for the bulk of the game. Risk is important in Gaelic Football but it pays off the most when part of the wider plan. Hasty calls and desperate switches rarely yield positive results.

Unfortunately that doesn’t make patience the solution to all ills. Jack O’Connor’s decision to move Kieran Donaghy to midfield in the All Ireland Final was the kind of bold move that can change the course of a game but it failed to yield the desired effect. While giving Kerry an additional ball winner in the middle to launch attacks, his patient style in that role didn’t suit the pace of the forwards he was supplying.

Rare sightings of the blanket
The swarm was already ahead of the blanket* in terms of popularity as a strategy but this year still saw some notable incidents involving the latter. Antrim tried to implement a mixed approach by blending the blanket with the swarm but this hybrid approach was wholly dispatched by Donegal who were able to capitalise on the gaps created as Antrim tried to switch over and back.
*Just to explain the difference, here’s how I described it in the review of the 2010 All Ireland Final: “The blanket defence essentially invites attackers onto a wall whereas the swarm brings the wall to the attacker.”

This hybrid approach was attempted by Down in last year’s All Ireland final, indeed they were blanket system’s main proponents in 2010. Having suffered defensively throughout that All-Ireland run however Down largely switched to a deep lying man-marking approach as they were sent packing into the qualifiers by a so-so Armagh team. There would however be elements of the blanket retained in one notable adjustment.

Three swarms, two success stories
Donegal, Dublin, and Tyrone deployed three different versions of the swarm defence. Tyrone and Dublin’s bore the most similarities but still maintained a couple of vital differences. Gilroy’s outfit adapted their line in two of the three All Ireland series games to have a much deeper full back line in a successful effort at limiting attacks up the spine. This was very much an element of blanket play but one that succeeded largely due to the effectiveness of Dublin’s swarm higher up the field. With fewer attackers to come forward, Dublin’s deep lying full back line could control the direction of play.

By contrast, Tyrone played a much higher last line, forcing a commitment higher up the field by their defenders. In their heyday this move had substantial benefits as it enabled quick switches from defence into attack. In 2011, and in truth back in 2010, it was not suited to their much slower and depleted side. They remain amongst the likely quarter finalists in any given year but have taken an unquestioned step down from All Ireland contenders.

As for Donegal, well they just re-drew the concept of the swarm from scratch and rightly so. Any system deployed by a county should be done to make the most of the available assets. Donegal had defensive prowess in droves and started from that base to build into a true title contender.

Having been hidden from the public eye in Division 2, the vast majority of Gaelic Games followers didn’t get a look at the system installed by Jim McGuinness until championship time. The result was remarkable. It was a swarm effectively based on keeping play between the 45s, thus going forward this site will refer to it as the 45-45. It was a strategy that dictated the terms on how attacking moves took place on both ends. The sport hadn’t seen a tactic so dramatically different to the norm since Tyrone swarmed to an All Ireland title in 2003.

The approach required an up-tempo game from Donegal but enabled the Ulster champions to slow play to suit their moves. They played the most complete half of Football seen all summer against Dublin, only to be out-duelled by Gilroy’s switches as the game wore on. The critical matter to remember here is that this was just Year 1 of McGuinness’ regime. Having inherited a team prone to laying eggs in Ulster and faltering on the national stage, McGuinness has quickly made Donegal one of the hardest teams to beat in the country.

And the game I really want to see next summer is…
…Donegal vs. Cork. The complexities of Donegal’s 45-45 swarm against the downhill running of the Rebel County could surpass Dublin-Donegal as a defensive conflict. No team can target the middle with the power and frequency of Cork, at least as they are currently constructed.

The game is particularly interesting because of the contrast between both sides’ All Ireland semi finals with Dublin. Cork struggled against Dublin’s swarm early in the 2010 semi because it forced them out and high up the field but they eventually succeeded by breaking the middle. Donegal’s success against Dublin involved forcing the eventual champions even further from goal and their centre remained stout throughout the season. That’s just one element of a match-up that would force the best out of each county’s back-room teams.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who helped with this column throughout the season, in particular Cóilín Duffy who was invaluable during the club championship, to Lee Daly who subbed this piece, and the contributors at the Reservoir Dubs forums for helping to both give me ideas and spread the word. There isn’t going to really be a break but this is the nearest thing to an end of year we’ve got.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

7 Responses to “Tactics not Passion: Highlights of the Season”

  1. Good man Emmett, looking forward to your next missive.

  2. Cheers M-Daddy. Should, hopefully be rather soon

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