Tactics not Passion: Getting to know Donegal

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

In a special feature, Emmet Ryan looks at the development of Donegal’s 45-45 defence and the challenges awaiting the Ulster champions in the 2012 season.

Finding what fits
Donegal endured some lean years in Ulster prior to the radical change in strategy deployed by Jim McGuinness over the 2011 season. With such a barren stretch, albeit one with a 2009 All Ireland quarter final, a total overhaul was required.

The end result was more radical than anyone could have imagined but it was rooted in the basics. Donegal turned to their core strengths and looked to install a system that suited them. Michael Murphy is a unique attacking force but he’s also excellent at defending. Karl Lacey isn’t bad at it either, indeed Donegal have an awful lot of players who are good at defending. When backs who can tackle and forwards who can track back abound, building from that is a sensible starting point.

Catenaccio of the Gaels
Under McGuinness, Donegal dominate the terms on how and when the ball crosses either 45 line. As a result, in my regular column, I have dubbed the strategy the 45-45. Donegal’s defence ensures opponents rarely enter scoring territory in a favourable position. Their patient approach going forward means that while scoring opportunities are not plentiful, there’s little fear of a quick counter attack.

If the other team hasn’t got the ball, it’s going to be difficult for them to score. That part has been nailed down pretty well by Donegal. Their defence is however more nuanced than that. They also make sure that if they other guy must have the ball on occasion, he’s going to have to work awfully hard to do anything with it.

I don’t know if McGuinness was a fan of Hector Herrera’s Internazionale teams of the 1960s but he’s certainly on their wavelength. The Catenaccio style of Football (the Association kind) played by that Inter team was rooted in the same defence-first principles applied by Donegal.

While 45-45 requires players to operate at a high tempo, it allows Donegal to slow the game down as they see fit and control the pace until an opportunity presents itself. Many analysts, myself included, initially drew comparisons with Tyrone and Dublin but the only true similarity between these styles and Donegal’s is recognition of the value of defence. The way in which Donegal impose their game is quite different and more suited to the assets available to the county.

One beautiful half

Croke Park on the 28th of August was the location for the most dominant half of Football delivered by any team in this year’s Championship. This was no moral victory because no good really comes from them. For 35 minutes the nation’s eyes were opened to just how far Donegal had come. In just one half of a game, after so much pain, Donegal’s Footballers made a statement that they truly are All Ireland contenders.

Donegal saw everything coming. Recognising the calibre of backs at Dublin’s disposal, they¬†played a more controlled game going forward. Dublin’s attack meanwhile could find no answer to the 45-45. Bernard Brogan was isolated but un-threatening. Even Dublin’s long range shooting game was taken out of the equation. Tackles were made higher and wider up the field than usual, notably limiting Stephen Cluxton to two difficult frees that he missed. Even Dublin’s short-kick out strategy had no effect on Donegal’s mindset. The quick short balls were useless when the player receiving was greeted with a bank of green and gold jerseys. Dublin simply had no answer during that opening period.

Conquering the 45-45
No strategy is without flaws. Perfection should be the objective of every manager but evolution ensures no-one will ever truly find it on a Football pitch.

Donegal came close to it in the All Ireland Semi Final yet that moment came in a game they lost. The cracks started to appear at the beginning of the second half, when the Ulster champions looked to be in the ascendency. The 45-45 relies heavily on the half backs receiving defenisve support from midfield and the half forward line. As Donegal pressed forward the swarm of bodies got stretched.

Dublin’s midfield and forwards were able to press forward more, having been afforded more space to operate. By conventional standards the Dubs were still smothered but there was enough air to make the difference in a low-scoring contest.

Dublin overcame the 45-45 but it would be excessive to say they conquered the system; at least not in a way that will be useful to anyone facing Donegal in Ulster next summer. It’s no surprise that an outfit which was rebuilt from a defensive base was the first to win against McGuinness’ system in a big game.

The test I’m looking forward to is seeing how Donegal match up with Cork in the National League this spring. It’s a far cry from Croke Park in August but that Division 1 match-up could prove most informative. The Rebels beat Dublin en route to an All Ireland title in 2010 by using their physical superiority to target the middle and break the spine of the defence. Dublin have since adapted but Donegal may not need to change the way they play to the same degree.

Having talented individual defenders helps but in previous years Donegal’s backs were more susceptible to one-on-one situations. The centre of the park, traditional habitats of full backs and centre backs, is better fortified under McGuinness’ system, making it more resistant to attacks on the spine.

Where to from here?
If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other. Aesthetes may bemoan the rise of Donegal’s style of play but even Catenaccio was eventually solved by Total Football.

The radical difference in what Donegal have implemented has forced Football people across the island to think more. They are thinking about ways around it, ways through it, and no doubt some are looking for ways to find a fatal weakness.

The challenge for Donegal, and indeed every county, is to continue evolving the way they play. There’s rarely time to stand still on the field and the same goes for planning off of it.

The common theme in the wake of Donegal’s exit from the championship was one that called on Jim McGuinness to add an ‘attacking element’. The task facing the Donegal brain trust however is far more complicated than pushing men forward and shooting better.

As it stands Donegal’s strategy is as good as any county’s. To improve they must find a way to maintain that defensive steel curtain, that dictation of play, while improving scoring opportunities. There are several ways in which they can do this but there is no surefire solution.

Donegal could look for ways to build a more counter-attack based strategy around the 45-45 or they can look to turn the system into a more pressing formation. The latter would require bringing all of the players in the swarm of bodies forward gradually.

There are substantial flaws in both approaches. Counter-attacking alleviates the issues of the swarm being overly stretched but it will be neutered with ease by a well equipped swarm. Pressing strategies drain stamina even more than the current system and are open to counter attacks.

There are no easy answers but as it stands Donegal’s footballers are in an enviable position. They know their core strengths and how to utilise them effectively. To those who complain about aesthetics there is one way to make Donegal change; beat them.

This article first appeared in the 2011 Donegal GAA Yearbook.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

4 Responses to “Tactics not Passion: Getting to know Donegal”

  1. [...] found the net after Karl Lacey passed to him inside. The first 10 minutes looked familiar to anyone who watched Donegal in 2011. The home side was patient in their build-up play and there was a focus on getting back to cover in [...]

  2. [...] attacking style hasn’t changed. Jim McGuinness’ charges still attack in waves and play a patient game between the 45s looking to dictate play. The real step forward has been in how well they dictate play. Changes in [...]

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