After blitzing Ballinderry Shamrocks in the first half, Crossmaglen Rangers were forced to fight off a second half comeback by the Derry champions to remain on course for a fifth Ulster title in six years.
The attacking swarm
This column has discussed the swarm at length since this column began in June 2010 but today a different variant was on full display in Casement Park. When referring to the swarm, usually the concept is built around defence breaking into attack. Crossmaglen turn this inside out with their heavy focus on the attacking side of the game.
The Armagh champions sought to overwhelm in attack, trusting that they would have the bodies to track back where needed. Aaron Kernan’s runs from defence led to him having about as many touches inside the Ballinderry 45 as any outright attacker on the Crossmaglen team.
Kernan, like so many of the Cross defenders, broke forward at will. Throughout the game, Crossmaglen regularly had 10 men in the Ballinderry half as they pressed forward. At one point in the 43rd minute, Crossmaglen had 7 men inside the Ballinderry 45 and within a minute had 5 players crowding out Colin Devlin on their own 21.
The tactic played heavily to Crossmaglen’s strengths, with multiple scoring threats including Aaron Kernan, Oisin McConville, and Stephen Kernan. At this level it’s rare to see a team with the depth of attacking options available to Crossmaglen so constructing a plan that best exploits these scoring talents makes sense.
There were however some notable holes. While Cross were able to get men back to hold off sustained attacks from Ballinderry, they looked susceptible to quick strikes on the break in the opening period. That weakness would come back to haunt them in the second half.
Crossmaglen don’t adjust with extra man
The situation at the break couldn’t have looked better for Crossmaglen. They led 0-11 to 0-4 and Ballinderry had been reduced to 14 men with Martin Harney sent off. The Armagh champions failed to take advantage however and much of it was down to their core strategy.
A team that is built around starting at 100 mph and pressing forward in droves, isn’t ideally suited to sitting on a lead. Rather than deploy an outright extra defender, Cross just looked to continue their aggressive attacking strategy. While not directly harmful to their own efforts, it did nothing to hinder any potential comeback by the Derry champions. Ballinderry effectively faced the same challenge as before, an opponent that would try to overwhelm them going forward but leave space at the back.
Ballinderry’s counter-punching pays off
On 52 minutes I scribbled down: If it bleeds we can kill it. That sums up the attacking philosophy of Ballinderry after the break. They saw one gaping wound in the Crossmaglen defensive plan and continually aimed to rip it apart.
Raymond Wilkinson was at the heart of everything Shamrocks did right throughout this game. In the first half he was the only threat from play for Ballinderry as he looked to pass his way through the middle of the Crossmaglen defence. His quick thinking with Darren Conway nearly led to a goal in the 12th minute.
Wilkinson and Conleth Gilligan combined for three points in as many minutes upon the resumption. Gilligan, Wilkinson, Conway and 40th minute substitute Devlin formed an quick-striking quartet that targeted the Crossmaglen defence before the cavalry could arrive. Quick passing moves, working partially off high balls to Conway, picked apart the Cross defence. Wilkinson and Conway were, unsurprisingly, involved in the move that led to a penalty in the 50th minute. Gilligan slotted home and the comeback was in full swing.
Staying true to the system succeeds
With 10 minutes to go, Crossmaglen were wilting and giving up scores far too easily. There was only one approach to take; attack. Stephen Kernan, Tony Kernan, and McConville all scored from play as Crossmaglen made one final surge for the line. For all the success Ballinderry had on the counter, when Crossmaglen pressed forward with speed there was not stopping them.
Formations really played a minimal role in the strategies of both teams today. The only notable tweaks saw both teams deploy their full forwards particularly high towards the goal, largely the opposite of the trend used in the club games covered by this column to date.
That said this was still a tactically fascinating battle. It took Ballinderry half the game to find their feet but once they did the game was well and truly on. Their aggressive counter-punching approach put the game in the balance entering the business end of proceedings, an unlikely outcome at half time. They introduction of Devlin helped exploit a worrying hole in the Crossmaglen defence. Games however are won over 60 minutes not 20 and that was the difference today.
Crossmaglen’s out-and-out focus on attack made for an open game. The speed at which the Armagh champions operate is going to be a challenge for any opponent. Maintaining that pace throughout the game however looks to be an issue and we saw today, if Crossmaglen haven’t buried an opponent by the break they can be clawed back. Focussing on exploiting a wealth of attacking options should be praised and most teams will be blown away by the Cross approach.
This was no pushover opponent but for much of the day, Crossmaglen looked in a different class. That was largely due to their overwhelming attack. This likely won’t be the last effective counter-attacking opponent that comes up against Crossmaglen. How they adjust their defence to such challenges will go a long way towards deciding whether they retain their All Ireland title on St Patrick’s day.
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