Tactics not Passion: Crossmaglen find their rhythm to beat Dr Crokes 3-8 to 2-8

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

After a woeful start, Crossmaglen Rangers took over in Portlaoise to beat Dr Crokes in the All-Ireland Club Football semi-final. Emmet Ryan breaks down the key moves in the game.

Poor starting strategy from Crossmaglen

The Ulster champions began the game in disastrous fashion. Their devotion to a man to man philosophy in defence was so stringent that no tweaks were made to adapt for Dr Crokes’ potent attack. Changing approach to meet your opponent is not a sign of a lack of belief in your system, it’s a sign that you can adapt a core tactic to suit the occasion. Fundamentally the problem with Crossmaglen early was they let the Munster champions’ forwards dictate the flow of play. Man-marking need not be a series of one-to-one battles but it was the case for the opening 20 minutes. This allowed Crokes to slice open the middle of the park and score at will.

With the defensive platform being run ragged, the Ulster champions proved hasty in attack. Cross treated the strong breeze at their backs with all the maturity of schoolboys. Long balls were pumped forward and low-percentage shots from distance were the norm early. So eager were the Crossmaglen forwards to use the gale at their backs, they left their core strengths in attack to one side. There was no sign of the overwhelming waves of forwards that thrilled in the autumn. Instead there was panic and a dearth of thinking.

Crokes play to their strengths early

In contrast Dr Crokes played a well-disciplined game early that allowed their forwards to take charge. The defence, which would eventually become undone, started well by pressing high. At one point, on 7 minutes, there were 7 Crokes players between their own 45 and 65.  This high line meant the attack wasn’t hampered by the gale as forwards didn’t have to drop deep for support.

Crokes showed some great passing play to build up a 1-5 to 0-1 lead on 20 20 minutes. The threat they posed was clear from the first score of the day. Eoin Brosnan broke up the middle of the park, he passed to  Jamie Doolan around 30m from goal. Doolan’s pass to set up Colin Cooper for the opening point was an example of passing to make the man open rather than passing to the open man. He put the ball in the perfect place for Cooper to have the angle to advance on goal.

It was a sign of things to come as Crokes, particularly through Brosnan, tore up the middle. On 6 minutes Brosnan began a move through the middle that saw Ambrose O’Donovan connect with Andrew Kennelly. With free reign to run at the defence Kennelly shot on goal but was narrowly wide. Crucially, when Kennelly was in a similar position on 15 minutes he opted for a point early. The difference at this stage was the Crossmaglen had started pulling defenders inside, crowding out opportunities to tear through the centre.

Crossmaglen make significant adjustments

The opening goal of the game oddly came at a point where Crossmaglen were beginning to adapt to this approach. O’Donovan’s pass across the middle on 20 minutes couldn’t have been much better , although replays made in unclear if Daithi Casey actually had the final touch.

The next 31 minutes however would see just 1 more point added to the Kerry team’s tally.  In addition to bringing more bodies inside, Crossmaglen made two significant adjustments to their defence. The introduction of David McKenna added a much needed physical presence to the defence. The Armagh side also started tackling hard further out from goal. The risk of giving up frees proving worthwhile in exchange for time to maintain defensive shape.

It was at this stage that Crossmaglen finally started attacking with intelligence. The Armagh side started moving the ball in closer to goal, allowing more attackers to get involved. The speed at which they executed moves enabled Crossmaglen to create high-percentage chances by forcing holes as Crokes struggled to cover the horde pouring forward. The problems this approach causes opposing defences was evident from both goals.

Tony Kernan’s high ball to Oisin McConville held the focus of the Crokes’ backline. When Kernan kicked Michael McNamee was 30m out in front of goal. Unmarked he broke left, on a run only McConville was in position to react to. McNamee used the outside and fired home.

There is a furious calm to the way Crossmaglen attack. While they cause chaos in defence and operate at speed, there is rarely panic in their play when they are at full speed. The second goal exemplified this ethos.

Tony Kernan started the move up the right flank, doing a 1-2 with Jamie Clarke before passing to Martin Aherne  but his effort was stopped. Kernan was the essence of calm as he took possession of the breaking ball, passing to Clarke in space. With a wall of bodies in front of him Clarke offloaded to Stephen Kernan who stepped inside to pick his spot and score.

Substitutions prove decisive down the stretch

The introduction of McKenna was far from the only substitution made by Crossmaglen. The Ulster champions used their depth as a strategic tool to keep forcing the tempo throughout the game. Crossmaglen made changes on 12, 17, 29, 40, 51, and 60 minutes. The first of these was injury related but the bulk of the changes were tactical and ensured a regular infusion of energy into the line-up. When things weren’t going right for Crossmaglen early, they were able to change their approach with the introduction of McKenna. When they went down to 14 men, with the dismissal of Stephen Kernan, they had the personnel to adapt.

By contract Dr Crokes didn’t make a change until the 59th minute. As Crossmaglen went on a 2-6 to 0-1 run over 31 minutes, Crokes made no personnel changes or on-field adjustments to stem the tide.

With Crossmaglen now setting the tone, Crokes struggled to develop an attacking platform. When opportunities arose the Kerry champions remained a dangerous attacking unit. Crokes’ second goal saw six passes along and inside the 21 before Chris Brady finished from the rebound. Chances however were simply too hard to come by and, much like Crossmaglen at the start of the game, Crokes spent most of the second half resorting to long balls in an effort to create something from nothing.

The verdict

Crossmaglen’s in-game management was decisive here. Their opening approach was nothing short of a failure. The defence was torn apart, forcing their forwards into rash decision making. A few key adjustments in the first half saw massive improvement to distribution and they transformed into an overwhelming force.

Crokes defence was a concern going into this game but they looked capable of holding their own early. They had no answer to Crossmaglen’s adjustments however and were over-matched in the end. It was an ugly start for the Ulster champions but in the end it was another impressive performance overall. They will head to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day as favourites to retain their All-Ireland crown.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

Analysis of Garrycastle’s win over St Brigid’s should be online by Tuesday at 9am Irish time.

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