Mayo aren’t Down but…
The fundamental approaches of Down and Mayo to defence aren’t all that different. Both look to build their games from behind the ball. Cork showed in the semi-final that they have a rather direct approach to dealing with hordes of bodies. They either try to go through them or go over them both. The route-one approach worked with great success for the Rebels in the semi-final as they produced 9 of their first 13 scores this way, not to mention both goals.
There are however two notable differences which should ensure a much tighter game. Athletically speaking, Mayo are better built to contend with Cork’s high ball approach. James Horan’s team won’t surrender as meekly as Down’s backs did under the Rebels aerial bombardment, although they will still face a ton of pressure. The other key factor here will be Mayo’s much higher defensive line. Cork had a lot of room to advance inside Down’s half a fortnight ago. Look for the Rebels to meet banks of backs much higher up the field, presenting an earlier challenge to their direct style.
The isolation gambit
The success of Mayo’s efforts in crowding out ball-carriers has been the most visible element of Horan’s defensive scheme. Mayo’s players get tight and in large numbers around ball-carriers, looking to effectively blind them from finding an outlet. Essentially this is an all or nothing approach. In addition to requiring a great deal of stamina from the players involved, it also guarantees that if the man in possession breaks through that there will be a distinct advantage for his team-mates to advance and develop attacks. Largely we’ve seen Mayo effectively get ‘all’ rather than ‘nothing’ barring a brief spell against Kerry in the last game.
Cork will present a strong test to this approach and not merely because of the physical style they play. Counihan’s charges have played smarter Football since their horrendous display in Ballybofey. Don’t be surprised if the Rebels try a few new things on Sunday, possibly utilising the half-backs more in developing play and seeking openings before advancing past half-way.
The way Cork and Mayo each attack is radically different. Cork’s game is heavily built around getting the ball into the highest percentage position to score. Ideally any team would like create only high percentage chances and lots of them but good defences tend to prevent that. The Rebels have proved better than pretty much anyone at getting the ball into a position from which they are likely to score. With limited options from distance, it’s vital to the Rebels that they develop a strong supply.
Mayo by contrast have proven far more adept at scoring from distance. Having more natural scorers helps but James Horan’s men have also developed a game where scoring opportunities are often presented better further out. Much of this stems from the defence. Mayo’s ability to control play between their own 45 and midfield allows them to use the half-backs as creative outlets. This brings the half-forwards more into the game as scorers and can create room for worthwhile efforts from long range.
It’s important not to read too much into past meetings between teams and even more than usual with this pairing. Cork and Mayo have played 5 times in the past three years between league and championship, with Mayo edging the head-to-head 3-2, and the tone of each game has been radically different on each occasion. Not least in 2010 when Mayo beat Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the league only to be dominated by the Rebels a week later in the Division 1 final.
With that in mind we should focus on the fundamentals we know from this season. These are two teams with inconsistent form who improved their style, and results, as the season progressed. Cork’s route one remains their meat and drink but they are, two years after winning an All-Ireland with this style, finally learning to tweak it. Aidan Walsh’s dual role as target man and play-maker could be vital. If he can be effective, then the Rebels will do enough to stay in the fight on the scoreboard. Mayo’s chief task will be reducing the pressure on their high-intensity defence. That means getting their forwards into the game up-field. This match could tell us a lot about Cork’s defence. If they contain Mayo’s forwards when they operate from long range, then it will be a massive boost looking to the summer. The bookies have the Rebels as 2 point favourites and that looks about right to me.
Programming note: We will have reviews of all four league finals. The Division 4 Final will be up by Sunday morning. Division 1 will go up Sunday night, followed by Division 2 on Monday morning. Division 3 could go up on Sunday afternoon but is more likely to be posted first thing on Wednesday. As always, this is a provisional schedule bit I hope to get them all up that fast.
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