Donegal progressed to the Ulster Championship Semi Final with a convincing display against Derry in Ballybofey on Saturday. Emmet Ryan examines a match that saw the Ulster champions strategically dominate from the start.
Distribution at the heart of upgrades
The common narrative with Donegal this season is that they remain a defensive outfit but that they have looked to add an attacking element. Fundamentally however Donegal’s 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 the way Donegal move the ball have been at the heart of the matter here.
No move better demonstrated how the Donegal of 2011 is evolving into the 2012 edition more than Colm McFadden’s goal on 44 minutes. The move began as Derry’s Michael Friel was surrounded by three defenders as he tried to cross the Donegal 45. The ball was flicked on into the hands of Paddy McBrearty with play still around midfield. As McBrearty advanced Frank McGlynn, one of the tacklers that pressured Friel, sprinted down the centre. With Colm McFadden outside, Mark Lynch was left caught between covering McFadden and the on-rushing McGlynn. McBrearty opted for McFadden who had the angle to step inside the wrong-footed Lynch and finish from close range. This was a move rooted in the 45-45. It was about controlling playing in the middle third and attacking in waves. The speed and smoothness of distribution however is a level above what we saw last summer.
Positioning played a big role in this improved passing, particularly through the middle third. Michael Murphy initially lined out at full-forward but he quickly slotted into a role just between midfield and the half-forwards. It was from this role that Murphy laid waste to Cork back in March but Saturday’s game was far from a one-man show. Murphy was more the pivot in a diverse passing game which was ideal for tearing through Derry’s static defence.
A long ball and two short passes were at the heart of Donegal’s first goal. Ryan Bradley picked out McBrearty with a long ball and he quickly passed to McFadden. When McBrearty claimed possession their were three Derry defenders near him but McFadden timed his run to be able to take out all three almost untouched. He cut in from the left wing towards goal and was only stopped as he entered the large rectangle, by which stage Leo McLoone had rounded Sean Leo McGoldrick to get the right side for the finish. The goal may have looked scrappy in the end but it came about because of quality passing and positional awareness.
Neil Gallagher was among the chief architects of Donegal’s attack. He put David Walsh in position to advance forward on 5 minutes in a move that resulted in a Colm McFadden point. One 55 minutes Gallagher moved into space to pick up a flick on from Bradley to advance and score. The midfielder would return the favour 6 minutes later as he caught Paul Durcan’s kick out and quickly passed to Bradley who had acres to move forward and finish.
Ambition vs. Execution
The visitors came to Ballybofey with several goals in mind but lacked the strategy to achieve them. Starting up front, Derry had two clear objectives from the way they started the game:
(1) Get Paddy Bradley in one-on-one situations with Neil McGee
(2) Disrupt Donegal’s passing at the back.
They failed squarely on both counts. Bradley was swamped with defenders on almost every possession, unsurprising given how few one-on-one situations this Donegal defence tends to allow. That was why tackling Donegal at the back was vital, to split apart the backs and enable numerical advantages or at least parity.
The vast improvements made to Donegal’s passing game in year two under Jim McGuinness bore fruit early. The home side’s ball security in defence was more than ample to deal with Derry’s efforts to chase down possession. Relying on forcing turnovers in opposition territory is a risky strategy in any circumstance. Derry’s game plan was so limiting that it proved particularly detrimental in this encounter.
Donegal dominate between the 45s
The defensive set-ups of both sides had a massive impact on transitions going forward. Donegal’s more fluid swarm comprehensively won the battle for the middle third. While both sides set up with deep defensive schemes, Derry played a more static game with defenders less committed to breaking forward and creating counter attacks. This left their midfielders and forwards isolated and facing numerical mismatches.
This played right into the hands of Donegal’s 45-45 game. When Derry were in attack, the home side made crossing the 45 a brutally difficult task, forcing ball carriers wide and into positions where they could be isolated and give up turnovers. In contrast to the rigid approach of Derry’s defence, Donegal built counter attacks from deep. This created a wave of attackers going into Derry territory. Derry’s defence, despite keeping players back, rarely had the same quantity of spare men to work with.
Derry’s long ball game backfires
Gallagher’s positioning for Donegal was exemplary on Saturday and he may never record as clean a turnover as the one he claimed on 19 minutes. Derry’s efforts to kick start their attack revolved heavily around pumping in long balls from deep. One such ball from well inside Derry territory was won by Gallagher who was left wholly unmarked as he rose to take possession. Rather than relieving pressure, this long ball from Derry put Donegal back on the offensive and the move finished in a McBrearty point.
It took just five minutes for Donegal to start another attack off an errant Derry long ball as, more often than not, Derry’s efforts to push forward created more pressure on their defence.
Even when Derry succeeded in getting possession up to the forwards, they lacked the support to create quality chances. After Lynch’s well worked score on 7 minutes, Derry failed to score from play until McGoldrick’s point in the 54th minute. In the interim Donegal’s passing game ripped Derry asunder.
Derry had high hopes but little in the way of a strategy in how to achieve them. This was not the team with attacking abandon that put Armagh to the sword in last year’s Ulster Semi Final. Derry came to Ballybofey to defend but Donegal showed them that defence is about more than getting stops, it’s about controlling the flow of the game.
Even taking the calibre of opposition into account, this was a most impressive display by Donegal. The passing in the final third was, at times, not on a par with the work his charges did in creating opportunities from the back. When they were on song, Donegal proved lethal in attack. Fundamentally this is the same team as last year with the same ethos. Build from a strong defensive base and control the terms of engagement. Tyrone’s deep defence is far more suited to playing the counter attacking game than Derry and that should ensure a fascinating Ulster Semi Final clash.
Programming note: The next column will be post-game analysis of Down vs. Monaghan in the first Ulster Semi Final next Sunday and that will be followed by previews of Donegal vs. Tyrone and Dublin vs. Wexford on Wednesay 27 and Thursday 28 June. For the full schedule check out our Facebook page.