A second-half comeback carried Down into the Ulster Final with victory over Monaghan at the Morgan Athletic Grounds. Emmet Ryan breaks down a match-up that proved to be very much a game of two halves.
Monaghan’s four points of attack
Monaghan came to Armagh City with a plan to stretch Down’s defence and it saw their game develop over the course of the opening 35 minutes. The Mourne Men came out with the same deep defensive set-up they deployed against Cork in the League Semi Final. Unlike Cork’s efforts to go over the top, Monaghan’s game plan began by playing a patient game up front. This allowed them to take their time before going for the final effort and play most of the first 6 minutes inside Down territory.
Once Down started to make inroads into the Monaghan, the defence switched to a passing game similar to the one Sligo used to frustrate Galway in the Connacht Semi Final. With the ball moving around at the back, Monaghan looked to create chances on the break. Two opportunities were made in scoring range but neither was converted but Down’s shape at the back continued to deteriorate.
At this stage Monaghan introduced the cross-field ball into their attack, which Conor McManus succeeding in engineering scores from play and dead balls via this route. With Down’s defence now in tatters, there was room to work the middle and direct drives up the gut helped Monaghan pad their lead late in the half
Down threaten up the middle
The Down attack was largely impotent in the opening period but the Mourne Men looked threatening on the rare opportunities they got to drive through the middle. Ambrose Rogers was fed by Mark Poland to move in on goal before being fouled by Owen Lennon just outside the large rectangle on 23 minutes. A minute later he got even closer to goal and managed to get a shot away despite being manhandled by Dick Clerkin but his effort was stopped by Mark Keogh.
Despite Down’s failure to find a major on either of these attacks, they had identified a weakness in the Monaghan defence, one they would look to exploit upon the resumption.
King leads comeback
Down’s fightback initially bore the look of a lot of possession and territory for little return. The Mourne Men were effectively camped in the Monaghan half for the opening 8 minutes of the second period but yielded just 1 point against 4 wides during this phase. The manner of their dominance however ensured Down would be in position to keep creating chances.
Kalum King’s ball-winning in midfield set the platform for Down and crucially they were able to retain possession consistently after winning kick outs. Kevin Duffin finished off a quick drive up the middle on 45 minutes as Down scored 4 points in 6 minutes. Poland remained a key architect, putting Conor Laverty and Aidan Carr in positions to score.
Dead balls however were the biggest factor as Monaghan were repeatedly forced to concede frees in scoring range. Donal O’Hare and his replacement Liam Doyle alone accounted for 0-6 between them from frees while 1-8 of Down’s final tally of 1-14 came from dead balls. By going up the gut Down put their forwards in better position to trouble Monaghan and, crucially given they were fighting the clock, to do so quickly.
Impatience costs Monaghan
The game plan that evolved so carefully for Monaghan in the opening period fell apart after the break. Recording just 1-2 in the second half, they gave Down every opportunity to get back into this game.
Clerkin, who had three wides in the second half, symbolised all that was wrong on the attacking end. On 53 minutes the midfielder struggled to control the ball and bobbled it out to the left. When he gathered he rushed the shot. McManus, who was at the heart of all of Monaghan’s attacking successes, put Clerkin in position to score on 66 minutes but he skewed his effort wildly to the right. The final chance was merely a case of poor finishing rather than a rushed effort as Clerkin’s shot 2 minutes into injury time went wide. The calm development in attack was gone as Monaghan felt the heat of Down’s pursuit.
At the back Monaghan took almost 20 minutes to make an serious adjustments. With Down pressing forward through the middle, this was the time to try and shift back to lateral passing in order to take charge of the tempo. Instead Monaghan took too long to start dropping extra bodies back in defensive support. James McCartan’s charges exploited the hurried nature of Monaghan’s defence to the full, enjoying the same room to attack that McManus and co. had in the first half.
It was almost apt that the winning score came on the back of a high ball given how utterly ineffective this approach was for both attacks throughout the game. There weren’t many route one balls played in this match largely as both defences dealt with them with ease. One going right is enough to swing a game however as Darren O’Hagan took possession off a clearance to finish from short range.
If Monaghan can replicate the organisation they showed in the first half, they have the talent to make the final round of the qualifiers. Consistency has long been a criticism of this team but depth was also a worry as Monaghan didn’t have the options on the bench to adjust to Down’s fightback.
Down will be underdogs for the Ulster Final irrespective of who they play but they may have taken a step closer to finding their real attacking identity in the second half. Their execution of a deep defensive strategy is simply not up to the standard required to claim significant scalps. A possession based attack up the middle requires bravery to adhere to, as when such an approach goes wrong it tends to do so with gusto, but it may be the best way for Down to create opportunities on the flanks. Either way they are guaranteed two shots at reaching the quarter finals, a solid return on their season.
Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.
Programming note: The next column will be a preview of the second Ulster semi final, between Donegal and Tyrone. That will go live on Wednesday and that will be followed by a preview of Dublin and Wexford on Thursday. For the full schedule check out our Facebook page.