The first of this year’s All-Ireland Football Semi-Finals pits Munster champions Cork against Ulster champions Donegal. Emmet Ryan breaks down the tactical battles that will decide this clash of the leading powers in the game.
Donegal’s passing under pressure
Hand-passing at the back is at the core of what Donegal do defensively. Quick movement across defence enables the Ulster champions to turn possession near their own goal into attacking opportunities on their own terms. Kerry and Tyrone have both keyed on this facet before and sought to disrupt movement. On both occasions Donegal essentially drew their 45-45 game deeper into their own half. Unlike 2011, when Dublin stretched Donegal in the second half, McGuinness’ side was able to weather the storms on both occasions and come out looking dominant.
Cork’s challenge on Sunday will be no different to Tyrone’s or Kerry’s. Conor Counihan’s charges must find a way to draw Donegal deeper into defence by pressure distribution at the back. To win, Counihan must succeed Mickey Harte and Jack O’Connor failed and keep disrupting Donegal’s movement. Cork have one significant advantage in this regard, with substantially more depth to maintain pressure throughout the game. Strategic substitutions up front could make a massive difference.
Cork’s defensive adjustments
Much heralded as Donegal’s defence is, the advancements in the Rebel county over the past year have largely gone un-noticed. A clever switch at half time against Kildare to playing three banks of two enabled Cork to force the Lilywhites wide and limit scoring chances. Bring greater positional awareness to their substantial physical prowess, Cork have established an elite defence over the course of spring and summer. Donegal’s attack will however be by far the most advanced they have faced in 2012.
Michael Murphy’s positioning just in front of midfield opens up several options. Having an extra man in that vicinity immediately opens up options for Ryan Bradley and Neil Gallagher. Likewise Frank McGlynn has room to sprint forward with the Ulster champions covering back to avoid being caught on the counter. Murphy and Colm McFadden also work well as target men. The crucial factor for Cork is to find a balance between being overly rigid in their defensive shape and leaving avenues open. It’s a delicate balance and one that Donegal will look to tip by playing for frees.
The fight for quality chances
Drawing fouls has proven a useful tactic for Donegal in 2012. McFadden and Murphy have both used their size to win ball near goal and garner easy frees. Kerry were the first team to limit the Ulster champions in this regard by playing slightly off the target man and surrounding Murphy or McFadden without directly tacking. Cork’s more physical defence will need to be wary of giving up soft frees as McFadden has been lethal from dead balls, scoring on 79 percent of his attempts compared to a (still impressive) 58 percent rate from play. The Rebels can take some solace from Donegal’s struggles to create chances against Kerry and Tyrone. In their other three games Donegal averaged 29 shots but only managed 21 against the Kingdom and 20 against Tyrone. The Ulster champions have displayed impressive accuracy and consistency throughout the summer, only dipping below a 60 percent scoring rate against Derry in their second outing.
Cork for their part will look to deploy their two top options in attack. The high ball will be difficult to use effectively as Donegal’s defence against this route one approach is second to none. Direct running could open up some space for the Rebels but again, this is an area where the Ulster champions are particularly skilled at stopping attacks. In order to make either of these assets work, Cork must keep the play alive in Donegal territory. McGuinness’ charges have proven more than capable of slowing play and sending attacks into unfavourable spots. The highest success rate of any of Donegal’s opponents was Down’s 50 percent return, and their 26 efforts was level with Cavan as the most allowed by Donegal this season. Crucially, in their two toughest games Donegal held Kerry to a 48 percent scoring rate and Tyrone to a 40 percent return. The Rebels have produced a potent attack this year and had a gaudy 68 percent return against Kildare. They may not need to match such heights to beat Donegal but the Rebels will surely need to fare better than any of the five teams that gone before them.
In my review of last season I tabbed this pairing as the most fascinating on offer in 2012. Their league meeting in Ballybofey didn’t disappoint and this Sunday’s clash promises to be an epic tactical battle. For Counihan the starting plan and the requisite result are clear, what happens in between is a lot murkier. Cork must find a way to maintain their defensive shape without falling prey to the diversity of attack Donegal present going forward. In attack they must establish their core strengths early and force Donegal to respect both their high balls and the running game. McGuinness likewise has a good idea of what he needs to plan. Keeping scoring chances low favours Donegal but he won’t want to drop deep from the start either. McFadden and Murphy must establish their presence as target men early but the running game has to be used, with Bradley and McGlynn vital in this respect. The winning an losing of the game should come down to the middle third. In a straight up midfield battle the Rebels hold a slight edge but the 45-45 is about more than the men in numbers 8 and 9. Donegal’s passing game has held up well through two tough tests and that is enough to take the battle here. It’s going to be a war between the two best teams left in the championship, the result will be in doubt until late, but Donegal should sneak it.
Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.
Programming note: The next column will be the post-match analysis of this game, that will go live on Sunday night. That will be followed on Tuesday by a review of the Minor Semi-Final between Mayo and Meath, and then on Thursday 30th August by a preview of Mayo vs. Dublin.