Donegal’s system is built around what happens in the middle third. This is no secret as opponents have sought to target this area repeatedly. Tyrone made guarding their own 45 a priority in the Ulster campaign while Cork placed the Donegal 45 as a key point of attack last time out. During Jim McGuinness’ reign however only Dublin in 2011 have found a way to succeed with this approach in Championship play.
The game Donegal play in 2012 has evolved from 2011 but the fundamentals of the 45-45 system remain in place. Donegal look to dictate the terms by which the ball enters their defensive area and likewise their opponents. On the ball, Donegal mix mid-range kick-passing with a controlled possession-focussed hand-passing game to patiently create openings before breaking at speed. When their opponent has possession, Donegal force the ball wide and into cover. Fouling is playing less of a role this year than last, which is important to the speed of Donegal’s game in 2012, but they still know where to stop play when necessary. Dublin’s success came from stretching Donegal’s defensive cover but this year that has proven less of a factor as McGuinness’ side has been able to shift the positioning of their players to adapt.
Any team can get extra bodies back, winners need to know what to do with them. Donegal have mixed between a one-sweeper and two-sweeper game in 2012 depending on the circumstances. Target-men have proven ineffective against the men from the Hills’ as true man-marking doesn’t really come into play in the last line. Donegal have been able to isolate Paddy Bradley, Kieran Donaghy, and Colm O’Neill without reducing the attention paid to other threats. Mark McHugh is the best example of an extra cover man deployed by McGuinness but Donegal’s ability to use players from all over as cover is the real key to their success. Forwards and midfielders rotate in duties at the back, keeping the pace hard and players fresh.
When in possession at the back Donegal play an advanced version of the hand-passing game used by Sligo. By quickly moving the ball across the field inside their 45, Donegal are better placed to create overlaps entering opposition territory.
The short version is, have you seen Frank McGlynn play this year? The corner back is primarily a defender but has proven a valuable weapon in creating space up front. Donegal attacked in waves in 2011 but the 2012 version gives opponents little time to adapt to the extra numbers. Much like Crossmaglen Rangers in the club game, Donegal’s attack aims to overwhelm with numbers to find the open man.
They supplement the transition game with an effective high-ball approach that more often than not wins frees. Kerry’s defence, which essentially conceded high balls to Donegal, was the only one to stop the tandem of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy from picking up dead balls with ease. Murphy has a dual-role in attack. In addition to being a target man, Murphy operates just in front of midfield to act as conductor, sending balls in and unleashing direct runners. This varied approach gives Donegal room to run at opposing defences, leading to high-percentage scoring chances.
Jim McGuinness has built a team around its strengths. Defensive nous and pace are abundant in this squad. Last year those facets made Donegal tough to score against. In 2012 he has adapted this game to make this assets more advantageous going forward. The avenues Dublin opened up in 2011 simply aren’t there this year. To beat Donegal, teams need to create space which is no easy task. Target men have proven ineffective as scoring threats but more mobile options in this respect could draw extra cover. To change codes briefly, think back to Lar Corbett’s performance in the 2010 All-Ireland Hurling Final. Corbett will be remembered for his handsome scoring tally but it was his ability to drag Kilkenny’s organised defence all over the park that opened holes for team mates to score. Unfortunately in Football the ball moves slower and the holes close quicker. In attack the threats are varied and difficult to anticipate. Only the Kerry match saw Donegal look anywhere near predictable. Even there they eventually found a way to open up the game.
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