The man-isolation game
In Maths, different problems require different solutions. Many of the greatest questions in Mathematics took years of effort with a mixture of approaches before finally being solved. Gaelic Football is no different. Mayo’s game may differ greatly from Donegal’s but that’s because winning for Mayo required a different solution to the Ulster champions.
James Horan inherited a squad with some excellent scoring talent but with significant issues in build-up play. It took him a year and a half to truly realise his vision but since finding a rhythm, Mayo have become bona fide contenders. Like Donegal, Mayo’s strategy is built around the middle third but the Connacht champions take a different approach to winning this battle. While often out-matched in direct ball-winning, Mayo have succeeded by isolating ball-carriers and winning possession. By overloading on the man with the ball, Mayo have been able to break at will and largely limit scoring chances for opponents. The approach reached the national spotlight in League play against Dublin in Castlebar and Mayo have rode it through the summer all the way to the one game that really matters.
Forcing the tempo
In possession, Mayo look to play the ball quick accelerating off turnovers. This creates openings for their deep pool of scoring talent, and despite the losses of Conor Mortimer and Andy Moran it remains substantial, to get open and score from favourable positions. Mayo take quite the opposite approach when opponents have the ball. Their chief objective is to slow breaks and allow the defence to re-group. Mayo’s half-forwards play a vital role here. While it often involves fouling in opposition territory, their primary goal is to force the ball wide so passing options for opposing half backs are reduced. This gives the defence time to get back in numbers. Against Dublin in the Semi-Final, Mayo regularly had eight outfield players inside their 45 before Pat Gilroy’s charges entered the final third.
The most frequent question I was asked before the Semi-Final was where Mayo’s scores would come from. The stand-out performances by Mortimer in the past and Moran this season meant the depth of Mayo’s scoring talent was largely unknown. The Semi-Final provided the answer with 9 different scorers accounting for Mayo’s 0-19 tally. This has been the norm all summer, with 9 scorers against Down, 9 against Sligo, and 13 against Leitrim.
It’s more than just the numbers, Mayo have a variety of scoring threats. Alan Dillon has been ruthlessly efficient with 9 scores from 11 chances in the campaign. Cillian O’Connor is establishing himself as a threat from long distance, while Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran are creative forces that can open up options in attack. With quality ball coming from turnovers, the Connacht champions can present one of the most unpredictable attacks in the modern game.
This is a Mayo team unlike any other I have seen in my years following Gaelic Games. While possessing the same kind of attacking talent that led the county to four All-Ireland Finals over the preceding 16 seasons, the 2012 edition is built from a defensive base. Like Barry McGuigan, the Connacht champions are aggressive counter-punchers. When they find an opening, Mayo can pile on scores in bunches. This team isn’t built to go toe-to-toe so it doesn’t. Instead Mayo covers up when necessary always looking for that opening to strike. When they find it, Horan’s charges have no shortage of means to exploit it.
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