Tactics not Passion: Donegal’s quest to retain Sam

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Winning one All-Ireland is tough, retaining the title is tougher. Emmet Ryan, author of Tactics not Passion, looks at what Donegal needs to do to win Sam again in 2013 and how the rest of the country will try to stop them.

There was an easy narrative this summer. The Donegal of 2012 was a different beast to that of 2011. They had ‘added’ an attacking element that was missing from the harshly criticised unit of a year earlier. The truth is far more complicated. Donegal did indeed attack better on the road to Sam but the fundamental system had hardly changed at all.

It wasn’t that Donegal didn’t try to attack in 2011, they most certainly did. Even Ger Gilroy of Newstalk proclaimed as much as early as springtime. Their quarter-final win over Kildare featured hordes of green and gold bodies charging forward from the back. The difference in 2012 was one of execution more than style.

This is as true on the defensive side of the game as in attack. Donegal’s might in 2011 was in stopping opponents. Angles were narrowed, space was closed down, but the team lacked the refinement to create from the back. The quality of passing and movement in this regard was a vast improvement a year later. The early steps could be seen as early as March when an injury-riddled outfit dominated Cork in a league game in Ballybofey.

It was this improvement in distribution at the back that enabled Frank McGlynn and, to a lesser extent, Karl Lacey, to make productive attacking breaks from deep. In turn this also strengthened the most fundamental part of McGuinness’ system, the 45-45. Last year in this yearbook I wrote about how Donegal’s game was built around controlling play in the middle third. The ball crossed the 45 on Donegal’s terms, whether in defence of attack. With refined movement at the back, McGuinness’ charges were able to increase their control in this regard in 2012. Crucially McGuinness was ruthless when it came to substitutions. If a different type of player was needed to alter the flow of play in the middle third, he made the call quickly and without concern for individual reputation. While the intelligent move to make in team sports, it is not the easiest and the total buy-in from the Donegal squad was necessary to making the machine run.

On the scoreboard the chief beneficiary of these improvements was Colm McFadden, who for my mind should have beaten Lacey for Footballer of the Year. McFadden’s improved accuracy in 2012 was a personal triumph, elevating him from fringe All-Star contender to the most consistent attacking threat in the country. With supply improving, via a variety of mid-range passes and high-balls targeting McFadden and Michael Murphy, Donegal evolved into one of the most efficient attacking sides on the island. The only team comparable to McGuinness’ side for balancing patience with speed is Crossmaglen, whose style is quite different but involves the same unflinching willingness to adapt to circumstances.

While there scores from play and long range dead balls drew gasps from onlookers, the duo’s greatest contribution was their ability to win short-range frees. For players with significant range from dead balls, they enjoyed ample opportunity to pad their numbers with relative gimmes. The only opponent that managed to halt Donegal’s free-taking threat was Kerry who, in a rare moment for them, benefitted from having an under-sized defence. The Kingdom crowded without fouling partly by design but also because they simply could not risk Murphy or McFadden charging through for goal chances.

With multiple threats from their primary attackers, Donegal could now stretch opposing defences more. This saw Neil Gallagher, the under-appreciated Anthony Thompson, and super-sub David Walsh all increase the pressure on opposing back-lines.

There is, of course, no perfect formula. Critics were half-right when they said in 2011 that Donegal don’t play Football the right way but that’s only because their is no right way to play Football. Team’s need to play to their strengths, compensate for their failings, and constantly look to evolve.

In 2013 Donegal will seek to be the first team not managed by Jack O’Connor to win back-to-back All-Irelands since 1990. From the outside the challenge appears greater given McGuinness’ commitment to Celtic but, as an analyst, this move could prove an interesting test of the Donegal brain trust’s approach to delegation. McGuinness’ approach to delegation was given passing coverage through the summer in the national press but 2013 should be the year we see it under the microscope. If the Donegal supremo’s confidence is anything to go by, this could be the season where more teams accept the need to treat the manager as much as a chief-executive rather than Messiah. The deification of head coaches is still common in other sports where tactical discussion has been commonplace for far longer than Gaelic Games. Yet the most successful coaches, such as Phil Jackson and Pat Riley in the NBA, or Nick Saban and Mack Brown in College Football, accept they can’t do everything. Where they see an area that can be improved by another, they bring in someone to do it. It’s not just about having the right training staff, it’s having minds that can help shape the way a team plays.

Which brings us nicely to looking at what Donegal’s opponents need to do to stop them next summer. As I said, Kerry’s less-physical approach in defence was only borne partially from necessity. Teams that crowd out Donegal’s attack without fouling will stand a far better chance over 70 minutes. Naturally what you and I call a foul may differ and they could be an element of luck involved with an official on the day but rigid discipline in this approach may be enough for an elite defence irrespective of the man with the whistle. O’Connor and Mickey Harte both knew that stopping, or at least slowing, Donegal began with their own forwards. Disrupting Donegal’s distribution at the back needs to be a top priority for any opponent. If McGuinness’ charges control their own defensive zone, they won’t be stopped moving up-field. As for the middle third, winning this battle won’t be easy but for a Dublin, Cork, or Mayo to overcome Donegal they will stand a better chance if they work they can win these key contests in both attacking zones. One thing is guaranteed, if any team does beat Donegal they will need to evolve their own game to do it and that can only be good for Football.

This article first appeared in the Donegal GAA Yearbook.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

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