Defensive shape slows Kildare’s start
Despite taking charge in the first half, the Lilywhites fell behind early. Bringing their half-forwards high towards the 45 and their midfielders deep just in front, Kieran McGeeney’s charges set up a five man bank. With the pedestrian pace of distribution early this had middling impact on limiting Donegal’s attack. The more immediate effect was the detachment between Kildare’s defence and attack, with the side effectively split into two separate units of 8 and 6. This played into Donegal’s hands defensively as they were able to hold Kildare’s isolated attackers to just two chances in the opening 10 minutes. The second of these however showed what the Lilywhites could do when they got their transitions working. Mick Foley made the first break by one of Kildare’s half-backs on 8 minutes and he fed Niall Kelly. The young forward’s effort was rushed and wide but it set the tone for what was to come.
Targeting O’Connor creates options.
Kildare’s primary option, before and after they brought their deep players into attack, was to get the ball to Tomás O’Connor. The Lilywhites looked for their target man on 8 occasions in the first half, forcing Donegal to commit extra cover to the full-forward. Two of these attempts resulted in scores, both by Johnny Doyle. The first, on 12 minutes, was a simple outlet pass move. The second, on 23 minutes, came from a free after O’Connor forced a rare one-on-one opportunity. It was no accident that the lone score O’Connor managed in the opening 35 minutes came from a chance where he wasn’t the target. Mikey Conway’s free on 16 minutes hit off the post and O’Connor got the right side of Eamon McGee, the lone cover man, to punch into the net.
The indirect impact of Kildare’s target man was far more important than the balls that came his way. With McGeeney’s charges forcing Donegal to respect the threat, they were able to create openings for the rest of their attack. Emmet Bolton’s pass back to Brian Flanagan on 22 minutes left the half-forward in open position with Donegal committing too many players deep. Flanagan quickly drew a free in front of the posts and Doyle converted. Flanagan scored on 26 minutes from an open position after solid build-up play after Donegal once again over-committed attention to O’Connor.
Kelly in control, Johnston at sea
In my season preview, I predicted Seanie Johnston to offer an extra dimension to Kildare’s attack but the former Cavan player had a rough start to the league campaign. Aside from drawing the free that led to O’Connor’s goal, Johnston was ineffective in attack. Positioning was Johnston’s biggest issue as he never gelled with the rest of the attack. Having failed to see much action early, Johnston started coming out more towards midfield to try and get involved. While this saw him get a few more touches it didn’t enable him to contribute to the game. After the break Johnston stayed further forward but over-played the ball looking to carve out chances. With Donegal stuffing him twice, Johnston was eventually replaced by Paddy Brophy on 56 minutes.
Where Johnston was absent, Niall Kelly stepped into the breach as Kildare’s chief alternative to the O’Connor-Doyle connection. After a nervous start, Kelly quickly played a key role as Kildare’s distribution improved. Kelly showed intelligence getting open for a long range score on 31 minutes and become more of a factor as the game progressed. While his shot selection needs refinement, Kelly proved versatile in getting open all over the Donegal half. This is the type of threat Kildare lacked in 2012. Having got open for another score from in front of the uprights on 38 minutes, Kelly tried a cross-cum-shot from the right wing aimed at O’Connor in the 57th minute which hit the post. As the clock wound down the 19 year-old got open for a short-range score on 67 minutes before setting up Eoghan O’Flaherty for a point a minute later.
Oh hi Donegal attack, thanks for finally making it out
For 50 minutes Michael Murphy was the beginning and end of Donegal’s forward threat. Scoring 7 of Donegal’s opening 8 points and creating the other, by Paddy McBrearty, the Glenswilly man was the only player keeping the All-Ireland champions relevant on the scoreboard. Individually Murphy was effective from play and dead balls, notably scoring two from in front of the posts early. Once Kildare stopped giving up easy frees, Donegal’s attack lost all creativity. Leo McLoone’s shot selection was particularly awful, opting unfailingly for chances from long range while under pressure.
The final 20 minutes finally saw the rest Jim McGuinness’ charges bring variety to attack. Mark McHugh took a while to get into the game but once he did, Donegal finally started to look dangerous. Dermot Molloy’s positioning throughout his stint was vital to the fight-back. Getting open on 59 minutes for a point, the substitute was quick-thinking enough to fist the ball over the line for Donegal’s 65th minute goal. But for a calamity a minute earlier up the other end, this may have been enough to earn Donegal something from this game.
Kildare’s decision to de-emphasise O’Connor after the break was a double-edged sword. While it decreased the coverage on the full-forward, giving him more freedom, the switch also meant Donegal could focus more on limiting Kildare’s previously potent attack. Naturally enough O’Connor played a role in Kildare’s second goal. Johnny Doyle’s high ball in from wide on the right was hardly intended as a shot but Paul Durkan’s focus was on O’Connor’s threat, who once again solely had Eamon McGee guarding him. Durkan got a touch but the ball was in the net.
Fundamentally the difference in this game came down to organisation. Kildare’s successful O’Byrne Cup campaign has seen them develop far more entering spring than a Donegal team which had largely been idle since September. After getting off to a bright start on the scoreboard, Donegal went 17 minutes in the first half without a score and just one scoring chance. In the interim the Lilywhites took control and never gave up their lead.
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