Tactics not Passion: Derry 0-11 Donegal 1-11

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

We are finally back. Several GAA outlets offer you plenty but only Tactics not Passion has the Doge. Oh that and a lengthy look at Derry’s possession game.

Derry’s possession game

The first half and pretty much the whole game was defined by Derry’s ponderous approach to play. When it worked, they ticked along nicely, when it didn’t…hoo boy. The Oakleafers were outshot 12 to 10 in the first half by Donegal but looked far more comfortable on the ball, despite getting lower quality shots from play. Derry have known all season that their best form of defence is to retain possession. It makes sense, in terms of raw skill Derry are far better at shooting than stopping so it’s a clever way to cover up their biggest flaw.

The approach was somewhat reminiscent of how Donegal approached their 2011 Ulster opener with Antrim, only with Derry’s issues being behind rather than in front of them. The Oakleafers may have had fewer shots but they were always in position to control the tempo. The best visual example is what happened when Donegal shut a man down. Even last season, when the cracks were starting to show, if Jim McGuinness’ side got numbers on a ball-carrier you could put the house on a turnover. Derry however prevented Donegal from executing this strategy for the bulk of the first half, with crowded ball-carriers able to find an open man.

Where’s the middle third game?

This was the big question for Donegal in the opening 35 minutes. They were flat out beaten in the middle third, with no capacity to create any kind of pressing game. There were signs early that when Donegal could breach the Derry 45, they would create chances. Of their 12 shots in the first half, 6 exposed the gaping hole that was Derry’s final third defence. Quality of shot, perhaps surprisingly, is not a good indicator of who will win a game especially compared to raw shot count irrespective of quality. What it did tell us was that if Donegal could adapt their game to push higher, it could spell doom for the Oakleafers.

The gate is open
Derry’s possession game is nothing new to anyone who saw them in the league. They don’t do it to improve the attack, they do it because their defence in the final third is a massive liability. The Oakleafers made it to the league final in spite of it but once Donegal punched a hole is swung the game decisively in their favour.

Once more it came down to dominance in the middle third. Donegal finally started winning ball and keeping possession away from Derry. From the start of the second half, it was a series of punches in the mouth. Within 5 minutes of the re-start, Donegal had as many scores on the board as they had in the opening 35 minutes. One, crucially, was a goal and showed the assignment issues Derry had off the ball. While it took a good pass to get Frank McGlynn open, it was misjudgement on Derry’s part that allowed him to put Leo McLoone through on goal. Three Derry defenders stormed on McGlynn with no attention paid to the space behind them. At club level that’s unacceptable, in the inter-county game it’s insane. McLoone did a good job finishing neatly but he wasn’t hurt by the lack of coverage from the Derry backs.

Derry aren’t built for comebacks
Once that initial spurt ended, Derry reasserted control but the damage was clearly done. The Oakleafers had gone 20 minutes without a score. Donegal had managed to score 1-6 from 9 shots and moved 6 points clear. Derry’s game plan, flawed as it is against the very top of the tree, is fine against comparable opponents so long as they keep it tight. The size of the hole, while not insurmountable for teams that move the ball faster, was huge for a patient football team even with 20 minutes left on the clock.

Donegal could afford to switch to a more controlled game now, meaning the fatigue their older line-up would feel became less of a factor. The crowning point came in the final minute. McGuinness’ side was able to bleed the clock once they approached the Derry 45, knowing the Oakleafers couldn’t afford to bring excess pressure on their ball-carriers. Eventually McLoone popped over from short range but the damage was done in the lengthy passing movement that led to his shot.

The verdict
Donegal, for all the excitement of that 13 minute spurt to start the second half, are still riddled with problems. It was far too easy for Derry to set the tempo early and Donegal’s defence couldn’t follow through on its pressure. The pressing game that aided this team so much in 2012 appears to be gone and, given its age profile, that’s probably necessary. McGuinness has a team capable of winning Ulster but Sunday’s win, coupled with Tyrone’s wildly varying performances against Down, did nothing to change the view that this provincial title could go to the team that errs the least.

This is a tough loss for Derry as their best shot at the quarter finals certainly came via Ulster, be it through round 4 as runners up or direct as champions, and fundamentally it’s down to their defence. Derry have the shooting talent to want to open up but their last third defence won’t allow them. Once the possession game fails, there is no plan B. Dublin exploited this violently in the league final but there’s no shortage of teams that will see this as an area to target early on during the back door rounds.

Thank you
Oh and finally, sorry for being gone for so long. The combination of getting a new job back in October, which is cracking, taking over BallinEurope, some minor physical health issues, and working out what the next book projects are going to be left me rather wrecked. Clearing the head before coming back for the summer has helped. Normal service has very much resumed. Thank you for your patience.

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4 Responses to “Tactics not Passion: Derry 0-11 Donegal 1-11”

  1. Still the best analysis I can find on internet, tv or radio. Great to see your back Emmet.

  2. Great to see you back Emmet! Will be looking forward to more pieces!

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