Sunday’s Leinster final showed how even a hastily put together blanket defence can stifle an opponent.
The Dubs, with all their heavy artillery, struggled to break down a Westmeath wall that had been built at a fortnight’s notice. Their manager, Tom Cribben, had five training sessions and a friendly against Mayo to arrange his flood defences, against a team whose average winning margin in Leinster before Sunday was 23 points. By half-time the score was 0-8 to 0-4 and the Dubs left the field extremely frustrated. The Westmeath lads trooped off with an expression on their faces that seemed to say, “Why didn’t we think of this a year ago?”
A fortnight is not enough. To put that into perspective, at Donegal’s first training session for the 2014 season, Jim McGuinness began working towards an All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin. Just think about that. A team that had already spent three years working repetitively on the system they had patented, now began a year of more refined work designed to beat a specific opponent. As I pointed out on Sunday in studio, the easiest part of the system is the defensive element. So long as the primary defenders mark their men, there are twin sweepers roughly on the 21, roughly in line with either post and the midfielders and retreating forwards know their spot in the zone, then it is going to be almost impossible to score against.
Problem is, unless there is a huge amount of work done on the counter-attack element of the system, it is going to be almost impossible to score. You cannot lie on the ropes for 12 rounds. At the right moment, you must come off them and stun your opponent with counters, otherwise you will lose. Westmeath’s defeat was therefore inevitable.
They didn’t deploy a target man inside so the Dublin defence were able to push up, leaving 40 metres clear space between the full-back line and Cluxton. This resulted in Westmeath players kicking for points from too far out and Cluxton getting a spot of gentle exercise as he trotted out to take ball after ball on his chest. Nor were Westmeath breaking at speed in threes, driving through the Dubs with direct running, using the width. Because they were unsure what to do when they dispossessed the Dublin attackers (as they did frequently), there was no conviction in their attacks, As a result, their challenge eventually fizzled out.
Neither Donegal nor Monaghan suffer from such uncertainty. Both have coaches with an intimate understanding of the system and the priceless ability to communicate their ideas to the players. There are moments which change the course of human history. Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. The birth of Bruce Lee. Malachy O’Rourke winning an Ulster club title with the Loup. Before that, people thought the Loup was some sort of infection. In Donegal, the transition from McGuinness to Gallagher guaranteed stability. The result is that both groups of players play with conviction. Meaning that Sunday will be a serious battle.
Last year in the final, Donegal double-marked Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus. McGuinness reasoned that they were Monaghan’s only scoring threat. He was right. With the two boys closed down, Monaghan were unable to get scores. The defensive side of their equation was fine but their trick of being able to defend in numbers then launch the ball long to Hughes and McManus as they criss-crossed was exposed.
When a team is unable to score for prolonged periods, while their opponent is keeping the scoreboard ticking over, they eventually succumb to frustration, then panic. This happens to even very good teams. Think the Dubs against Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
Neither team on Sunday has defensive issues. The outcome therefore depends on who is better at squeezing the crucial scores. Conor McManus is Monaghan’s one dependable scorer. Hughes has terrific potential and can score brilliantly at times, but he is extremely inconsistent. His biggest problem is rashness. The great forwards always take a split second to survey their options. Even when they know they are going to shoot, they pause briefly to calibrate everything. Think of Gooch’s goal in the first half of the All-Ireland final in 2011.
Darren O’Sullivan comes soloing at full tilt through the Dublin zonal defence. Cooper, like a striker in soccer breaking the offside trap, runs in an arc towards him then back towards goal, then takes the hand pass. Now is the crucial time. Cooper looks up, presses pause, changes his body shape and curls the ball beyond Cluxton with his left instep. Kieran does not do this. Instead, he catches and blasts. With his pace, power and ability he has no need to do this. To date he has been unable to harness his natural passion and wildness. A bull he was and a bull he remains. Pity he wasn’t more like McManus, who could comfortably spend 70 minutes in a gift shop without damaging the china.
Donegal have more variety. All of them can score, save maybe McGrath. They have all of the components needed to penetrate a blanket defence. Their inside threat varies but is constant. McBrearty, or Murphy, or McFadden. Even sometimes Neil Gallagher. The pace of their counter attacking is breathtaking and the way they weave through the blanket, giving reverse passes and coming off the shoulder at the diagonal is very difficult to track. In the end though, everything revolves around Murphy. Against Tyrone, he was tortured for 65 minutes, but kicked the two massive frees that won it. Against Derry, this man of steel did . . . .everything. His two monstrous points from play in the second half had the same effect on his team mates as a steroid injection in the buttocks. He caught kick-outs, set up scores, kicked frees and somehow dominated the game. In the end, Kerry beat Donegal last year because they rode him in a way I have never seen in a final. Yet he still created the goal chance at the end that should have rescued Donegal.
For Monaghan to win, they must break him down. He is the only bull who could safely be allowed in a china shop.