Wednesday 28 September 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Defensive strategies taking the kick out of winning

Dublin have followed a cautious template in the league and it's working, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 10/04/2011 | 05:00

A nyone who wanted to see the future of football should have been in Croke Park last week for the match between Down and Dublin. Football is a completely different game now than it was even ten years ago when the idea of a massed defence took hold. This concept has moved on and become a structured part of almost all the top teams.

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In the case of Dublin, a loss of possession means an almost total withdrawal of all their forces into a defensive formation behind their own midfield. When the ball is won back, the emphasis immediately changes to a few out-and-out attackers but at the same time there are plenty of players held back to mind the shop.

The big advantage of this system is that most teams won't run up a big score against them. Dublin have leaked a lot of scores over the last decade so getting the defence right is as much the key to success as any fancy attacking.

On the downside, a shortage of attackers often leads to players being isolated up front; in these cases a forward has occasionally to hold up the ball and wait for the artillery to come in support.

On one occasion in this match, Alan Brogan raced out to gather a great diagonal ball about 30 metres out. He was immediately set upon by three defenders and when I looked out the field the next four players who were running back towards the goal were all Down players. It meant that Brogan was outnumbered seven to one inside the Down '45'. As it turned out, Brogan turned quickly and kicked the ball over the bar, one of a number of good things he did on the night.

When Down had a kick-out, Dublin did not seem too concerned about pushing up on the defenders and so Down were able to continually get away with short kick-outs. It was easy enough to work it out to midfield and then Down were faced with the massed ranks of defenders. The traditionalists who would like to see a back winning possession and delivering a long kick to the forwards would get nothing from this game.

Dublin used kicked diagonal balls better. In keeping with their recent games, they created a lot of goal chances; in this case they got two, one from the training ground and one that is not part of any coaching manual as Kalum King made a dog's dinner of an easy catch in front of goal. Alan Brogan had a simple job of kicking into the net. The focus was on King's mistake but good forwards follow up on lost causes and for every hundred you chase down for no reward, there will always be one that hits a post, crossbar or is dropped and if you are not there it is cleared. That one might win an All-Ireland. Seán O'Neill in 1968 springs to mind.

In this new game players must have greater athleticism than before. Someone should put a monitor on the likes of Danny Hughes and see how far he runs. He looks like a marathon man. On top of that, he probably handles the ball more often than any player on the pitch in most games and to good effect as well. He typifies what a modern player must be: strong, athletic while being a good footballer is a bonus.

And size is not as important as it once was. In fact, too many big players are a bit of a disadvantage as there are fewer set-plays and even kick-outs don't always involve high catching. Stephen Cluxton rarely kicks for distance and tries to place it to best effect.

The one thing that many footballers do not have to do any more is kick the ball. It may seem a contradiction in terms but that is the way things are. Tactics develop to maximise advantages to teams and nobody should complain about this. I and plenty of others would prefer to see more kicking in the game but no manager is going to tell his players to lash the ball downfield just because people want to see a game of football rather a game of handpassing with the odd kick thrown in.

Players too have no concern about the viewing public. They are not paid entertainers and the tactics that give them the best chance of winning is all that should concern them. So for this year's championship we can look forward to more handpassing and less kicking. If you want to see plenty of kicking in football then the only thing to do is go to an underage match where the game still bears a striking resemblance to football of the '70s and '80s.

The subtleties of defending have changed too. Rarely does a back have to mark man to man anymore. There are usually plenty of reinforcements around so life is more difficult for forwards like Bernard Brogan and Colm Cooper. What makes them different, and

therefore special, is being able to deal with all the attention. Of course, there are plenty of backs who cannot defend and hope the presence of extra bodies masks

their inadequacy and there are occasions when too many backs means nobody takes the responsibility of marking a man and sticking with him. Old-fashioned tight marking is still needed.

Down have come a long way and should have won this game. They had more of most things in this encounter except scores. They had more possession, more scoring chances and they worked very hard but left with nothing. They have plenty of good players but are short of defenders.

Martin Clarke displayed a great range of skills yet coming back to take short ball from his backs and midfield leaves him less of a danger. He needs to stay up front more, win possession closer to goal and score -- with all the dirty work that involves.

It has been a great league so far for the Dubs and it appears that all the players have bought into this system of play. With the defence tight it means that players from the half-back line up can find themselves in unusual positions up front and this is leading to plenty of goal chances.

The spring series has been a great success and whether you like the new style of play or not, the matches have been entertaining. All Dublin have to do in a fortnight, to win the league and get a great confidence boost for the championship, is beat a team they have already beaten in the past couple of months. It will be harder this time round.

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